The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

After being struck by lightning in 1938, Martin Padway, an archaeologist, wakes to the sight of toga-clad figures and conversations held in what sounds like Latin vulgate and Italian. Padway struggles through a series of conflicts that range from such basic problems as surviving day-to-day life in ancient Rome to ones as intricate as playing power politics with two warring kingdoms.

Rome has a diminishing, fractious population and is ruled by a lethargic Gothic kingdom that encourages religious factionalism and discourages innovation. In this world, Padway uses his advanced knowledge as a commodity. He uses his knowledge of Arabic numerals, for example, in order to get a loan from a banker.

As Padway finds ways to prosper, the novel subtly changes focus from survival of the individual to that of the culture. The Dark Ages appear inevitable because learning is contained in a limited number of books in an even more limited number of libraries. As long as manuscripts are reproduced by hand, distribution is limited and costs are high, thereby restricting learning. Padway reasons that his foreknowledge must lead to enhanced communication and the mass distribution of inexpensive literature in the expectation of preventing the Western cultural collapse of the sixth century. As one might expect, therefore, Padway’s most effective inventions are those that make communication more efficient: He invents the printing press, printer’s ink, and suitable...

(The entire section is 500 words.)