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Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, Orson Scott Card, Tor, 1996, 351 pp.

Pastwatch is an interesting attempt to analyse all of the ills of Western civilization and prescribe a cure. Because the plot of the book follows a group of people who decide the answer is to change the past, Card's story might not seem applicable or even worth reading. Worse, the book is disjointed, unbalanced in theme, and a little thin in places, which are signs that the book was hastily written or had other concerns overriding internal consistency and a general sense of polish. All the same, Card is unparalleled in his examination of character and ethics, and this book is just as readable the second time around as the first. Unfortunately, Card has a tendency to stack the deck in the favour of his own ethical point (as happened in Ender's Game), so even the most valuable sections of this book felt awkward.

In the future, we discover a way to watch the past, hence the title of the book. The Earth was nearly destroyed by our foolish actions, but now things are settling down and it seems that environmental collapse has been averted. Tagiri is an influential member of Pastwatch, and she is studying the life of Christopher Columbus, whose story we read interspersed with the story of the future. Tagiri marries Hassan, another watcher, and their daughter, Diko, eventually joins them on the project as well. Tagiri and Hassan are trying to find a way to change the course of world history, a question which seems academic until they find out that the Earth is not doing well. In fact, the situation is the exact opposite, and predictions indicate that the planet will not sustain life for more than a few years. The people who have argued about whether it's a good idea to change the past now feel they have no choice. So Kemal is sent back to strand Columbus in the New World, Diko to strengthen the Haitian culture, and Hunahpu to change the course of events in Mexico and Central America. The future they are from is wiped out as if it never existed (except for them, stranded in the past).

Card can write characters with conviction and credibility, and Pastwatch is no exception. Columbus himself is somewhat of a cipher, but we get a solid feel for his time period and his surroundings. His continuing story fits nicely into the events of the future -- he arrives in the Caribbean just as the three from the future arrive. Columbus's driven nature is nicely portrayed, and his transformation is believable and affecting. The other characters aren't always given as much room to grow, and the book often feels inadequate in this regard. For example: "Early on in their collaboration, Tagiri and Hassan married and had a daughter and a son" (55). This working relationship would have been a fascinating one to read about in more detail. Either Card should have begun his book later, and assumed this as backstory, or fleshed it out more. The relationship between Diko and Hunahpu develops over the first half of the book, but still we don't get enough of a sense for their feelings before they leave for the past. Card apparently builds it up only to have Diko make a certain point: "'I know that to mate with someone without marriage is a repudiation of the community, a refusal to take one's proper role within the society'" (183). Whether I agree with Diko or not, I still felt that Card was putting one of his puppets through its motions. And the indigenous characters of the past never went much beyond reacting to the important people from the future -- highly unfortunate, considering the point Card is trying to make Columbus (the metaphorical Columbus) realize. Namely, that the Other can be Human. However, despite my suspicions, Card still pulled off quite a number of believable character moments, and this is the backbone of the book.

As I already mentioned, I think that it's unfortunate that Card forced the question of changing the past with the fact that the future is rapidly becoming unlivable. The attitude among the Pastwatchers is that the suffering of the past matters, which contrasts with Slaughterhouse-Five. It's as if the Pastwatchers are unmoored from their own time, but come to the opposite conclusion and decide not to take refuge in the happy moments. I liked the careful way Card makes the new humanist era a product of both Carib and Spanish cultures, along with the guiding wisdom of the age that did away with itself. The values of humanism get inextricably linked up with religion as a motivating force in a very interesting way -- not cynical but rather pragmatical. Faith is one thing but why follow a religion if it doesn't work sociologically speaking? It was also interesting how careful he was to use Christianity to judge itself, thus evading accusations of moral universalism (the crime of the Crusades or colonization was hypocrisy). Columbus has to learn that there is a basic difference in attitude between enslaving the natives and converting them. In the Bibliography, Card notes how two particular researchers reserved their ethical judgments of the Maya to such a degree that they began to sympathize, or even apologize for human sacrifice. Moral judgments must happen, he seems to be saying, and only in a respectful way that brings people together and uses their own religious convictions. Underlying all that is, of course, a very telling humanism.

What does Pastwatch have to say to us? Like any alarmist work of science fiction, there are two major themes. Card examines the possibilities: the positive, in order to motivate; but he also uses a big stick, the destruction of the Earth, the biosphere that sustains us, to say that we better watch out. The book keeps the reader turning pages, but is not always successful in retrospect, which is where Card usually shines.

First posted: May 19, 1998; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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