Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott CardPastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsScenario: If you knew there was a bomb in a building, would you feel obliged to yell as loudly as possible to warn other people? The bomb explodes and the injuries are high and the death toll unimaginable. But let’s then suppose you have an opportunity to go back in time and prevent the bomb from ever being planted in the first place. Take things one step further… let’s say that you stop the bomber before he even places his bomb… what else might change? Now you’re dealing with what’s known as ‘the butterfly effect’ — if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, can it change the weather on the other side of the world?

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus takes this concept one step further by asking: if you could change the course of one man’s life, could you change the course of the entire world? What if that one man happens to be Christopher Columbus?

Pastwatch is Orson Scott Card’s fictional organization tasked with utilizing cutting-edge technology that enables people to view events in the past. This Pastwatch technology evolved over time, initially allowing viewers to see only events at a very macro level (historical world weather patterns, for example), but developed over time to provide a view into actual human interactions. The most modern versions of Pastwatch technology allow viewers to watch humans interacting in full 3D.

Columbus is but one axis upon which the story revolves. Orson deftly builds the staff of Pastwatch who are instrumental in the analysis and discovery of the ability to do more than just view the past, but actually change it. Tagiri focuses her Pastwatch career around the study of slavery. Kemal makes one of Pastwatch’s early and most fundamental discoveries when he found an individual who very plausibly was the basis upon which Noah, Gilgamesh and other world flood myths stand. Diko and Hunahpu are at the center of a new generation of pastwatchers.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is about discovery, exploration and, as the title would indicate, redemption. Columbus is believably passionate as we gain glimpses of his upbringing in Genoa, his early years in Portugal, and his ultimate journey to Spain where, for years, he lobbied King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela to support his adventures westward.

Card has an uncanny ability to explore deep and influential topics while unraveling his narrative in an interesting and attainable way. Once the idea of time travel emerges, the characters debate its risks and rewards, but not for a moment did the novel feel bogged down in pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, which is a bogey of the time travel sub genre. Likewise, there’s much debate over slavery, old world and new world religion, as well the speculation of alternative futures for Earth, but they blend seamlessly with the plot and merge well with the jumps into Columbus’ inevitable journey across the Atlantic.

Card approaches his plotlines very intelligently, but I found a few gaps in the characters’ rationale that ultimately leads to the Pastwatch staff’s time travel adventures into the 15th Century.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is a remarkable book. I’m such a fan of exploration-era historical novels AND science fiction that I couldn’t believe my good luck when I came across this wonderful novel. It’s no surprise that it was nominated for a Sidewise Award for Alternate history in 1996.

Note: the pastwatch concept originates from Card’s short story called Atlantis which delves deeply into Kemal’s discovery of the “original” Noah. It’s a terrific standalone and rewarding work, and while not a necessity to read before Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, it adds to the aura and myth that surrounds Kemal — the most famous scientist on the Pastwatch project.

Published in 1996. In one of the most powerful and thought-provoking novels of his remarkable career, Orson Scott Card interweaves a compelling portrait of Christopher Columbus with the story of a future scientist who believes she can alter human history from a tragedy of bloodshed and brutality to a world filled with hope and healing.


  • Jason Golomb

    JASON GOLOMB graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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