Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

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.

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, 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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  1. David H. /

    I always wished that Card would have followed up on his original plan to have more Pastwatch novels, but it seems to have fallen off the general radar (supposedly the sequel to his SF novel Lovelock is finally in progress–21 years later…).

  2. Pastwatch is one of my favorite OSC novels, although I’ll admit I like the SF parts better than the Christopher Columbus historical fiction parts, though his POV gets more interesting later in the book when … well, I don’t want to post spoilers!

    That’s very interesting about Lovelock, David. I bought it years ago and read it, but had mixed feelings about that one. Given that I tend not to care too much for OSC’s recent work, I’ll probably give it a pass unless I hear it’s really worthwhile.

    • David H. /

      Well, Rasputin (the Lovelock sequel) has been listed as “in progress” for a few years now; his & Kathryn Kidd’s cowriting process sounds drawn out.

      I can’t find it on his website anymore, but he used to list 2 Pastwatch pre/sequels as a future books to write; Wikipedia has a link saying that as recently as 2010 Card claimed he was going to write Pastwatch 2 and 3 in succeeding years. Obviously that hasn’t happened yet.

      I’ve essentially given up on future OSC books in any case, but Pastwatch was always one of my sister’s & my favorites.

  3. Here’s a link to what I’ve always assumed was OSC’s prequel to Pastwatch:

    It’s essentially an historical fiction view of The Flood…and certainly sets the table for the SF Pastwatch concepts of the full book.

    I’d love for him to do a sequel.

  4. So here’s my question about Pastwatch sequels: **SPOILER ALERT***

    . . .

    How could you do a sequel to Pastwatch, given that the characters totally wiped out their own future? Unless it’s a prequel, the only thing I can think of is that the hidden records of the Pastwatch group, that they took back and buried, include the instructions for building a Pastwatch machine.

    • David H. /

      Well, what little I know about the additional books is that they would be (or would have been) called Pastwatch: The Flood and Pastwatch: The Garden of Eden, so either a prequel idea, like the early days of the machine, or something else. Not sure! I definitely agree about things being wiped out, so it depends on which timeline you’d want the story to be in. Maybe that’s why OSC has never written them (yet)!

  5. Honestly, I would scrap any true continuity of timelines within the Pastwatch universe and just treat any new stories separately. It’s easy enough to incorporate some of the same characters if it’s additive to the storyline.

    For me, the draw of the stories is the combo of historical/science fiction and the related statement of how past actions are viewed through a future lens. That can be handled in different ways without having to bind yourself to the history of the series.

  6. Jason, how does OSC treat Columbus’ treatment and enslavement of native peoples in the West Indies? There are plenty of websites describing the brutality and cultural destruction that most European explorers inflicted on the New World, but the topic itself is ripe with political agendas and historical revisionism.

    Since Pastwatch allows history to be changed, is this book OSC’s attempt to recast Columbus in a more positive light, or something completely different? I’m very curious about that aspect.

    • Stuart – great question. The entire focus of the Pastwatch team becomes to eradication of slavery. It’s a bit fuzzy since I read this a few years ago, but basically they conclude that slavery is the root of all the world’s ills and target Columbus as a redeemable figure, and his discovery of the New World as a high(!) point in its initiation of slavery in the west.

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