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Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
(written by Orson Scott Card)


An engrossing page-turner, and a fresh original take on an often-clichéd concept.


4 out of 5


This review was written long after I read the novel; some of my impressions/observations may be inaccurate as such.


I'm normally wary of time-travel stories, as their plots often become hopelessly complicated. No one need worry about Pastwatch however, it avoids all the clichés.

Pastwatch is set in a distant, benevolent future. Humanity has survived countless wars and cataclysms, to the point where less than a billion humans remain alive. Nevertheless, the wars are over, humanity stands united, and damage to the environment is being healed. But many cannot forget the billions of people who were lost, and to that end they developed machines that enabled them to see into the past. Such machines were used to record lost stories and histories. Despite the past cataclysms, these time-viewing historians believe they and their descendants have the rest of time to find all of the lost stories of humanity.

The first portion of the story centers around an African woman named Tagiri and her viewings of history. During one of her viewings of a lost Caribbean village, the people she observed seemed somehow aware of Tagiri's presence, and prayed for her help shortly before they were butchered by marauding Spaniards. This incident gives her the idea that if she somehow altered the past, stopping Columbus' arrival in the Americas, she may be able to stop the devastation of the native American people by the Spanish. However, the idea does not come into play until much later.

Many years later, the Pastwatch team includes Tagiri's husband, her daughter Diko, a weather scientist named Kemal, and a relative newcomer from Central America named Hanahpu. Hanahpu has been viewing the history of South American civilizations, and has postulated that were it not for the practice of human sacrifice, those civilizations would have been strong enough to fend off the Spanish. The rest of the team have been engrossed with Columbus' history. They have discovered that Columbus' great ambition was to spread Christianity to Constantinople (Istanbul today) in the east, but cannot explain where he got the idea to travel west.

(Major spoilers ahead, you've been warned)

It is Diko who finally discovers the answer, and shows the others a recording what she found. Columbus lay shipwrecked and near death on a beach far from home, when he received a vision. The spectral characters tell Columbus that his great victory for Christianity lies in the West, not the East. They also tell him to speak of their message to no one. Believing them to be the Holy Trinity, Columbus takes an oath. The Pastwatchers, however, know it is not a hallucination or divine vision, because they can see it too. Later on they discover Columbus' vision was actually an elaborate deception using a holographic projector that self-destructed later. Apparently there was another history, in which a group of time-historians (which the Pastwatchers refer to as the Interveners) undertook the same venture that the Pastwatchers are contemplating: altered the past in the hope of a better future. Kemal theorized that in the other history, Columbus did travel eastward in an attempt to spread Christianity, but ended up setting in motion a holy war between east and west, which the Interveners perceived as the greatest tragedy in their history.

At this point, government and scientific people step in, informing the Pastwatch team of what they already suspect: time travel is possible, but is a one-way trip. If someone travels back, they can never return because their future would have been irrevocably lost. Despite being the one who came up with the idea of altering history, Tagiri is horrified by the prospect. Does she or anyone else have the right, all by themselves, to discard their world in the hopes of a better one? Just when Tagiri is seriously considering abandoning the Columbus Project as it has come to be known, she & her associates get an answer, and it is far more than they bargained for.

(For anyone whishing to avoid spoilers, this is your final warning:)

A non-descript mathematician meets the team, informing them that he and his associates have been watching Tagiri and her associates' progress on the Columbus Project for a long time. He informs them of the sobering truth: their world is dying. The damage their ancestors did to the environment was too great, and civilization is less than a generation away from collapse due to lack of food. Humanity likely will survive, but in no recognizable form, and civilization will not rise again for tens of thousands of years, if at all. The time-viewing machines were used ostensibly for history, but their real purpose was to preserve the memory of the human race. Altering history is no longer a choice, it has become a matter of survival.

The team's final plan for altering history involved sending Diko, Hanahpu, and Kemal back. All three of them were infected with a therapeutic airborne virus designed to spread vaccines against European diseases. Hanahpu's mission was to end the practice of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica and introduce a modified form of Christianity that both them and the Europeans could accept. In case diplomacy failed, he was also to direct the Mesoamerican civilization to advance, to the point where they would be strong enough to fight the Spanish on even terms. Diko's mission took her to an island in the Caribbean, where she would also introduce Christianity to the natives without coercion. She would also face-off with Columbus himself, challenging him to see the natives as equals, not slaves. Finally, Kemal's mission was to maroon Columbus' party in the Caribbean by destroying his ships, buying time for the other time travelers to complete their objectives. He would avert suspicion from the natives or Diko by surrendering to the Spaniards. He also took with him an archive containing the entire history of his future, and had an artifact surgically implanted in his skull, which would show some future generation how and where to find the archive.

The story of the future time-watchers was interlaced with scenes from the 15th century with Columbus. Tagiri and the others frequently describe Columbus as "a great man living in the wrong time" or words to that effect. I don't know if I agree with that assessment, that's a question best left to academics. As the son of a low-born weaver, his primary motivation for greatness comes from anger over the disdain other rich upper class men showed his father. After his "vision", Columbus faced an uphill battle to convince various kings and statesman to fund an expedition to the west. Even after his arrival in the Americas, he had to contend with a less than subordinate crew. The level of historical detail in Pastwatch is incredible, I can see that a lot of work went into this novel.

Up until the point where Tagiri wishes the time travelers well and sends them on their missions, I found Pastwatch an interesting thought-provoking read. But once the two divergent storylines began to merge, the novel really captured my attention - fortunately I didn't have any exams to prepare for. All three time-travelers must come to terms with the fact that they are no longer passive observers of events that happened long before they were born, but active participants with an uncertain future. Besides their main objectives, both Hanahpu and Diko work to encourage more egalitarian treatment of women in the communities they make themselves part of.

The time-travelers' missions succeed beyond their expectations. Instead of subjugating the natives, Columbus and his party joins with them. With Diko as his mentor, Columbus united the islands of the region to form a nation known as Caribia, based on the principles of nonviolence and tolerance. Later when ships of a South American empire that Hanahpu helped to build arrive on the islands, the two powers join together. When Columbus returns to Spain with a fleet of well-armed ships, instead of going to war, Spain and Caribia join together. Historians later refer to that meeting as "the greatest moment of reconciliation in history".

As for Kemal, he succeeded in marooning the Spaniards, but the cost was his own life. However, many centuries later, his body was discovered, along with the artifact in his skull that led to the buried archive of the lost future, both of which were clearly products of a technology that no longer existed on Earth. For their roles in history, Hanahpu and Diko already had monuments and tombs. Kemal finally received his formal tomb, with a date of birth that would not come for centuries, and a date of death, 1492.

As enjoyable and engrossing as I found Pastwatch, the novel has some minor flaws and one serious flaw that prevent it from being a truly great epic. The 15th century setting with Columbus shows incredible attention to detail, but the future setting in which the time-travelers live in does not. In the very first pages, it is revealed that nine tenth's of humanity have been lost to war and other cataclysms. I would describe that world as being "post-apocalyptic", but that isn't reflected in the setting until much later in the novel. Even then, when the characters discover that their world is dying, there is no suspense leading up to that revelation. For all the detail put into the historical setting, the imaginary setting could have used more work.

The ending of the story seems too simple and optimistic, as if teaching Columbus to see other races as equals and adhering to the principals of Christianity was enough to solve all the world's problems. Despite claims that the citizens of Caribia could be baptized and practice Christianity without giving up their native culture in any way, there is no word at all of problems Columbus may have encountered with peoples who may not have wanted to be part of his new nation or religion. Someone went as far as to suggest that Pastwatch has a pro-Christian agenda. I wouldn't go that far, but the ending does seem too simplistic.

The novel's major flaw lies in the relationships of the main characters Diko and Hanahpu. They apparently develop feelings for each other around the same time they are contemplating their time-traveling missions, which would very likely irrevocably separate them. However, their relationship is portrayed in a very sterile nondescript manner, a footnote rather than a story development. Because of their imminent separation, Diko refuses Hanahpu's advances (which is never portrayed mind you - it simply related in passing), not wanting to be encumbered by memories of another husband later in her life. When Hanahpu explained that he wasn't contemplating marriage, Diko chastised him furiously, claiming that to couple without marriage would be refusing to accept her place in society. That outburst felt as if it was ripped from the pages of a Sunday sermon and thrown in my face writ large. Hollow and scripted, the exchange did much to undermine the novel. We can't have an epic adventure without a love story, regardless of whether or not the characters actually show any affection for each other. At the end, Hanahpu married a former slavegirl who almost threw the proverbial monkey-wrench into his plans, and Diko married Columbus, but again those relationships were simply related in passing.

Despite its flaws, Pastwatch is an engrossing thought-provoking read. Highly recommended, but don't touch it if you're preparing for exams. You won't be able to put it down.

- Rishi Jagessar