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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

cover of Pastwatch

Card displays his brilliance once again in a book that is both science fiction and history, both well-researched and truly "revisionist." In our future, the scattered remnants of humanity on Earth have developed a technology that enables them to see and hear the past, like a video camera that they can position any place and time they choose. Based on that technology, there is a world-wide organization called Pastwatch, which recruits talented scholars and historians to work on various projects. From one woman's study of slavery throughout history springs a new project; their investigation leads them to Christopher Columbus, and to the possibility that they might be able to change the past.

Eventually, the leaders of the Columbus project discover their technology can actually be used to send things back and alter the past-- although this would erase their own existence. One of the brilliant twists of this book (don't read if you don't want to know!) is their discovery that history has already been altered once: in an alternate past, Columbus led a successful crusade to free Constantinople, and the future people of that version of the past sent a holographic vision of the Trinity to send him West, in order to avert a terrible event: in their history, Europe was invaded by a South American empire that still practiced human sacrifice. So, the members of the Columbus project create a plan to alter history once again, but with a much more careful touch that will give the possibility for a more peaceful human future.

Interwoven with the stories of the future of Pastwatch are snippets from the life of Christopher Columbus. Card clearly did a significant amount of research, both on Columbus and on South America, and one of the most interesting ideas is his figure of Columbus as such an ambitious, passionate, charismatic man that could accomplish whatever he set his heart on, whether it was a crusade or a westward voyage, or peace.

Another aspect of this book that intrigued me was the proliferation of fascinating ideas. Pastwatch is really a community of scholars, and Card provides many of them with fascinating and plausible ideas of research-- one man's discovery of Atlantis and the origin of the flood story, another man's research into the South American cultures to discover the empire that was about to rise and never got the chance, and particularly one woman's approach to history: by moving backwards through the lives of the people she watched, instead of forward, she became more attuned to causes than effects. Perhaps Card is borrowing these ideas from other scholars, but it is astounding to me to see a writer throwing out so many different ideas, any one of which could occupy a scholar for years.

Title:Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus
Author:Orson Scott Card
Date published:1996
Genre:Science Fiction / Alternate History
Number of pages:416


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