Pastwatch: Orson Scott Card’s Time-Traveling Masterpiece

Note: Since writing this post, it has come to my attention that O.S.C. holds some pretty hard-line views against the gay and lesbian community and the right to same-sex marriage, even recently prompting a potential collaborator to leave an upcoming Superman project for DC Comics.
I do not share Card’s views. I am leaving this review of Pastwatch here as an examination of a well-structured work of science-fiction, not a validation of the author’s policies. -B. Edward Smith

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card – TOR Books, 1996

I don’t know of many other authors that get to write science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction while not catching hell from genre purists.

Orson Scott Card is so well liked and respected in the lit world that even mediocre efforts (see Empire, 2007) seem to buzz under the radar with nary a hint of disdain.

Two possible reasons for Card’s universal appeal:

1. He is one of the most believable writers working today. Even stuff with a fantastic bent comes off sounding honest and real. Though I’ve only read about a third of his collected work, I never once felt pandered to or cheated.

2. Ender’s Game (1985). This is the book that, as they say, made him. Immensely popular in the Science Fiction community, this work began as a piece of short fiction that Card wrote in 1977.

He kept revising and adding to it when he realized that it’s protagonist was the perfect fulcrum of an entire universe that he was planning. When Tor Paperbacks published Ender’s Game in 1985, it pretty much blew everyone away to the tune of winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year.

Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, did the same thing only one year later. That has never happened, before or since. So there’s that.

The Time Travel of Pastwatch

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is an unexpectedly moving account of characters that dwell in two points in earth’s history, and how their destinies meet to alter the future of the world.

In our twenty third century, humanity has barely survived a series of global holocausts that have severely depleted the earth’s resources and whittled the population to just under a billion. Thankfully, this is not Card’s version of a dystopian future, but one where the meek have truly inherited the earth. Conservation and education are wholly embraced, giving rise to miraculous medical and scientific advances.

But even as efforts are under way to save and replenish the planet’s dwindling ecology, an unavoidable fate remains for the surviving populace.

Of the scientific advances, a machine called a Tempoview is created that allows a viewer to peer back in time, allowing for unbiased study of the course of human events.

A group of scientists begin a decades-long project with the intention of cataloging the entirety of human experience and reclaiming facts and discoveries lost to war and catastrophe.

Card does a magnificent job of describing how the machine is improved upon over the years. Though initially offering an aerial view of cities and agricultural developments, researchers are eventually able to eavesdrop on whispers or read documents over someone’s shoulder.

One such researcher, Tagiri, is so gifted at her work with a Tempoview that she offered carte blanche to follow her own course of study. The project she chooses is one of lineage, namely her own. She decides to trace the lives of every female she is descended from as far back as time will take her.

She eventually reaches 15th century South America, and witnesses a female predecessor being slaughtered by invading Europeans after she hallucinates to divine the future of her tribe. The event affects Tagiri so deeply that she begins to ponder the nature of slavery and how it has defined human history. As time goes on, she re-examines the incident, and eventually does so with a new model of Tempoview. This is when everything changes.

Pastwatch: The Big Question.

Would you, if you could, prevent a catastrophic future by changing one single event in the past? Simple enough, but what if it also meant essentially aborting the lives of every human and animal born from the time of that event?

Would it even work? Can you just “discard” this world for a better one?

Pastwatch: Slavery, Religion and Money

Pastwatch is an eloquent dissertation of Card’s stance on human rights, and how religion and commerce have sadly trumped spirituality and care in the course of historical events. Though Card is a devout Mormon, I see no evidence of a hidden agenda concerning his faith.

The characters are three-dimensional specimens that don’t rely on stock details for their portrayal; even the inhabitants of the future seem to be based on real people. The weight of their final decision seems horrifyingly real.

This novel was my first exposure to Orson Scott Card, and has been one of his few works to stand as its own story, outside of a series.

I learned recently that this might soon change: he is currently working on other time-travel stories presumably operating in the same universe as this one, though certainly populated by different characters. The subjects? The great flood and the dawn of man.

I can’t wait to read them… there’s no other option. Yet.

For more on Orson Scott Card, visit Hatrack River and InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Brian Edward Smith is founder and editor of


What do you think?