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Literature / Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

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Pastwatch is a 1996 novel by Orson Scott Card combining elements of Science Fiction and Alternate History. The novel is set in a future where a past-viewing technology has been perfected, most of the main characters are historians who use this technology to observe and analyze the totality of human history. Over time, they come to see European conquest of the Americas as a destructive turning point in Earth's history. They come to the conclusion that, if they can observe the past, maybe they can alter it as well.


Card apparently planned the book to be part of a series, but the sequels (announced in 1999) have yet to be completed.

Provides Examples Of:

  • After the End: The world has just gone through a period of calamity that has reduced the world population to under a billion and necessitated great efforts to repair the ecology.
  • Alien Space Bats: The main plot of the novel is around the characters trying to design an alternate history which they can then create. They also learn that we are living in alternate history created by beings who changed their own past.
  • Alternate History Wank: Given that Orson Scott Card is an observant Mormon, what else could his creation of a peace-loving Modern Mayincatec Empire that embodies an anti-racist, egalitarian interpretation of Christianity be?
    • However, the story goes to great lengths to show it more as a merging of religions, with the protagonists going out of their way to shift the past dogma just enough so that the multiples religions can coexist and even combine without complaint.
  • Anachronic Order: Told with chapters alternating between historical fiction of Christopher Columbus and far future science fiction about the Pastwatch project. Eventually the two plot lines merge due to Time Travel.
  • Apathy Killed the Cat: With a past viewing device available, it seems likely that the first order of business would be to investigate every major religion, either confirming or debunking the accounts in each book of scripture. There's no mention made of this, and there are still explicitly Christians and Muslims around in this future (this despite the fact that one character became famous by discovering the historical event that became the basis for the Great Flood).
    • This actually becomes a problem when Diko discovers Columbus' vision of the Christian Trinity. Her father immediately points out that they can't release it without context, as doing so would result in massive riots and condemnations that the past-viewing technology is evil and is, therefore, untrue. Or even begin new religious wars.
    • Somewhat handwaved away when one character mentions in passing that every religious vision observed has been too subjective to tell what really happened (this how they can tell Columbus's vision of the Trinity was a fake, because it's the only religious vision they've seen that was unambiguous).
  • Atlantis: Thanks to Pastwatch (and one obsessed meteorologist), it's eventually discovered that Atlantis is the name later given to an ancient civilization at the end of the last Ice Age. It was the first civilization to organize into urban-like groups and set up (more or less) permanent structures in the Red Sea. The melting of the ice caps has resulted in the rising of the ocean levels and a destructive tidal wave wiping out the entire civilization. Only a man named Naog, foreseeing this outcome, builds a sturdy wooden boat, just big enough to hold his family and the families of his slaves. After making it to shore, he becomes a shepherd, telling the story of his lost homeland to all who would listen. He advocated two things: slavery (as a replacement of human sacrifice) and a nomadic lifestyle (believing God was against cities). It wasn't until Babylon that large cities were again attempted. What all this means is that Noah was from Atlantis.
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  • Back to Front: In universe example. One of the pastwatchers has a habit of watching the lives of individual figures starting at the end and working their way to the beginning. When her superiors notice this, they end up giving her Carte Blanche to take her studies anywhere she wants, as all previous attempts at viewing the past this way fails because the viewers got frustrated and went back to watching it in normal chronology.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Everyone knows about the time-viewing technology, but they're not worried about it being abused by those in power, as it can only go back no closer than a few centuries ago. It's later revealed that this is a blatant lie, and the tech can actually view anywhere on Earth as near as 15 minutes ago. Of course, the only ones who are aware of this are a group dedicated to exposing the governments' lies. Also, all of the machine's are actually manually kept from being able to do this without a very specific login, meaning no member of Pastwatch has figured it out because they already thought they had admin access.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Tagiri names Diko and Acho after ancestors she discovered with the Pastwatch computer systems and Diko's daughter that she has with Columbus is given the middle name Tagiri after her mother. Additionally, her first name is Beatrice, though her father never makes it clear which of his two beloved Beatrices he named his daughter after.
  • Disease Bleach: After Columbus has a near-death experience and a vision from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that turns out to have been sent by people from a previously existing timeline to create the one that led to the 23rd century setting of the novel, his hair starts rapidly turning white.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: Knowing that people of the 15th century wouldn't be able to understand, they left their history as a sealed archive that would be found only when society had the technology to detect it. The map to the archive is broken into pieces, one implanted in each of the time traveler's skulls.
  • God Guise: Hunahpu pretends to be a god in front of some Zapotec villagers as part of his plan to remake history. It helps that he's a full head taller than an average Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Averted. It turns out it is possible to change the past, but we can only speculate whether previous iterations were better or worse than our own timeline.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: Hunahpu sticks six needles through his penis, shows up at a Zapotec village with his bleeding and freshly-pierced junk exposed, and entreats six people to each pull one needle out of his penis and wipe the blood on themselves as part of a God Guise. Try explaining this to someone who hasn't read the book without getting weird looks.
    • Even more, one of the people is a slave from another village. Hunahpu demands that she be freed and asks her to take one of the needles, just like the others. She takes the needle from his penis and sticks it through her tongue. The others are shocked... but not for the same reason as a modern-day person would be. In that culture, this is something only a wife would do, and for a slave to do that to a messenger of the gods would be extremely shocking. Later, he ends up marrying her.
  • Just Before the End: The characters realize that the earth is in the throes of an ecological upset that will probably cause the downfall of human civilization. This figures heavily into their desire to change the past.
  • Modern Mayincatec Empire: The Tlaxcala apparently took over the world in a previous iteration of the world's history. The people of that timeline apparently considered it such a catastrophe in the long run, they changed history (and prevented themselves from ever existing) to avoid it, resulting in our timeline. Ironically, the Cosmic Retcon created by our timeline restores this trope, but in a more peaceful incarnation as the result of Diko, Hunahpu, and Kemal's work in changing the past.
  • Morton's Fork: What spurs the decision to change the past even though it'll erase our timeline and existence is the fact that Earth is doomed to an even worse apocalyptic scenario than the one they've already experienced. The human population will be reduced to under 10 million, and humanity will be plunged back into the Stone Ages with little hope of ever rising to civilization ever again, as they have exhausted all easily available energy sources and climate change means they will soon be facing a new ice age.
  • Noble Savage: Played straight and averted. The characters watch the slaughter and plunder of peaceful American tribes by European invaders. This is initially seen a simple good vs. evil conquest, but they later realize that, left to themselves, the post-Aztec kingdoms would have created an even worse empire based on conquest and human sacrifice. They seek to find a way to bring the cultures together and prevent their worst excesses.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: Averted. The three time travelers are a Mayan, an African and a Turk. Only one was the 'appropriate' race for that time and place. One of them intended to be killed because of his race. Of course, advanced technology and a detailed knowledge of future events can make you more acceptable to any society.
    • Even the Mayan time traveler is stated to be a foot taller than the Mayans of that period. This only serves to help him to pretend to be a messenger from Xibalba (the underworld).
  • Poke in the Third Eye: When the characters watch shamans of a Taino village, they are spooked as the shamans describe having a vision of being watched. They watch them twice, decide to do so once more, and freak out because now the shamans speak of being watched three times.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted in that Orson Scott Card portrays everyone who is native to Columbus's lifetime as realistically prejudiced, racist, sexist, etc. for their time and it takes the intervention of time travelers from the twenty-third century to facilitate any changes in these attitudes in the alternate history that they are sent back to create.
    • Notably, not just the Europeans-the native Taino and Zapotec tribes the protagonists interact with have plenty of their own problems with sexism and racism to fix too.
  • Ret-Gone: It's perhaps the largest obstacle the characters face, as they have to come to terms with the fact that a single trip through time will erase everyone except those who are sent. The characters also also have to convince every single person in their time to accept having never existed in order to (hopefully) make the world better. They do this by having all of Earth's population vote, but have to wait until devastating famines start in order to convince people. And even then, the vote is not unanimous, but is overwhelming.
    • This is also stated to be one of the reasons why Diko doesn't want to start a romantic relationship with Hunahpu and have a child that will end up being erased.
    • Tagiri also realizes that this won't just erase everyone in the present. It will erase everyone between the present and the past, or at least five hundred years and billions of people, none of whom get a vote.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Diko ends up romancing and marrying Christopher Columbus himself after acting as a mentor to him.
  • Temporal Mutability: Type 5. The characters make clear that, as soon as they enter the past, they'll begin to change it. Even contact with one of their dead bodies would introduce future bacteria and viruses into the past ecosystem, altering the entire timeline.
    • There is some variety-basically, of the events happening before the time travelers act, those based more-or-less on random chance get a "re-roll" (sailors pick random girls to sleep with), while those based on conscious and informed decision proceed roughly the same way (a ship's captain's concerns stay the same and so does the ship's course).
    • This is also why the scientists painstakingly work to make sure that all three get sent back. If even one of them is sent back a second before the others, then the other won't be there in the already-altered future to be sent back. This means that all the distances must be measured down to microscopic measurements, and all wires cut to exactly the same lengths. Even in the end, the lead scientist states that it all comes down to chance and his hope that the universe will expand the "moment" to allow for all three to make it through. However, all of the travelers are trained to act as if only one of them got through, as they are sent to different decades and different locations, and therefore have no way of knowing.
  • The Time Traveller's Dilemma: Used to excellent effect. The characters agonize over whether changing the past would make things better, and whether it could ever be justified. Even when they learn that an ecological collapse is inevitable, they're concerned about taking on that kind of responsibility. It's especially hard considering the world we're living in now is the result of time travelers from an alternate future changing their past. Whether it made things better or worse can only be speculated on.
    • It's conveniently resolved by revealing that the ecological damage is irreversible in time to save human civilization.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Inverted. All three time travellers are given a backup plan in case the "moment" fails to last long enough and only one of them actually makes it. Naturally, then, the moment expands just fine and those particular plans end up unneeded.
  • Weather-Control Machine: A network of satellites ensures perfect weather for farmers. But they're predicted to start failing within the next several decades, which will result in a dense cloud layer, preventing sufficient sunlight from reaching arable land.
  • Xanatos Gambit: The plan is designed so, even if only one traveler makes it back, and even if they are immediately killed once making the journey, they will still have changed enough of that the future will be a tad more hopeful.
    • Hunahpu is sent back to Mexico in the 1470's, where he has roughly just over a decade to unite the divided tribes into a nation that can adequately defend themselves against the Europeans, while altering small but key parts of their religious dogma so that it can be merged with Christianity.
    • Diko is sent back to 1490 Haiti, and spreads enough generally Christian ideas so as not to totally alienate the Europeans, while training an interpreter so that Columbus can actually communicate with the native Taino. She also takes on the difficult task of pulling a Break Them by Talking on the Europeans, so that they don't immediately enslave the natives.
    • Kemal is sent back to 1492 Haiti, armed with military grade explosives and SCUBA gear, with the intention of sinking the Nina and the Pinta, so as to strand the Europeans on Haiti.
    • All three are infected with genetically engineered "Carrier Virus", which will infect and immunize anyone who comes near them against Smallpox, Measles, the Cold, Syphilis, etc. to keep both the Europeans and Natives from gaining the upper hand with Biological Warfare. It's noted that this will spread even from their corpses, so even if one of them immediately dies, it will still immunize potentially all of Europe and America.