Reviewed by Steven H Silver
I've been waiting to read this novel ever since I first saw an erroneous notice of publication in the summer of 1987. Year after year, Pastwatch failed to appear. In 1992, Card released a teaser in the form of the short story "Atlantis" (published in Grails: Quests, Visitations and Other Occurences, edited by Richard Gilliam, et al., Unnameable Press) a story whose events and characters form a background to part of the novel. "Atlantis" was, perhaps, the strongest story in a fantastic anthology. Needless to say, when I finally picked it up this year, I approached it with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Was there any way Card could live up to nine years of expectation?
I first opened the book on the day I brought it home from the bookstore. I started to read the prologue. I put it down. Three more times I did this. The prologue, which gives some background to the far future in which the Pastwatch Project is set, is exceptionally wordy and does not particularly add anything to the story as a whole. It can be skipped without a noticeable effect on the novel. Eventually, I worked my way through the long two pages of the prologue and reached the actual body of the novel.
Two stories are told in this novel. The first is that of Christopher Columbus's trials and tribulations in acquiring the needed ships, funding and permission to make his journey to the Orient. The second is the story of how the Pastwatch Project, set up to watch events in history, discovers they can effect those events in a limited way. Card manages to very skillfully work in parallel storylines between the events of the fifteen century and the events of the future.
There are, of course, flaws in the novel. The various members of Pastwatch claim, at various times, to have watched every incident in Columbus's life several times. Yet, they do not live significantly longer than Columbus, himself, lived. I kept wondering, "Where did they find the time to watch and have lives of their own?"
Another problem I had is that I felt, at times, as if I were reading Voltaire's Candide. Card's Pastwatch characters are searching for the Best of All Possible Worlds, much as Candide did. However, whereas Candide was looking for himself, the Pastwatch Project was so altruistic, few voices were raised in dissent when it was announced that they would siece to exist when the change went through. In their motives, therefore, Card's characters failed to act as real people.
Card is perhaps strongest, and his characters more realistic, when he explores the worlds of Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century. He captures the feel and the politics of the courts of Ferdinand and Isabella as well as Joao of Portugal. Their priests and advisors have opinions which are realistic and complex. As I read the book, I kept wondering if Card could have written this as a straight alternate history without the time travel element. If he could have, I think it would have been a much stronger, albeit very different, novel.
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