Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Orson Scott Card
(1996, TOR Books)

A team studying the past interferes with Columbus' discovery of America, making it so that the natives cannot be so easily overcome.


-- 2nd reading (paperback)
December 15th to 27th, 2020


I recall being amazed the first time I read this book, but I wasn't old enough to understand the implication of why Columbus needed redemption. The book goes to lengths to tell us it's impossible to judge the past by our current standards. Today we condemn things that we see aren't right but were accepted as normal in the past. I really liked the time with Diko, Tagiri, Hunapau, Kemal and the others in the current present. The findings and speculations were, to me, so much more interesting than Columbus' story, at least until the storylines converge. Trying to make a better future, using knowledge of our past, seems like a noble pursuit, but the risks they were taking were immense. The story in the past, when the three of them go back to change the Mexica and other Carribean tribes so they can resist the devastation of the Spanish, was most exciting, and a lot of fun.

Spoiler review:

Each of the characters has their own obsession, which is what makes the story work. The author comes up with plausible areas of observation with the Pastwatch devices, where Tagiri follows slavery, moving backwards from a woman who gets beaten because she was stolen from her original family, and so on to what she believes is the origin of slavery. Kemal finds a story about a flood that created the Red Sea, which could account for Noah’s story in the Bible, also showing the advent of slavery. Hunahpu obsesses with the meso-American civilization. Diko obsesses with the Intervention that caused Columbus to move away from his dream of a holy crusade, over to the Americas.

Each of these stories would seem to interrupt the flow of the main story, but that’s not the case, as each time it seems as if the story of the person in question has run its course. Just in time, a new avenue opens up because of the introduction of another character. I really liked the stories that were given, as they had just enough plausibility that they could account for what the character describes, and becomes a fascinating introduction into how the world could have been shaped. The hardest one to believe was the conquest of Europe by the meso-American tribes. Even broken by another crusade, I don’t see these tribes overpowering the muscle nations of Europe, but that’s a small thing to detract from a great story.

The historical fiction of Columbus himself was my least favorite part of the book, as I found it often boring. Columbus was shown to be a one-note person, always obsessed with attaining glory. And when he gets the Intervention from God, which is just a message from a lost timeline, he becomes certain that he is on the right track. The manipulations of Columbus’ voyage by the church and the Portuguese monarchy were very strange as they weighed the effort of a crusade against the fight with the moors and the distance calculation about the size of the world.

The main characters were correct with their assessment that changing history could not be done lightly. How would they make a better world? But the author gives them the easy way out, too easy, because they find out that the world is dying, that humans did too much damage from global warming, resource utilization, fossil fuel extraction, and so on. The choice becomes die out as the human race, or change the past. So they vote to change the past.

And this becomes the best part of the book, as Diko, Kemal and Hunahpu go about introducing viruses and Christianity to the meso-American culture, such that they are strong, and can resist the pathogens brought from Europe, and they can avoid a war because their culture will be not so much at odds with the European one. Imagine if they were strong without being Christian? Europe would have had two crusades on their hands, and the world torn apart, probably even worse. So though Christianity may not be the best solution, it is the best compromise -even Kemal the Muslim agrees. But I really like how Diko tests Columbus, challenging him to become a true Christian -to punish his men for rape, stop slavery, be better people because it is the right thing to do.


-- First reading (paperback)
October 30th to November 5th, 1998


This was a great story about MAKING an alternate history, not necessarily set in one. It was terrific how the seemingly unrelated work that the different people did came together, and how they debated it all. Nice work all the way through.


Back to Top

All reviews and page designs at this site Copyright © 1999 -  by Warren Dunn, all rights reserved.