Rhyd Wildermuth's Reviews > Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card
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's review
Apr 10, 2008

did not like it
Recommended for: Homophobes, Fundamentalists, Misogynists, White Supremacists, and Mormons

No one can begrudge Card for using Sci-Fi as a field for propaganda: the medium itself (world-creation/world-defining) by nature almost requires it.

But unless you're rather fond of the idea that mormon "family values" are somehow universal, and extend throughout the whole history of humanity, than you might not go for this book.

I didn't.

If you're the sort who watches the history channel and finds it profound, somehow missing the propaganda within a narrative of human actions throughout recorded time which asserts a long succession of wars to be an adequate measure of the passage of human activity, than perhaps you'll have no problem with Card's proposed defense for european colonialism (his thesis: it could have been worse--we could have let the natives handle things!).

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John Moss Honestly, having read the book, I am failing to see how your review is relevant.

message 2: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth As with all fantasy, look particularly at the parts where characters have long monologues, or have long discussions with other characters which seem far from relevant to the actual story. That's where fantasy authors are more likely to be didactic (and Card particularly!). Go back and read his discussions about marriage, his seemingly off-the-cuff mention of sexual deviation (Card is a vehement anti-homosexual...read his blog or search his name with "gay" or "homosexual" attached).

But the most egregious stuff is in his main thesis/plot device... When the Pastwatch team figures out they are not the first, and look for reasons an alternate-future would have tried to alter things, the reasons they come up with are, well, very anti-native. To assert (and back up with notes!) that first nations in the Americas would have set up temples for human sacrifice in europe if europe hadn't conquered them first?

John Moss If there's conflict, isn't it a little hard to not come off as anti-something?

As to the gay or anti-gay stuff I can honestly say it didn't seem to stand out in the story.

message 4: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Orson Scott Card's an excellent writer. In fact, he's written a book on writing fantasy, and teaches creative writing. He knows what he's doing. Characters don't say things the writer doesn't want them to...in fact, the writer makes them say those things.

Card is an excellent propagandist. As I said in my review, Sci-fi lends itself more than most other areas to propaganda, because the writer creates the world (with its laws, history, culture, and politics). And there's nothing wrong with speculative fiction as propaganda (you've read Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, I see--so you'll certainly understand that point).

But it's also okay to not like the propaganda in a book, or even to find it particularly pernicious. There are some people who certainly would like Card's theory, and I've recommended it to them in my review.

message 6: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Thank you so much for the irrelevant hit-and-run Aristotle quote!

Chris Arena It's quite relevant. You seem to be under the impression that you have to agree with someone's opinions to get anything out of their literature. The entire point of writing is to see something from another perspective.

message 8: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Oh, my.

There are plenty of authors with whom I disagree and yet still find their books delightful. And then, there are a few writers who are "great writers" who use their craft for propaganda, or who make unnecessary (and often times obvious) effort to be very nasty to entire groups of people.

With Card, the effort is usually seamless--as I say, he's an excellent writer and propagandist. It took me most of the book before I realised his intent, and then realised how thoroughly he abuses the reader's trust to assert something really, really horrible.

I consider your quote still to be irrelevant. I thoroughly "entertained" the idea, and obviously didn't "accept" it. Aristotle said "entertain a thought," not "be entertained by it."

Chris Arena I'd love to know a part of the book which showed off his "often times obvious" propaganda most clearly. Page numbers in text or digital, either works.

message 10: by Rhyd (last edited Jan 12, 2012 12:39PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Propaganda operates on two levels. The level you're demanding--specific passages--is only one part of it, but since you seem honestly wanting to know, consider Diko's discussion of (I'm paraphrasing..it's been more than 3 years since I wrote this review and another year or so before that in which I read it, and I don't own a copy any longer) "mating without marriage being a violation of community" or somesuch. It's probably in the middle of the book.

I'd refer you back to my response to an earlier commenter, that didactism occurs most frequently in conversations and asides which seem oddly unrelated to plot.

Furthermore, propaganda can't be understood without the context of the times. The late 90's were the height of post-colonial theorists, when criticism of the white narrative of america's founding had entered the mainstream (and anti-columbus day celebrations began to take hold). Along with this was the assertion that much of the environmental mess we've gotten ourselves into (as well as poverty of minorities) can be traced to european colonial practices in the americas.

This book serves as a retort from a renownedly right-wing, anti-liberal Card (it's very easy to find information about Card's vehement pro-capitalist, anti-gay, republican values--read his own blog, or google "orson scott card homophobic").

It's an answer that was, by the way, picked up by right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation--we're better off with our legacy, because the alternative would have been human sacrifice in america. Card at least makes concessions that environmental damage is actually happening--in the same way any good argument, propagandistic or not, acknowledges a critique before either disproving it or making it irrelevant.

And then, he backs it up with "further reading" at the end, citing sources as if it's an argument, not a work of fantasy.

You can be a right-winger and write perfectly good, undidactic fiction, just as you can be a hardcore marxist and do the same (Mieville's an excellent example). But the temptation of some, particularly who also write blogs and get interviewed about their political views (card's is ornery (dot) com) to use writing as a soap-box was apparently too great to pass up for Card. He actually states that he's happy when mormon converts cite his books as one of their reasons for joining his faith. Card denies ever "purposefully" putting in any moralisms in his writing, and I'm never certain whether he's truly in denial or is just lying.

For a much more fantastic discussion of his propaganda in other books, particularly the Ender series, see also the essays (searching for them in quotes should yield 'em):

"Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality"
"Ender and Hitler", and
"Orson Scott Card Has Always Been an Asshat"

message 11: by Adam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Adam Rhyd, I am afraid you just sound conspiratorial and delusional. Card is a good man. He does not hate gays. You disagree that's fine. But it is quite strange you dedicate this much passion to convincing others that he does hate gays. I'm familiar with quotes he has made. I also share his faith. You have misunderstood.

message 12: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Hi, Adam!

I see you've stated that some of your favorite authors are Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg, and that you rated Michael Medved's "Ten big lies..." with five stars.

You'll forgive me for finding therein ample justification to dismiss your suggestion that I sound "conspiratorial and delusional." : )

message 13: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Moss I either enjoy a book or I don't, to be frank, I only care about the author's background or belief system in so far as it negatively impacts the story, which I do not believe it did in Pastwatch. I also do not require myself to view all historical fiction or science fiction through the lens of "white guilt", letting the story be what it is, ugly history and all. If anything, Card seems to have "redeemed" the most violent and dangerous failings of the very earliest colonial days. Now perhaps you would have been happier if the story had been different, but if it would have satisfied you, it is likely there would have been no conflict, and thus no story worth reading.

Tyler I think you've missed a major point here. I read a sincere argument in favor of compassionate multiculturalism. I know Card's beliefs, and I think his stance on "family values" is appalling. In fact, if there's ever something that bothers me in one of his books, that's the cause (so far the biggest culprit has been the later installments of the Ender's Shadow series).

It's been a while since I read this, but I got the message that the European way brought about slavery and the MesoAmerican way resulted in human sacrifice. The validity of that alternate history is immaterial, though I would argue that there's plenty of evidence that makes it plausible. Anyway, Card's point seems to be that humanity can do better than either of those outcomes, and that the way to bring it about is by carefully meshing the cultures without one overpowering the other.

Considering the status quo, that seems to be a strong denunciation of traditional pro-colonial "white man's burden" philosophy. Sure, the natives aren't all heroic defenders of civilization, but Card's Columbus isn't, either.

When the argument is "Native Americans would be better with European culture and Europeans would be better with Native American culture", it's easy to get caught up and offended by the first half of the statement, but it's not fair to the author to disregard the second half.

message 15: by Rhyd (new) - rated it 1 star

Rhyd Wildermuth Hi Tyler!
Yours is probably the best defense of this book I've read. To be honest, I really -hoped- to conclude as you did, that Card was, despite his rather despicable didactic contortions, successfully presenting a notion of cultural mixing as a way out of both environmental destruction and human sacrifice, etc..
But again, we run into the very thing which you admit you find as reprehensible as I do--his "family values," or, better say, his own western/white cultural bigotry.
Consider: all that Card really takes the time to imagine in an alternate-reality where the indigenous peoples of south america "win" is the human sacrifice. Contrasting current cultural achievement against an alternate, indigenous achievement could have resulted in at least a little more than rivers of sacrificial blood in running down the steps of ziggurats in europe.
But let's assume he was just being either lazy or constrained by space. I like giving author's the benefit of the doubt, reading almost every book I start to dislike all the way to the end just to see if they'll redeem themselves. We still run into the closed-circle of his religious/cultural understanding when the (multicultural yet still fully european) Pastwatch members use science to "trick" the natives (the jaguar piercing ritual) and, again, Diko's very christian ideals of marriage and family (sacrificing her self and body as Columbus's wife in order to save humanity...).

Badger I read this a while ago and really liked it. I don't remember anything that sounded like Mormon propaganda to me.

Kirkus In your reply to Tyler I get a much better understanding of why you didn't like the book Rhyd. I cant help but feeling that you see symbolism where none was intented. Im not saying that you didn't see it and neither am I disregarding the symbolism you experienced. The book has a lot of shortcommings but I belive the majority of readers will not experience what you felt from reading this book.

Badger Kirkus,
I agree
I think ppl are reading way too much into this book bcs of what they know of OSC's politics.

Aleks I'm Jewish and deeply involved in the marriage and anti-war movements. I think Orson Scott Card's political writings are bizarre and disgusting. But I don't remember Card's (revolting) personal politics particularly permeating this book. Maybe I'm insensitive. I think it's a fine book by a rotten man.

message 20: by Negativni (new)

Negativni "History Channel, where the Truth is History" - South Park :-)

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