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Problems with Pastwatch

With a movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s popular novel Ender’s Game being released soon, QUILTBAG individuals have spoken out to challenge potential viewers to consider whether they really want to give money to Card, considering the hateful things he has said about QUILTBAG people, and the anti-equality causes he has financially supported. Like many others, I was intrigued by Ender’s Game and its sequels as a teenager, but drifted away from sci-fi and fantasy over the years. I actually first realized that I had problems with the way Card’s approach to religion in a separate book, Pastwatch, reveals an underlying tendency to objectify others. Today, when I look back on that book as a Pagan, I find a disturbing similarity in the fundamental reasoning for the two problems to stem from a single root.

CAUTION: SPOILERS for Pastwatch are ahead.

In Pastwatch, scientists first invent a foolproof way to see and hear the past; then, because their world is failing (for unexplained reasons), they send people back in time to Christopher Columbus’ first visits to the Americas in order to destroy their own past and try to forge a different future.

What drew me to the book originally was not the good sci-fi - the plotting is remarkably thin, especially as far as the technology or its potential implications and social consequences. (Any historian worth her salt will tell you that being able to put a camera back in time would not “resolve” history or make the discipline obsolete.) Card ignores the great potential here and inserts another MacGuffin instead to create the tension his characters address. No, I was simply attracted to a couple of strong female characters, a doomed romance, and the idea of world-ending choices. But the more I got into the actual ideas behind the book, the more repelled I was, in ways that draw together my concerns about civil rights and religion.

The whole way that Pastwatch treats religion is simply weird. In the “future,” it’s not clear that anyone actually has religion, except some Muslims. And what impact religion, or non-religion, or the fact that they first seem to discover a miraculous event in the past and then go on to debunk it, might have on the world as it wends its way towards some awful disaster is never, ever discussed or even alluded to. The future scientists seem to study religion in the past in a purely intellectual form, detached and uninvolved, but then religion becomes the pivotal tool they use to reshape the world and create a better future - up to and including one devout Muslim who uses religion as a quasi-cover-story and is “martyred” as part of the (tissue-thin) plan.

If Islam is treated as an unexplained phenomenon, then the indigenous religions of the Central American peoples are treated as too easily explainable by half. I suppose I have to give the book a tiny bit of credit for exposing me to some of the pre-colonization Central American myths - but on the other hand, I really need to shelve everything I read from the book, even the part that claims to be an excerpt from the Popul Vuh, and go check the originals. I wouldn’t put it past Card to make significant changes to the myths and history involved in the service of telling a good story. Some of that is part of the process of fiction, but when it’s done by a privileged person to people with significantly less privilege, as it is here, it raises all kinds of concerns. I’m not going to even try to unpack all of those issues in the broader context, in part because I don’t have the necessary background, so let me just point them out as another area of potential problems. This looks like one of those situations where people who are interested in non-Christian religions get some exposure in popular culture, but not necessarily in a favorable context. This is something today’s Pagans (in the sense of Neo-Pagans) - and probably all non-Christians - are all too familiar with.

I don’t know how much Card abuses his privilege with respect to the real-life Central Americans’ myths and history, but his characters embark on a literally godlike plan to reshape the entire history of the world from the point of European contact with the Americas. In so doing, at least one of them deliberately assumes the role of a mythical/supernatural figure, using religion to deceive and manipulate an entire group. Another protagonist takes a less direct but still hugely influential role, and both of them affect those native cultures in large part by changing their religions to make them more compatible with Christianity’s savior narrative. There is a definite impression that the native religions are potentially problematic and need to be adapted - again, something modern-day Pagans have encountered before.

Throughout, Card pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously romanticizing indigenous cultures and insisting that they can and should be dominated, controlled, and totally reshaped for their own good. They’re good and natural; they should be fooled and tricked. They’re kind, except when they’re bloodthirsty, and either way they should be manipulated to serve someone else’s ends.

This is really where I started to get a bad taste in my mouth once someone pointed out Orson Scott Card’s devout Mormonism. I think Card explicitly borrowed some Mormon ideas and recast them in a science-fiction/fantasy setting. The way the people from the future visit the Americas and succeed in creating the “best” religion that solves all the problems and spreads throughout the world bears a significant resemblance to the Mormon story of Jesus’ visit to the Native Americans and the idea that Mormons have the “true” Christianity that they should spread throughout the world.

The subtitle of the book is The redemption of Christopher Columbus, and while in the novel this redemption is accomplished through direct intervention, the whole approach reminded me entirely too much of the way certain Mormon beliefs and practices inherently assume that they know what’s good for everyone else better than those people themselves - and a disturbing willingness to act on that self-centered confidence in order to assure others’ “redemption.”

One particular feature of Mormon belief and practice is explicitly about changing the past: posthumous baptism. Now, information on this is lacking in many respects, and different theological perspectives are possible, but LDS organizations have shown a disturbing unwillingness to respect others’ wishes in this area. They have their theological reasons for this, but by continuing to offer those as justification, they are implicitly and explicitly claiming that others’ theological - and political, and personal - understandings do not have equal value.

My point here is not that Mormonism is a “bad” religion, any more than I am saying orthodox Christianity is a “bad” religion when I state the obvious fact that it has a patriarchal bias. I’m also not trying to say that I think Orson Scott Card is a bad person because he is a Mormon. I am arguing that his religion has inherent in it certain tendencies to assume that the Mormons know what’s best for others and can act, unilaterally and without any kind of consent, to enforce that superior knowledge and/or morality on everyone else.

This wanton disregard of others’ goals, motivations, religion, and humanity is on full display in Card’s anti-QUILTBAG activism. He spreads hate and works to have it enshrined in law, because he is so certain that he knows what’s best for QUILTBAG people, and that their self-knowledge is not only incorrect but dangerously so. He actively discounts not only their self-determination, but the value of any religion that recognizes and blesses QUILTBAG relationships - like my own.

This self-centeredness extends even to the point of claiming that for people to choose not to see the upcoming movie - and give him more money, some of which he will probably continue to funnel to viciously anti-QUILTBAG causes - is an example of QUILTBAG people being “intolerant” towards him, as if trying to deny others’ civil rights and choosing not to consume a piece of what is supposed to be entertainment were equivalent.

Choosing to see the upcoming movie is not as simple as putting money directly in Card’s pocket - but it does have that effect. Individuals who deplore his hatefulness will make a range of choices about seeing the movie, based on varying judgments of the kinds of good and harm involved. I can understand that. But the more I learn about Card’s past behavior, the more I see both his actions and his writing stemming from a consistent belief that his understanding of the world trumps mine or anyone else’s. He's going to redeem us all, no matter what.

This for me is a demonstration of how all civil rights are bound up together. I have no idea if Card thinks the actions of his protagonists in Pastwatch would be moral and ethical. I do not know if he has been active against Pagan civil rights directly. But I do know that here in the real world, he has used his religion as justification to try to control the way others live and love, in direct contravention of the tenets of my religion. I think that his actions and his writing together demonstrate the deep connections between a willingness to disregard or ride roughshod over others’ religion and attempts to control others’ actions and bodies in pursuit of their definition of "redemption" - something we as Pagans should be especially sensitive to.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    I may be hopelessly naive but "QUILTBAG"? I am not familiar with this idiom.

  • Literata
    Literata Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    I thought I had introduced this before, but maybe I should have linked. QUILTBAG is an expanded LGBT acronym - queer/questioning, undecided/(nonbinary), intersex, lesbian, trans*, bi, asexual, gay.

  • Rebecca Buchanan
    Rebecca Buchanan Wednesday, 17 July 2013

    When it comes to time-traveler-deliberately-changing-history stories, I highly recommend Jane Yolen's "The Traveler and the Tale" in her anthology Sister Emily's Lightship and Other Stories. She packs a heck of a lot into only six pages.

  • Rhyd
    Rhyd Friday, 19 July 2013

    Thank you for this.
    Pastwatch is the only book I've ever torn to shreds after reading. I was particularly incensed by his assertion that, had Europe not colonised South America, the indigenous peoples would have brought human sacrifice to Europe. This goodreads review was my response:

  • 1
    1 Friday, 19 July 2013

    I didn't know he was still writing, read a few of the Alvin Maker books back when.

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