Deconstruction Roundup for December 2, 2022

(by the Slacktiverse and others; collected by Silver Adept, who is counting their “meh” at everyone else’s holiday celebrations as an improvement over previous years.

The point of these posts is threefold:

  1. To let people stay up to date on ongoing deconstructions. (All ones on our list, including finished and stalled ones, here.)
  2. To let people who can’t comment elsewhere have a place to comment.
  3. To let people comment in a place where people who can’t read Disqus can see what they have to say.

Silver Adept: Here on The Slacktiverse

Let us know, please, if there are errors in the post. Or if you don’t want to be included. Or if there’s someone who you think should be included, which includes you. We can use more content. Or if you were still productive on an unplanned day off of work, including having spent half the day playing games.

Pastwatch: The Search For Alternate Timelines

Last time, our crew of slavery eradicators (and one apologist) found certain proof that another Pastwatch had already interfered in the timeline to send Columbus west rather than east, using iconography of the Catholic Trinity of God. Kemal was taken with figuring out what kind of disaster the other Pastwatch suffered that they decided they needed to alter the timeline at this specific point.

Thus begins the search for evidence.

Pastwatch, Chapter Six: Content Notes:

This chapter opens with what is claimed to be Mayan cosmology from a holy book called Popul Vuh. Thankfully, such a thing exists and is one of the few surviving scriptures of one of the Maya people (so it’s not for all of them, no matter what Card says.) The myth told in this sequence is one of the ones that appears in the document, about one pair of brothers who were eventually beaten at the ball court, a second pair of brothers, and a third pair of brothers conceived by a virgin who was impregnated by the severed head of one of the original brothers that had been part of a fruit tree. This third set of brothers are going to be the heroes of the scripture, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. (The accents are not present in the narrative of Pastwatch.)

The hard part about this myth retelling is that it seems to translate into English some of the names, like One and Seven Death, or Blood Woman, but other times, leaves them alone, as in our heroes’ names, but also in Xibalba, the name of the underworld the brothers go to do they can contest with the primary antagonists for the story. The older set of brothers are eventually tricked and become monkeys because in their jealousy, they never said anything about the special nature of the younger pair and repeatedly left them out to die.

In any case, after the ball game, one of the brothers has to sacrifice the other, but he is able to call him back from the dead. The lords of death are impressed at this and demand to be sacrificed themselves. But One Death doesn’t resurrect, and Seven Death tries to back out. “Thus, in shame, his heart was taken without courage and without consent.” Which complete the revenge of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué against the gods that tricked their relatives.

All of this background is to then introduce a character called Hunahpu Matamoro, third soon of Dolores de Cristo Matamoro. Dolores dies while he’s a toddler, so he never gets his own Xbalanque to be a brother. But because of his name, Hunahpu becomes a scholar of Mesoamerican history and is admitted to Pastwatch on his second attempt from having good enough test scores to join. (Pastwatch seems like the name of a college or university at this point, or a curriculum, rather than an organization of any sort. If that’s true, that they’re at least loosely patterned on academics, where are their IRBs?) Unlike others in the organization, however, Hunahpu has been trying to do something other than observe.

This was his project from the beginning: to find out what would have happened in Mesoamerica if the Spanish had not come. Unlike Tagiri, whose file had a silver tag that meant her oddities were to be indulged, Hunahpu met resistance every step of the way. “Pastwatch watches the past,” he was told again and again. “We don’t speculate on what might have been if the past had not happened the way it happened. There’s no way to test it, and it would have no value even if you got it right.”

Cocowhat by depizan

You can settle every pub quiz question you want by watching the thing itself happening at any speed you want, you can know with certainty the actions of history any time you want, and you’re telling me that nobody is ever going to speculate on what might have been? That there would be no papers or symposia or even zines about the possibilities of an alternate history or what might have happened had someone zigged instead of zagged? That there aren’t people in Pastwatch cataloging disasters with an eye toward “how could this have been prevented?” No way. Humans love to speculate. And much of this book’s great Pastwatchers so far have achieved their greatness by appreciation about what might be possible or speculating about the presence of a grand decision or a civilization existing that’s far older than what recorded history had to say about the matter at the time.

The entire discipline of history often tries to make stories out of the bare parts of recorded reality. With the ability to observe everything, lots of speculation questions get answered, but I’ll bet an entire new set of questions spawned with them, even with the high fidelity of the TruSite II.

I can believe plenty of Pastwatchers might believe that the speculation about what might have been if the Spanish had never come is foolish, because in history they did come. Or that Pastwatch takes a fairly strong stance about the use of the machines so that they don’t have to let every conspiracy theorist try to validate themselves by looking into the past (in addition to whether Jesus rose from the dead, Pastwatch has definitely found out who shot JFK.) But “we don’t speculate, and even if we did, there’s no value in it” is false and disproven by Kemal and what he’s famous for.

Hunahpu is tolerated at best at Pastwatch, and mostly allowed to work on this project, so long as his actual official work doesn’t suffer so much that he’ll get dismissed from the organization, which is apparently always a possibility.

When the confirmation comes through that someone else has already interfered in the timeline, Hunahpu feels like he’s about to have his Kemal moment, because, in his opinion, the speculation about Columbus’s going east and destroying the Muslims is completely wrong, and he’s published the papers to prove it. When no accolades or inquiries come his way, he checks and find out that his published work has been writing into the void, as absolutely nobody has ever read or downloaded his work. So Kemal hasn’t seen it. Hunahpu decides, then, that the only way to get noticed by Kemal is to send him his work and his speculation and see if it gets a reply. In the most provocative way possible. Here’s what he sends:

Columbus was chosen because he was the greatest man of his age, the one who broke the back of Islam. He was sent westward in order to prevent the worst calamity in all of human history: The Tlaxalan conquest of Europe. I can prove it. My public papers have been posted and ignored, as surely as yours would have been if you had not found evidence of Atlantis in the old TruSite I weather recordings. There ARE no recordings of the Tlaxcalan conquest of Europe, but the proof is still there. Talk to me and save yourself years of work. Ignore me and I will go away.

So now we have a pair of potential disasters from the alternate timeline – Columbus goes east with his Crusader vibe and apparently completely wipes out the Muslim caliphates in favor of Christianity. But that is apparently the prologue to another disaster as the Americas, left to their own devices, send overseas conquerors and destroy Latin Christendom themselves. But rather than begin to lay out his case, the narrative pops into another segment of Columbus RPF. Before we get to that, we’ll back up a bit, because before provoking Kemal, Hunahpu has a conversation with his older brothers, one a policeman, and the other a priest, who are concerned about him, and while they are willing to house and feed their brother for a limited amount of time when he’s inevitably thrown out of Pastwatch for chasing delusions, they would rather he devote himself to his actual work. The priest describes the indigenous people of Mesoamerica in this way:

“They would have been bloody-handed human sacrificers, torturers, and self-mutilators who never heard the name of Christ.”

Which, by the rules established in the book, means they would have been worse than the slavers and the human commerce agents. (Still no evidence for this contention, but it’s a Rule.)

Okay, onward to Columbus RPF, where he is trying to figure out how to get the flotilla he needs to go westward, a dubious prospect for a foreigner with no noble connections and not a whole lot of assets to catch the eye of one of the noble families.

Since he had been born with no family connections in Portgual, there was only one way to acquire them. And marriage into a well-connected family, when he had neither fortune nor prospects, was a difficult project indeed. He needed a family on the fringes of nobility, and one that was not on the way up. A rising family would be looking to improve its station by marrying above themselves; a sinking family, especially a junior branch with unlikely daughters and little fortune, might look upon such a foreign adventurer as Columbus with—well, not favor, exactly, but at least tolerance. Or perhaps resignation.

But because this wouldn’t be a book without him succeeding at this, Columbus is eventually able to catch the eye of a young woman named Felipa, who “had her father’s fierceness and her mother’s formidable thickness.” (Her mother, Dona Moriz, is described as “built like a fortress,” so while she’s called “homely,” I want to believe that both Felipa and her mother are strong, athletic, and attractive to a very specific segment of the population who are not most of the chasers she has to deal with.) Columbus is successful in courting Felipa, although to do it he has to relinquish control over his ventures and commercial opportunities to his brother so that he may be a more idle gentleman. Dona Moriz then thinks she has Columbus trapped by announcing that, now that Felipa’s been married, the entire family, including Columbus, will be retiring to the governor’s palace that her son currently manages, a tiny island near Africa. Dona Moriz believes this will keep Columbus from cheating on Felipa and working his way up to higher echelons of mistresses while at court in Lisbon.

Columbus, of course, is delighted to be put right in the middle of the Portuguese trade routes involving Africa, and continues to try and get on voyages so he can learn Portuguese navigation techniques and knowledge about the lands beyond. He also has a son, Diego, by Felipa, and eventually, Dona Moriz is persuaded to let Columbus into the library that houses a significant amount of sailing and navigation information, because

He was, after all, Genovese, and it occurred to more than one ship’s captain that Columbus might have married into a sailing family as a ploy to learn the African coast and then return to Genova and bring Italian ships into competition with the Portuguese. That would be intolerable, of course. So there was never a question of Columbus getting what he really wanted.

Armed with the new information, Columbus devotes himself to figuring out how to calculate the possibility of getting to the other side of the world by systematically shrinking the number of degrees of longitude between the westernmost known point in the world and the possibility of the East. This basically means Felipa and Diego both are neglected, and Columbus refuses to do anything with his family if it doesn’t very specifically involve his quest and trying to get an audience before the king of Portugal to make his pitch. The family does eventually move back to Lisbon, in the hopes that it might get Columbus to take more interest in his wife, but this is not the case.

The worst agony was when he brought her along to some musical performance or to mass or to dine at court, for she knew that the only reason he was accepted among the aristocrats of Lisbon was because he was married to her, and so he needed her on those occasions and they both had to act as though they were husband and wife, and all the while she could barely keep herself from bursting into tears and screaming to everyone that her husband did not love her, that he slept with her perhaps once in a week, twice in a month, and that even that was without genuine affection. If she had ever allowed herself such an outburst, she might have been surprised at how surprised the other women would have been—not that she had such a relationship, but that she found anything wrong with it. It was very nearly the relationship that most of them had with their husbands. Women and men lived in separate worlds; they met only on the bed to produce heirs and on public occasions to enhance each other’s status in the world. Why was he so upset about this? Why didn’t she simply live as they did, a pleasant life of ease among other women, occasionally indulging their children and always relying upon servants to make things go easily?
The answer was, of course, that none of their husbands was Cristovão. None of them burned with his inner fire. None of them had such a deep gravity of passion in his hear, drawing a woman ever closer, even though that deep well in him would drown her and never yield anything, never give off anything that might nourish her or slake her thirst for his love.

Great Man theory, indeed, great in life and in inspiring undying passion, even if he never actually indulges in it because of his desire to sail west at the command of God. I also looks askance at the idea of men and women moving in different spheres, even though that’s a pretty common conceit about the time period in question. I would believe this is normal for those wives who have married because of family reasons and obligations and not for love, because love is a luxury for them, but the generalization seems easily disproven from what records we have, and the situations here men and women are separate are almost always due to active gatekeeping from men, not meek acceptance from women.

Anyway, even though he knows he’s killing his wife with his monomania, Columbus persists, and after laying out his case to the Portuguese king, Columbus is completely crushed when he’s turned down, and that turns out to be the final thing that drives Felipa firmly into illness and death, convinced that Columbus thoroughly hated her because she could not provide him with the one thing he really had desired. Shortly after Felipa’s death, Columbus leaves his son with Franciscan monks in Spain to raise him, having promised Felipa that Diego would inherit everything from Columbus and promised Diego the same. Which makes Diko’s question and Tagiri’s answer from an earlier chapter have a different dimension to it, because it can be very difficult to explain death to a child that doesn’t terrify them in some manner or otherwise cause more age-appropriate questions that need age-appropriate answers. And Columbus refines his calculations to present a better-argued version of his proposal to the king of Spain, on the assumption he will assent to the request, which makes Columbus believe that all of the hardship he suffered and that Diego is suffering will be worth it.

Because even though he had no proof, he knew that he was right.

“I have no proof,” said Hunahpu, “but I know that I’m right.”

Which is a neat little narrative doubling, to pull us from Columbus’s complete faith in the vision that he received to Hunahpu’s complete confidence that he’s also right. He’s talking to Diko, and he makes the distinction shortly after that while he has no proof, he has evidence, and he’ll be more than willing to argue it in from of them. Diko invites Hunahpu to Juba to argue his case in front of her. When he protests about the cost (since he’s not exactly flush from his work with Pastwatch), Diko says they’ll cover his travel expenses. (At which point he asks who she is and she introduces herself to him.) Why is Diko indulging him?

“And do you believe me?”
“I have questions for you,” she said.
“And if you’re satisfied with my answers?”
“Then I’ll be very surprised,” she said. “Everyone knows that the Aztec Empire was on the verge of collapse when Cortés arrived in the 1520s. Everyone also knows that there was no possibility of Mesoamerican technology rivaling European technology in any way. Your speculations about a Mesoamerican conqust of Europe are irresponsible and absurd.”
“And yet you called me.”
“I believe in leaving no stone unturned. You’re a stone that nobody’s turned yet, and so…”
“You’re turning me.”
“Will you come?”
“Yes,” he said. A faint hope was better than no response at all.

…because Diko’s already seen and done six impossible things before breakfast, a seventh wouldn’t actually throw her for any larger of a loop. She demands Hunahpu’s bibliography to read over his papers while he travels, so that they can have it out with each other shortly after his arrival, and mentions that Tagiri’s division of Pastwatch will put in for a paid leave of absence with Hunahpu’s so he can come consult. Diko signs off with the hope that Hunahpu’s not a crackpot, and the rest of the chapter is Hunahpu having a conversation with his supervisor, where his firing has just been averted by Diko’s request.

“I was in the middle of writing a recommendation that you be steered to another line of work,” she said. “Then this comes in. A request from the Columbus project for your presence next week. Will I grant you a paid leave of absence.”
“It would be cheaper for you to fire me,” he said, “but it’ll be harder for me to help them in Juba if I lose my access to the Pastwatch computer system.”
She looked at him with thinly-veiled consternation. “Are you telling me that you aren’t a crazy, self-willed, time-wasting, donkey-headed fool after all?”
“No guarantees,” he said. “That may end up being the list that everybody agrees to.”
“No doubt,” she said. “But you’ve got your leave, and you can stay with us until it’s over.”
“I hope it turns out to be worth the cost,” he said.
“It will,” she said. “Your salary during this leave is coming out of their budget.” She grinned at him. “I actually do like you, you know,” she pointed out. “I just don’t think you’ve caught the vision of what Pastwatch is all about.”
“I haven’t,” said Hunahpu. [There’s a typo that misnames him “Hanahpu” here.] “I want to change the vision.”
“Good luck. If you turn out to be a genius after all, remember that I never once for a moment believed in you.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling. “I’ll never forget that.”

And with that vote of confidence, the chapter finishes.

I realize this is supposed to be banter between the lovable screw-up and the patient but ultimately unsympathetic supervisor and very friendly, but it also reads a little bit like someone being more frank with someone they expect never to see again, either because Hunahpu is right and the Columbus Project will swallow him up completely, or he’s wrong and they’ll fire him from Pastwatch shortly after his return and that will be the end of it. Perhaps Hunahpu will have a more fulfilling career as a novelist with some really good alternate history narratives. I have no idea if that’s even a viable career, or whether the products of Pastwatch are now the only entertainment everyone has. Or whether this branch of Pastwatch is a lot less likely to deliver silver tags to their eccentrics compared to others.

Also, despite what we said about how Pastwatch should have done a number on the question of whether Christians are right, there are still (presumably Roman Catholic) priests in the world of Pastwatch. I wonder whether their doctrine had changed significantly since they became able to look back into the past and see whether they are blest because they have seen and believed, rather than having to rely on a lot of “not seen and believed” for faith. Or to look at what the actual deliberations were around the council of Nicaea, or exactly what happened when Luther nailed the theses. Miracles should have been documented for their reality or explained by some natural phenomenon or an artifice. All of the things that could have potentially already been observed, and then observed again with greater fidelity should have massively reworked any religious beliefs that relied on the miraculous through history.

In any case, next week Hunahpu presents his case that if not for the Spanish arriving, a Mesoamerican empire would have solidified and then eventually turned outward toward conquest over the oceans and seas.

Deconstruction Roundup for November 25, 2022

(by the Slacktiverse and others; collected by Silver Adept, who hopes that you have made plans on how to make it through the December holidays.

The point of these posts is threefold:

  1. To let people stay up to date on ongoing deconstructions. (All ones on our list, including finished and stalled ones, here.)
  2. To let people who can’t comment elsewhere have a place to comment.
  3. To let people comment in a place where people who can’t read Disqus can see what they have to say.

Elizabeth Sandifer: Eruditorum Press

Ross: A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Silver Adept: Here on The Slacktiverse

Let us know, please, if there are errors in the post. Or if you don’t want to be included. Or if there’s someone who you think should be included, which includes you. We can use more content. Or if you’re posting a little late because you were reminding yourself why you don’t play games for long periods of time yourself.

Pastwatch: The Grand Moment

Last time, we were introduced to another character, Kemal, whose claim to Pastwatch fame is that he discovered a civilization that existed thousands of years before the records of everyone, a civilization that is the origins of the legend of Atlantis, and also of Noah, and of a man in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Kemal comes to Tagiri’s slavery project to argue that slavery is a necessary good and essential to the timeline because it replaces the practice of human sacrifice, and that it is on the backs of the labor of the exploited that cities and civilization and great scientific advancements are possible. (All of us have pointed out, in return, that Card doesn’t make this case well.)

At the end of the last chapter, Diko announced that she might have found the final link in the Columbus chain: the point in time where he commits to going west and to the course of slavery and exploitation of the civilizations of the Americas. The meeting is abandoned to see her evidence.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Chapter 5: Content Notes:

This chapter is titled “Vision,” which is probably multi-layered given how the Pastwatch machines work and that the thing that sends Tagiri on her quest is a reported vision of the future by the people who were being observed in the past. The chapter itself starts with more Columbus RPF, where Columbus has done pretty well for himself in his quest to be seen as and behave as a gentleman. He succeeded at getting onto a voyage with someone more powerful, and parlayed a small amount of cargo into a reasonable profit in trade, and from there, made a very public donation to the Church in the name of the man whose convoy he had managed to get aboard, Nicoló Spinola. Spinola sends for him, listens to his prepared speech about why he gave the money to the Church rather than to Spinola as a patron, and tells Columbus to practice at making those speeches sound natural if he wants to go far. And then invites Columbus on another convoy, placing him in charge of a much greater amount of cargo than what he had before. This particular voyage is going to be much less well-fated, as pirates will take the entire flotilla of ships and Columbus will be forced to flee and swim to safety. Columbus, on this voyage, is still trying to learn whatever he can about the craft of sailing, navigating, captaining, supervising, and all the other parts that will make him a gentleman and a merchant.

They even called him “Signor Colombo.” That hadn’t happened much before. His fatehr was only rarely called “signor,” despite the fact that in recent years Cristoforo’s earnings had allowed Domenico Colombo to prosper, moving the weaving shop to larger quarters and wearing finer clothing and riding a horse like a gentleman and buying a few small houses outside the city walls so he could play the landlord. So the title was certainly not one that came readily to one of Christoforo’s birth. On this voyage, however, it was not just the sailors but also the captain himself who gave Columbus the courtesy title. It was a sign of how far he had come, this basic respect—but not as important a sign of having the trust of the Spinolas.

Those of us who have the benefit of being able to see history know that what Columbus was told makes a gentleman is absolutely true: having land, money, and all the visual signs of being a noble makes it much more likely that someone is going to perceive you as a noble, regardless of what your origins might have been. And while Columbus is thinking about the possibility of going on a crusade to the east, he’s also having some feelings about whether his choice of methods are appropriately holy.

What a hypocrite I am, thought Cristoforo. To pretend that my motives are pure. I laid my purse from Chios into the bishop’s own hands—but then used it to advance my cause with Nicoló Spinola. And even then, it wasn’t the whole purse. I’m wearing a good part of it; a gentleman has to have the right clothes or people don’t call him signor. And much more of it went to Father, to buy houses and dres Mother like a lady. Hardly the perfect offering of faith. Do I want to become rich and influential in order to serve God? Or do I serve God in hopes that it will make me rich and influential?
Such were the doubts that plagued him, between his dreams and plans. Most of the time, though, he spent pumping the captain and the navigator or studying the charts or staring at the coasts they passed, making his own maps and calculations, as if he were the first ever to see this place.

He’s doing the charting because the maps they have are full of errors and omissions. At least at this moment, I wonder what Card (and Card’s Columbus) would think about the prosperity gospel that has a significant part of the U.S.’s Christians in its thrall. Because that philosophy is deliberately meant to resolve this conflict, by insisting that those who gain material wealth and power do so because they are favored by God and therefore they don’t have to worry about whether or not what they’re doing is godly or in line with the doctrines. If they propsper, what they are doing is holy and right. If they don’t, then it isn’t. Nevermind any parts of the scriptures that talk about how the people who give from their excesses are less favored by God than those who give from their stores and trust that God will provide, or the oft-quoted part where it’s easier for camels to pass through the eyes of needles than for rich men to enter the kingdom of God. Or, even outside the questions of God, the debate going on about whether billionaires using their fortunes in philanthropic ways is right, natural, and normal, because the money they earned (often “earned” as they are usually drawing salary for supervision of others doing work or from rents collected) is theirs to do what they want with, or whether the existence of a a billionaire (or even a millionaire) is an indicator of a serious fault in society that allows the accumulation and hoarding of wealth to that degree rather than redistributing it back to improve the lives of everyone. Ultimately, Columbus is still going to keep walking on the pathway of gathering wealth and power to himself, so that he can convince people with even greater amounts of wealth to fund expeditions and crusades.

The narrative goes through the corsair attack and how Columbus eventually has to abandon his own ship, even as he’s set some of the pirate ships on fire and tried to make the victory more pyrrhic for them. Columbus is able to save a child who can’t swim, and at this moment, with the child in a boat and himself in the water, he makes a prayer to God about his future.

“The Hagia Sophia will once again hear the music of the holy mass,” he murmured. “Only save me alive, dear God.”

At which point the narrative breaks out to Diko, Kemal, Hassan, and Tagiri, so I guess all of this RPF is supposed to be what it’s like to watch the past through the TempoView or the TruSite II? Kemal wants to know why Diko’s been showing them this, and Diko replies that even at this point in his life, Columbus’s ambitions are still pointed to the east, to Constantinople, but by the time he gets back from this advenure, he’s now firmly pointed westward. Hassan praises the narrowing of the window of opportunity, and Diko chides him that she didn’t find the week, she found the exact time, and that, as best as she can tell, it’s going to look and sound like God Himself did talk to Columbus. And then we go forward with more Columbus RPF, where he gets washed ashore. The narrative pops out again to Diko, who explains that everyone knows what’s going to happen from here, because they’ve seen it in the TempoView for a while – a woman will come to find him, she’ll nurse him back to health, and then going forward, Columbus will be irrevocably focused on sailing westward. Diko explains that the greater fidelity of the TruSite II allows them to see something that the TempoView did not. And what they see is something not completely substantial, and the words that the entities speak are quiet, but when the narrative dips back into the RPF section, it’s extremely clear to Columbus what he’s seeing.

The vision resolved itself into two men, shining with a faint nimbus around them. And on the shoulder of the smaller of the two men there sat a dove. There could be no doubt in the mind of any medieval man, especially one who had read as much as Cristoforo, what this vision was supposed to represent. The Holy Trinity. Almost he spoke their names aloud. But they were still speaking, calling him by name in languages he had never heard.
Then, finally: “Columbus, you are my true servant.”
Yes, with all my heart I am.
“You have turned your heart to the east, to liberate Constantinople from the Turk.”
My prayer, my promise was heard.
“I have seen your faith and your courage, and that is why I spared your life on the water today. I have a great work for you to do. But it is not Constantinople to which you must bring the cross.”
Jerusalem, then?
“Nor is it Jerusalem, or any other nation touched by the waters of the Mediterranean. I saved you alive so you could carry the cross to lands much farther east, so far to the east that they can be reached only by sailing westward into the Atlantic.”
Cristoforo could hardly grasp what they were telling him. Nor could he bear to look upon them anymore—what mortal man had the right to gaze directly upon the face of the resurrected Saviour, let alone the Almighty or the dove of the Holy Spirit? Never mind that this was only a vision, he could not look at them anymore. He lowered his head forward into the sand so he could not see them anyomre, but listened all the more intently.
[…the voice lays out that there are kingdoms where people live and die unbaptized, and that Columbus’s charge is to bring Christianity to them and to take their riches and bring them back with him, with the promise of greatness for him if he succeeds, and the threat of disaster to all Christians if he should fail. The entities also enjoin Columbus from discussing the vision with anyone else, and mention that they don’t really care what the motivations of those who join the sacred calling is, just so long as it gets done…]
No, he would sail west. But how would he get a ship? Not in Genova. Not after the ship he had been entrusted with was sunk. Besides, the ships of Genova were not fast enough, and they wallowed too low in the open water of the ocean.
God had brought him to the Portuguese shore, and the Portuguese were the great sailors, the daring explorers of the world. Would he not be the viceroy of kings? He would find a way to win the sponsorship of the King of Portugal. And if not him, then another king, or some other man and not a king at all. He would succeed, for God was with him.

And the narrative pulls back out to Diko and the rest, who all agree that this would certainly qualify as the moment of decision for Columbus, and why he believed he was on a mission from God.

“That was not God,” said Kemal.
“I hope not,” said Hassan. “I didn’t like seeing that Christian Trinity. I found it—disappointing.”
“Show this anywhere in the Muslim world,” said Kemal, “and the rioting would not stop until every Pastwach installation within their reach was destroyed.”
“As you said, Kemal,” said Tagiri, “it was not God. Because this vision was not visible to Columbus alone. All the other great visions of history have been utterly subjective. This one we saw, but not on the Tempoview. Only the TruSite II was able to detect it, and we already know that when the TruSite II is used, it can cause people in the past to see those who are watching.”
“One of us? That message was sent by Pastwatch?” asked Kemal, angry at the thought of one of them meddling with history.

Diko points out it wouldn’t be one of them doing this, because they already live in the time period where Columbus sails, and is convinced of things he hasn’t seen.

I’m curious, again, at the way in which seeing something dressed in the trappings of the Trinity seems to have been so unsettling for Hassan, and Kemal basically confirms the idea that showing something like that as a historical event would cause widespread rioting in Muslim places. Nobody thinks about whether, say, Jewish people would be similarly upset at this Trinitarian interpretation of reality, or whether other Christians who are not so Trinitarian in their outlook would have similar problems. It’s all very focused on how the Muslims will be the ones rioting. Admittedly, Card doesn’t have the advantage of hindsight on the fiasco of the Global War On Terror and the subsequent demonization of Muslims as a whole for all of that time. Or the significant rise in visibility of Christofascism in the United States over that same amount of time, with the various riots and violence done in the name of God against his supposed enemies. But the fact that he’s talking about Crusades and the great violence that was and still only chooses to say that the Muslims will be the ones rioting suggests that he, like Columbus, has specific opinions about how Muslims behave, even if he supposedly has a couple of practicing Muslims in this book. Card, as well as his Columbus, has bought into the idea of Muslim terrorists, or that Muslim empires were bad and awful and Christian empires are good and just, and he keeps having his Muslims be the ones to talk about how awful and terrible they are, without any similar commentary from any other characters.

What’s additionally an issue is that Diko has pointed out that it’s very clearly not any god, but instead evidence that Pastwatch has done something to specifically influence this decision. Kemal suggests that it’s not necessarily this Pastwatch, either.

“But look at you. You are the people in Pastwatch who are determined to reach back into the past and make things better. So let’s say that in another version of history, another group within a previous iteration of Pastwatch discovered they could change the past, and they did it. Let’s say that they decided that the most terrible event in all of history was the last crusade, the one led by the son of a Genovese weaver. Why not? In that history, Columbus turned his unrelenting ambiion toward the goal he had right before this vision. He comes to shore and interprets his survival as God’s favor. He pursues the crusade to liberate Constantinople with the same charm, the same relentlessness that we have seen in him on his other mission. Eventually he leads an aarmy in a bloody war against the Turk. What if he wins? What if he destroys the Seljuk Turks, and then sweeps on into all the Muslim lands, wreaking blood and carnage in the normal European Christian maner? The great Muslim civilizations might be destroyed, and with it who knows what treasures of knowledge. What if Columbus’s crusade was seen as the worst event in all of history—and the people of Pastwatch decided, as you have, that they must make things better? The result is our history. The devastation of the Americas. And the world is dominated by Europe all the same.”

Which is a good argument for a stable time loop that will wobble back and forth between the various decisions of “Columbus is the destroyer of the Americas” and “Columbus is the destroyer of the Muslims.” Without a way of the two timelines to communicate with each other and realize they’re looping, nothing will happen. Kemal, however, wants to take it to his preferred conclusion.

“Who is to say that the change these people made didn’t end up with a worse result than the events they tried to avoid?” Kemal grinned at them wickedly. “The arrogance of those who wish to play God. And that’s exactly what they did, isn’t it? They played God. The Trinity, to be exact. The dove was such a nice touch. Yes, by all means, look at this scene a thousand times. And every time you see those poor actors pretending to be the Trinity, fooling Columbus into turning away from his crusade and embarkin on a westward voyage that devastated a world, I hope you see yourselves. It was people just like you who caused all that suffering.”

Kemal really wants to stick it to Tagiri that her hubris is likely to cause catastrophe up and down the timeline, doesn’t he? And there’s probably some aspects of these things that would be easier for me to tease apart if I had some gender studies training, but I’m pretty sure there’s something that’s off about an arrogant European-culturalist man telling an African woman that she’s wrong, she’s going to cause untold disaster, and that all of the great advances of civilization are at risk because she’s trying to erase the commerce of people from a specific point in the timeline. There’s besically no compassion for Tagiri’s position from Kemal’s, and I’d bet Black scholars could tear this apart with ease and viciousness about how it’s replicating imperialist and colonizer mentalities in a very Western view.

Getting back to the plot, Hassan points out that the specifics of the message and the dire warnings about how Christianity itself will suffer suggest that the people from the alternate Pastwatch are trying to avert a major disaster that would come from Columbus going east instead of west, and Tagiri suggests that they have just the person to figure out what the alternate history is and what disaster looms from Columbus going east.

Tagiri smiled nastily at Kemal. “I know one man of unflagging persistence and great wisdom and quick judgement. He is just the man to undertake the project of determining what it was that this vision was meant to avoid, or what it was meant to accomplish. For some reason the people of that other future determined to send Columbus west. Someone must head the project of finding out what. And you, Kemal, you’re doing nothing productive at all, are you? Your great days are behind you, and now you’re reduced to going about telling other people that their dreams are not woth accomplishing.”
For a moment it seemed that Kemal might strike her, so cruel was her assessment of him. But he did not raise his hand, and after a long moment he turned and left the room.
“Is he right, Mother?” asked Diko.
“More to the point,” said Hassan, “will he make trouble for us?”
“I think he’ll head the project of finding out what ould have happened,” said Tagiri. “I think the problem will take hold of him and won’t let go and he’ll end up working with us.”
“Oh good,” murmured someone dryly, and they all laughed.
“Kemal as an enemy is formidable, but Kemal as a friend is irreplaceable,” said Tagiri. “He found Atlantis, didn’t he, when no one believed it even needed to be discovered? He found the great flood. He found Yewesweder. And if anyone can, he’ll find what history would have been, or at least a plausible scenario. And we’ll be glad to be working with him.” She grinned. “We mad people, we’re stubborn and unreasonable and impossible to deal with, but there is a certain breed of willing victim that chooses to work with us anyway.”
The others laughed, but few of them thought that Kemal was anything like their beloved Tagiri.

The chapter ends with Tagiri pointing out that Diko’s discovery proves the success of using the TruSite II to manipulate the past, and that whatever this other future did, they might be able to do it better.

Which finally gets us to what will hopefull be the first serious effort to justify why Columbus is the linchpin of history, through Kemal’s investigation into what disaster awaits those who allow Columbus to turn eastward. All the same, however, I note that we have pruned the tree of alternate possibilities significantly to a binary option, and that both of those options are going to end poorly for someone on an apocalyptic scale. We’ve been pushed into thinking of this as the calculus of sacrificing the Americas to colonization and human commerce versus sacrificing whatever Kemal decides is the alternate history’s disaster (sacrificing the Muslim empires, likely) and there are no winning scenarios here, only choices of who lives and who dies. Hassan’s group was supposed to have been researching other potential targets and other possibilities, but at least according to the narrative, because nobody can predict what the ripple effects would be from going in those directions, there hasn’t been much progress in finding someone other than Columbus to target their efforts. I guess, now that Kemal is on board and his pride has been savaged sufficiently by Tagiri, he will figure out how to make the calculations of the alternate history so he can prove his position that the curent history that they know is the best of all possible worlds.

The narrative, in introducing Kemal, has signposted us to the idea that a viable future might be possible in a world where Columbus still sails west (thus avoiding the disaster of Columbus’s Crusade) but that he fails to return and none of his correspondence makes it back to the origin point, so that the rush of colonizers doesn’t follow him immediately over the seas. The Great Man gets thwarted at the last step of his journey and the Americas are theoretically saved. (Even though we know that the reality will be that if Columbus fails, someone else will succeed and bring human commerce and colonization with them anyway, and we will be talking about a French colonizer or an English one, rather than Columbus specifically.) We’ll see if this scenario gets talked about, or any of the “perhaps you should aim somewhere else other than Columbus” scenarios, or the “what if we just squashed the concept of human commerce every time it appears in history?” scenario. And that’s assuming that someone does figure out what the secret sauce is for using the TruSite to affect history, rather than observe it.

And, as all of you have been noting in all of this, now that they have confirmation that affecting the past can be done, when will Pastwatch-the-organization swoop in on them, shut them down, and bury their research so deeply nobody else will find it in the vaults? Because that’s the kind of thing that would draw the immediate attention of an oversight body if it were mentioned to them. Whether an academic body or a governmental one.

Next week begins the search for evidence. (Which is the title of the next chapter, just so we’re clear.)

Deconstruction Roundup for November 18, 2022

(by the Slacktiverse and others; collected by Silver Adept, who has eliminated a possible cause of woe, and is now turning a baleful eye toward other suspects.)

The point of these posts is threefold:

  1. To let people stay up to date on ongoing deconstructions. (All ones on our list, including finished and stalled ones, here.)
  2. To let people who can’t comment elsewhere have a place to comment.
  3. To let people comment in a place where people who can’t read Disqus can see what they have to say.

Elizabeth Sandifer: Eruditorum Press

Ross: A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Silver Adept: Here on The Slacktiverse

Let us know, please, if there are errors in the post. Or if you don’t want to be included. Or if there’s someone who you think should be included, which includes you. We can use more content. Or if you’re posting a little late because you weren’t feeling great last night and decided to take sleep over a multitude of other possibilities.

Pastwatch: Another Component

Last time, Diko, child of Hassan and Tagiri, stepped up to the plate and took a mighty swing at figuring out where Columbus gets his motivation from, a story of a young boy determined to improve his station in life so that he’s not condemned to live as a weaver’s son, looked down upon by nobles who fight each other without a care to how it might play out for the social classes below them. And then, she vows to find the missing link that neither Tagiri nor Hassan has found so far, so that if the project of affecting the past ever proves fruitful, they’ll know exactly where to stick the wedge to change everything.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Chapter 4: Content Notes: False Equivalencies, Slavery Apologia, Cultural Imperialism

Chapter 4 is called “Kemal,” and Kemal is introduced to us with a boast in the same vein that Tagiri was introduced to us:

The Santa Maria sank on a reef on the north shore of Hispaniola, due to Columbus’s foolhardiness in sailing at night and the inattention of the pilot. But the Niña and the Pinta did not sink; they sailed home to report to Europe on the vast lands awaiting them to the west, triggering a westward flood of immigrants, conquerors, and explorers that wouldn’t stop for five hundred years. If Columbus was to be stopped, the Niña and the Pinta could not return to Spain.
The man who sank them was Kemal Akyazi, and the path that brought him to Tagiri’s poject to change history was a long and strange one.

Which is a pretty badass claim, I have to say. I also note that this particular situation is now not just diverting Columbus, but committing murder on the crews of two ships to stop Columbus, which seems to be a bit less surgical than Tagiri or Diko is looking for as the attack vector.

The narrative explains to us that Kemal’s interest in the past is sparked by reading about a man, Heinrich Schliemann, who believed that the legends and stories surrounding the city of Troy were descriptive rather than fanciful, and was eventually vindicated when able to unearth the city on a dig. Kemal was disappointed that there will be no more expeditions like Schliemann’s, now that they have the ability to view the past in perfect fidelity, and so he turns down recruitment into Pastwatch, and eventually settles on becoming a meteorologist in an attempt to feed his desire for exploration and discovery. Which also brings him back into the loop of Pastwatch, because being able to view the past has made possible to determine with certainty all of the historical patterns of climate and weather (and, in fact, the TruSite I had such low fidelity that it was perfect for studying big patterns like weather, erosion, and other such things that were not so fine-grained as human) and the data of Pastwatch, combined with other machines (at least, I assume it’s combined with other machines, rather than using the TruSite I models directly), makes it possible for the meteorologists to make small nudges to the weather patterns so as to smooth out the distributions, so that the droughts never have any area going completely without rain and the wet seasons never have a place that doesn’t get some sun. Having successfully smoothed the edges, the meteorologists are gearing up to start making more major changes, like trying to get constant rain falling over the desert areas to rejuvenate them. Kemal is studying to see what might be a suitable source to use to create this constant rainfall, but he’s also looking at the major climate change events of the world, like the Ice Age and the age of global warming, and how that made the waters recede and swell, and a specific event where the Indian Ocean eventually overwhelmed everything and flooded the Red Sea to its own level. Kemal thinks that flood is the story of Noah, and also

the immortal Utnapishtim, the flood survivor that Gilgamesh visited. Siusudra of the Sumerian flood story. Atlanis.

Kemal isn’t as interested in the details of where it supposedly happened, figuring that the tellers forgot where the event happened or eventually localized it, but he does believe that the event itself was momentous enough to be remembered. And, specifically, because he believes that all the flood stories are referring to this specific event, he’s certain that Atlantis doesn’t lie in the Mediterranean, not near Santorini, but instead in the specific valley flooded under by the Red Sea event, and all other stories of Atlantis just have the details wrong.

Thinking about this makes Kemal happy, because that means there’s still things to be discovered after all. Shortly after that, though, reality strikes: If his suppositions are true, then Pastwatch would have had ample opportunity to discover Atlantis, record it, and otherwise study it into oblivion. Why haven’t they? His conclusion is because history is too vast to have been completely mapped, and it’s only recently, with the TruSite II, that there’s enough fidelity to study the idea and prove or disprove it. He supposes “the new machines that were precise enough to track individual human beings would never have been used to look at oceans where nobody lived.”

Pastwatch had simply never looked through their precise new machines to see what was under the water of the Red Sea in the waning centuries of the last Ice Age. And they never would look, either, unless someone gave them a compelling reason.
Kemal understood bureaucracy enough to know that he, a student meteorologist, would hardly be taken seriously if he brought an Atlantis theory to Pastwatch—particularly a theory that put Atlantis in the Red Sea of all places, and fourteen thousand years ago, long before civilizations arose in Sumeria or Egypt, let alone China or the Indus Valley or amond the swamps of Tehuantepec.

Kemal doesn’t say that he’d be laughed out as having an unserious theory, but that’s basically the implications here, even if they’re attributed to “bureaucracy.” His meteorological training and data suggests that the place and time would have the possibility of a civilization, based on observations of things like the history of the Zula river and its surroundings and some extrapolation about the flows and volumes of other rivers in the area that would create a reliable source of fresh water, silt to keep the soil refreshed, and a transportation network for any civilization that sprung up there. It’s only “six or seven thousand years too early,” but Kemal believes that if the civilization that got flooded out saw it as a sign from the gods that cities themselves were evil (citing Cain and Abel as a story about the evils of being a city-dweller), then they would take the stories of their great civilization, and tell those stories, but they wouldn’t try to rebuild, because they were certain the only thing that would happen would be the destruction of the second city. (I mean, if the first one falls over and sinks into the swamp, and the second one does, an the third one catches fire and then falls over and sinks into the swamp, why should anyone believe the fourth one will stand up, except for the part where it’s built on the corpses of the other three?)

Right about here, I’m going to note again that while Card is good at giving his characters different places of origin (Kemal is a Turk, Tagiri is an African, Hassan is an Arab), he’s extremely bad at using other cosmologies in his stories. Hassan is nominally a Muslim, and Tagiri is not a Christian (or not a very devout one, or she would have reacted much more strongly when Hassan called them basically insane a couple of chapters ago), but Kemal’s reasoning here is Noah, Cain and Abel, Nimrod and the Tower of Babel, and Genesis. There’s been references in this chapter to Gilgamesh and the Illiad, and to Plato’s descruption of Atlantis, but this line of reasoning of finding Atlantis is based pretty firmly in a Christian cosmology, even though supposedly Kemal’s working with an ur-story or a monomyth, one where the specific implementations of the story change the details that are unimportant to the plot of the story while leaving the core alone. If Kemal were making cross-mythological connections, such that this bit from the Christian tradition were followed on by, say, how many of the origin stories of the indigenous people of the Americas mention a flood from which humans eventually emerge (and that some of the peoples are thought to originate from a Central Asian area), and then a reference to another cosmology involving great rain and so forth, then I would put more credence into his idea of a major story shared and remembered by a very early society. Because we get this:

Not until a Nimrod came, a tower builder, a Babel-maker who defied the old religion, would the ancient proscription be overcome at last and another city rise up, in another river valley far in time and space from Atlantis, but remembering the old ways that had been memorialized in the stories and, as far as possible, replicating them. We will build a tower so high that it can’t be immersed. Didn’t Genesis link the flood with Babel in just that way, complete with the nomads’ stern disapproval of the city? This was the story that survived in Mesopotamia—this tale of the beginning of city life there, but with clear memories of a more ancient civilization that had been destroyed in a flood.

but it’s not then cross-referenced with something else from that same era or another story about similar hubris or actions from the gods in contemporary culture to this one.

Kemal needs access to the Tempoview or a TrueSite II to confim this hypothesis, but he needs evidence first to be able to access the machine he can use to confirm it, and so he spins on that circular logic until he hits on the idea of being able to find his evidence in the recordings he already has.

Until he thought: Why do large cities form in the first place? Because there are public works to do that require more than a few people to accomplish them. Kemal wasn’t sure what form the public works might take, but surely would have made something that would change the face of the land plainly enough that the old TruSite I recordings would show it, though it wouldn’t be noteceable unless someone was looking for it.

Lo and behold, he does find “irrefutable” data supporting his hypothesis in the form of “seemingly random heaps of mud and earth that grew beteween rainy seasons, especially in the drier years when the rivers were lower than usual.” For Kemal, these heaps are evidence that someone is dredging the rivers to make sure their boats can still use them as a transport network even in the dry times. He can even see a flash or two of a reed hut in the recordings, but they’re never around long enough for the TruSite I to pick up on them clearly. Presenting his hypothesis to Pastwatch gets a TruSite II tuned to the area and time period he’s suggesting, and it turns out there is a civilizaion right where he said they would be, six or seven thousand years earlier than the previously-known earliest civilization, people that get called the Atlanteans for a hot second, before we are told they call themselves the Derku.

In an era where other humans were still following game animals and gathering berries, the Atlanteans were planing amaranth and ryegrass, melons and beans in the rich wet silt of the receding rivers, and carrying food in baskets and on reed boats from place to place. The only think that Kemal had missed was that most of the buildings weren’t houses at all. They were floating silos for the storage of grain. The Atlanteans slept under the open air during the dry season, and in the rainy season they lived on their tiny reed boats.

We learn a little bit more about these people, including a person witht he given name Yewesweder, who Kemal confidently points to as the person who will eventually become Noah in the stories, because he takes the adult name Naog, and because he’s the one who goes out and observes the fact that very shortly, there will be a much greater flood coming in than the usual yearly floods. So he builds himself a floating houseboat, which is recognized as a superior seedboat for storage (and ends up with “‘half his clan’s stored grain and beans” inside it.) Others attempt clones and copies, but because they’re not built to the exacting specifications, when the flood comes, only Naog, “his two wives, their small children, the three slaves that had helped with the construction of the boat, and the slaves’ families” survive the whole thing, and they wash up around Sinai, which allows Naog to become Noah and tell his story of the great flood and the displeasure of their God at the presence of cities and similar displeasure at human sacrifice.

In a way this linkage between human sacrifice and city-building was unfortunate, because when city-building was resumed by deliberate heretics rejecting the old wisdom of Naog many generations later, human sacrifice came along as part of the package. In the long run, though, Naog got his way, for even those societies that gave human offerings to their gods felt they were doing something dark and dangerous, and eventually human sacrifice became regarded first as barbaric, then as an unspeakable atrocity throughout the lands touched by the story of Naog.

That’s an assertion someone can make, but only as far as “there aren’t any current major religious practices that consider the idea of sacrificing a human life to appease a god as of the time of this writing,” because it’s pretty clear that there’s still a great belief in city-building and in human sacrifice going on in our current times. We just call it capitalism, and for most people, the question of whether we are willing to sacrifice humans is already settled and we are really negotiating the price at which it becomes acceptable to do so.

Also, I’d like to bookmark the fact that Naog had slaves at this point, because Kemal is eventually going to get linked up with Tagiri’s slavery project, since he’s the one that sunk ships, and therefore he is going to have a piece of the puzzle to contribute, namely that if slavery existed in this ur-civilization before the known civilizations, then it would be a really good target for someone who wanted to quash the concept of slavery at the root and see what the ripples would be from there and what places would need their own reinforcing squash as they independently tried to recreate the concept.

Also, I’m having a vague wonder as to how much of the Christianity stuff that’s being discussed so far is LDS-specific Christianity, including this origin story of Noah. I’m not familiar enough with all the ways that Mormons / Latter-Day Saints diverge from other Christian denominations and the contents of the additional scriptures they use, so if there’s something here that requires a specific “hey, that’s specifically an LDS belief” flag, please let me know. (Or if this is something that has nothing to do with LDS Christianity and is Card doing some Biblical RPF, that’s worth knowing, too.)

Kemal had found Atlantis, he had found the origin of Noah and Utnapishtim and Ziusudra. His childhood dream had been fulfilled; he had played the Schliemann role and made the greatest discovery of them all. What remained now seemed to him to be clerical work.
[…So Kemal quits the project and focuses on raising a family, but soon he gets fascinated by the idea of civlization itself. Anything that Noah touched he dismisses as reliant on Atlantis, but that leaves some places without that touch…]
The only civilization that grew up out of nothing, without the Atlantis legend, was in the Americas, where the story of Naog had not reached, except in legends borne by the few seafarers who crossed the barrier oceans. The land bridge to American had been buried in water for ten generations before the Red Sea basin was flooded. It took ten thousand years after Atlantis for civilization to arise there, among the Olmecs of the marshy land on the southern shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Kemal’s new project was to study the differences between the Olmecs and the Atlanteans and, by seeing what elements they had in common, determine what civilization actually was: why it arose, what it consisted of, and how human beings adapted to giving up the tribe and living in the city.
He was in his early thirties when he began his Origins project. He was almost forty when word of the Columbus project reached him and he came to Tagiri to offer her all that he had learned so far.

Perhaps it’s a recent theory that’s come to exist alongside the land bridge migration, such that Card wouldn’t have known about it while writing the story, but I believe current scholarship on the origins of the peoples of the Americas include seafaring peoples who settled and eventually populated the continents as well as those who might have migrated over a land bridge available during the ice age that had exposed it.

Also, despite having learned the name for the Derku, Kemal continues to use a wrong name for them, which is the sort of thing I expect out of an arrogant white scientist, rather than someone who has spent a lot of time getting to know the people. Then again, Kemal thinks contemptuously of Juba, the city, by calling it “one of those annoying cities where the locals tried to pretend they had never heard of Europe.” As opposed to, say, being proud of their locality and contemptuous of people who come from the land of their colonizers. Actually, let’s look at the fuller description.

Juba was one of those annoying cities where the locals tried to pretend they had never heard of Europe. The Nile Rail brought Kemal into a station as modern as anywhere else, but when he came outside, he found himself in a city of grass huts and mud fences, with dirt roads and naked children running around and the adults scarcely better clothed. If the idea was to make the visitor think he had stepped back in time into primitive Africa, then for a moment it worked. The open houses clearly could not be air-conditioned, and wherever their power station and solar collectors were located, Kemal certainly couldn’t see them. And yet he knew they were somewhere, and not far away, just like the water purification system and the satellite dishes.He knew that these naked children went to a clean, modern school and used the latest computer equipment. He knew that the bare-breasted young woman and the thong-clad young man went somewhere at night to watch the latest videos, or not watch them; to dance, or not dance, to the same new music that was all the rage in Recife, Madras, and Semarang. Above all, he knew that somewhere—probably underground—was one of Pastwatch’s major installations, housing as it did both the slavery project and the Columbus project.
So why pretend? Why make your lives into a perpetual museum of an era where life was nasty, brutish, and short? [Thank you, Thomas Hobbes.] Kemal loved the past as much as any man or woman now alive, but he had no desire to live in it, and he thought sometimes that it was just a bit sick for these people to reject their own era and raise their kids like primitive tribesmen. He thought of what it might have been like to grow up like a primitive Turk, drinking fermented mare’s milk or, worse, horse’s blood, while dwelling in a yurt and practicing with a sowrd until he could cut off a man’s head with a single blow from horseback. Who would want to live in such terrible times? Study them, yes. Remember the great accomplishments. But not live like those people. The citizens of Juba of two hundred years before had got rid of the grass huts and built European-style dwellings as quickly as they could. They knew. The people who had had to live in grass huts had no regrets about leaving them behind.

I suppose I have to give Card credit for not making all of his characters the same, but Kemal is basically that bro so convinced of his own culture’s superiority that he has no perspective onto why someone would want to do anything differently than himself, that, shock and horror, some people might want to keep their ancestral traditions alive and not be subsumed into a greater homogenizing whole. Even if it’s likely that the lifestyle here is much more like the SCA’s re-implementation of their chosen time period, where everyone is a noble, nobody is a slave or peasant, and the good stuff gets taken and the less good stuff gets buried, there’s still value in learning the ways of your ancestors and the traditions and traditional techniques of things.

Diko comes to meet Kemal, and Kemal takes an instant dislike to her driving.

It was fortunate that this sort of lorry, designed for short hauls, couldn’t go faster than about thirty kilometers an hour, or he was sure he would have been pitched out in no time, the way this insane young woman rattled headlong over the rutted road.

I’m also going to assume that these lorries have safety retraints and other things that would prevent needless injury or fatality on them, even if Kemal feels like they’re not being used. Diko talks about how Tagiri says the roads should be paved, but someone else points out that hot pavement will burn the children’s feet. Kemal suggests the children could wear shoes, but Diko points out that would make the children look ridiculous, to be naked but for their sneakers. Kemal manages to keep it to himself how he thinks all of them look ridiculous.

“They could wear shoes,” Kemal suggested. He spoke Simple as clearly as he could, but it still wasn’t good, what with his jaws getting smacked together as the lorry bumped through rut after rut.
“Oh, well, they’d look pretty silly, stark naked with sneakers on.” She giggled.
Kemal refrained from saying that they looked pretty silly now. He would merely be accused of being a cultural imperialist, even though it wasn’t his culture he was advocating. These people were apparently happy living as they did. Those who didn’t like it no doubt moved to Khartoum or Entebbe or Addis Ababa, which were modern with a vengeance. And it did make a kind of sense for the Pastwatch people to live in the past even as they watched it.
He wondered vaguely if they used toilet paper or handfuls of grass.

Gee, I wonder why someone might be accused of being a cultural imperialist. (Hint: BECAUSE HE IS.) Referring to cultures as primitive is very much a loaded word, regardless of who and when you’re doing it, which is why it’s mostly fallen out of usage in our times. It’s an absolutely stellar rendering of someone who doesn’t understand the situation he’s in, the cultural context involved, or any other part of what’s going on. (I have no idea if it’s intentional and Card is just being good at this point, or whether he wants us to align with Kemal and his way of thinking and the fact that he’s built such a recognizable asshole is unintentional.)

Once they get to his lodgings, of course, there’s a perfectly modern hotel for Kemal to stay in underground (accessed through a grass hut), and he’s afforded the modern comfot of a chair when he meets with Tagiri, Hassan, and other members of the project. Mind you, they seem to be taking a certain amount of delight in his unwillingnes to be local, too.

Kemal called room service and found that he could get standard international fare instead of pureed slug and spicy cow dung, or whatever was involved in the local cuisine.
The next morning, he found himself in the shade of a large tree, sitting in a rocking chair and surrounded by a dozen people who sat or squatted on mats. “I can’t possibly be comfortable having the only chair,” he said.
“I told you he would want a mat,” said Hassan.
“No,” said Kemal. “I don’t want a mat. I just thought you might be more comfortable…”
“It’s our way,” said Tagiri. “When we work at our machines, we sit in chairs. But this is not work. This is joy. The great Kemal asked to meet with us. We never dreamed that you would be interested in our projects.”
Kemal hated it when he was called “the great Kemal.” To him, the great Kemal was Kemal Atatürk, who re-created the Turkish nation out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire centuries before. But he was weary of giving that speech, too, and besides, he thought there might have been just a hint of irony in the way Tagiri said it. Time to end pretenses.

And by that, he means that he says he’s not interested in their projects, and he’s here to share what he knows, and it’s up to them to take his knowledge or persist in error. Tagiri takes it in stride and tells him to continue.

“Are you saying that slavery was not an unmitigated evil?” asked Tagiri.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” said Kemal. “Because you’re looking at slavery from the wrong end—from the present, when we’ve abolished it. But back at the beginning, when it started, doesn’t it occur to you that it was infinitely better than what it replaced?”
[…Tagiri is unimpressed at the theory that slavery came about as a replacement for human sacrifice. Kemal says that’s not what he actually said in his papers, only what his detractors have attributed to him. Hassan points out that coming all the way out to tell them they’re stupid could have been an e-mail. After Kemal has a flare-up of anger where he throws the chair away and demands a mat to sit on, he actually gets to his point…]
“Slavery,” said Kemal. “There ar emany ways that people have been held in bondage. Serfs were bound to the land. Nomad tribes adopted occasional captives or strangers, and made them second-class members of the tribe, without the freedom to leave. Chivalry originated as a sort of dignified mafia, sometimes even a protection racket, and once you accepted an overlord you were his to command. In some cultures, deposed kings were kept in captivity, where they had children born in captivity, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who were never harmed, but never allowed to leave. [Um, what? That doesn’t sound like any historical civilization that I know of.] Whole populations have been conquered and forced to work under foreign overlords, paying unpayable tribute to their masters. Raiders and pirates have carried off hostages for ransom. Starving people have bound themselves into service. Prisoners have been forced into involuntary labor. These kinds of bondage have shown up in many human cultures. But none of these is slavery.”
“By a narrow definition, that’s right,” said Tagiri.
“Slavery is when a human being is made property. When one person is able to buy and sell, not just someone’s labor, but his actual body, and any children he has. Movable property, generation after generation.” Kemal looked at them, at the coldness still visible in their faces. “I know that you all know this. But what you seem not to realize is that slavery was not inevitable. It was invented, at a specific time and place. We know when and where they first person was turned into property. It happened in Atlanis, where a woman had the idea of putting the sacrificial captives to work, and then, when her most valued captive was going to be sacrificed, she paid her tribal elder to remove him permanently from the pool of victims.”
“That’s not exactly the slave block,” said Tagiri.
“It was the beginning. The practice spread quickly, until it became the main reason for raiding other tribes. The Derku people began buying the captives directly from the raiders. And then they started trading slaves among themselvs and finally buying and selling them.”

And from there, Kemal describes that the labor of the slaves is what allowed for cities to develop, because slavery is the only way to use the labor of strangers to build things and otherwise, so we can trace slavery back to “that Derku woman, Nedz-Nagaya, when she paid to keep a useful captive from being fed to the crocodile.”

Before we turn to how this is relevant to the Columbus project, I have issues to take with this definition of slavery, because it rests on assumptions that are foundational to a USian audience’s history and politics. In trying to define slavery narrowly as “a human being made property,” and emphasising that the turning point is that it’s not just the labor that gets sold, but the body and the progeny, Kemal is reinforcing an underlying assumption that people whose labor is commanded have the “freedom” to choose who gets their labor and for what price that labor will be sold. Market capitalism rather blithely assumes that there will always be anoher job, another wage, another possibility for someone to step into if they find their current wage labor arrangement is untenable. It also assumes that at any given point in time, there will be some amount of the population who are not currently in a wage-labor arrangement and call it “full employment” all the same. But that number is also usually calculated as “the percentage of people who are actively trying to get into a wage-labor arrangement and have failed to do so,” which is often then set across from the number of available arrangements that currently have not been accepted, with the clear attempt at linking the idea that all of those people currently unemployed could be employed if they wanted to, but they’re rejecting what’s on offer. For people who are white and wealthy, the reasons given are usually that they haven’t found a job that gives them proper compensation for their labor and expertise, and that’s accepted as normal and proper for white wealthy people. For people who are poor and/or nonwhite, the reasons assumed are usually that they are fundamentally lazy and make the choice not to be employed, even with all of these offers, eliding things like whether or not a person has reliable transportation to work, whether the work itself actually pays enough wage to be able to live on, whether the supposedly “lazy” person is actually disabled in such a way that would make most available arrangements destructive to their health, and other such things. In most of these situations, like serfdom, chivalry, wage slavery, and captivity, the “choice” available to someone was to labor or to die. And while some people might have chosen death rather than labor, you’re not going to convince me that those choices were free and fair ones made by people who had a viable alternate option that they could have selected and that would have worked out perfectly well for them. I can choose not to labor for any employer, but unless I have some other method of being able to do commerce in market capitalism and obtain money in this society, I will die. So the “choices” I have, as an able-bodied person, are to labor for someone else, to labor for myself and convince other people to buy the products that I produce from my labor, or to die, because I do not have a large resource pool that I have inherited and that was built through the extraction of profit (the difference between the true value of the labor and materials put into a product and the amount paid for labor and materials on that product) that I could draw upon to continue functioning in market capitalism even without labor. Presumably, Kemal, Tagiri, and the rest are living in a society where the abundance of energy has also allowed for abundance of other things without artificial scarcity being used to make profits, since nobody has mentioned money, accounts, or having to manage a limited pool of resources at this point. I would expect everyone here to have a more socialistic or communistic view of the world, rather than reinforcing market capitalism views when talking about slavery.

So I think Kemal’s exclusionary definition is bullshit. What he could do, however, is refer to this specific sliver that he’s focusing on as something like “human commerce” or a specific term that means only this facet of slavery that he is focusing on, because he believes he has a point. Specifically, he tells Tagiri that she’s wrong to want to oppose Columbus and try to “[p]reserve the one place on earth where slavery never developed.”

“I think you need to look again,” said Kemal. “Because slavery was a direct replacement for human sacrifice. Are you actually telling me that you prefer the torture and murder of captives, as the Mayas and Iriquois and Aztecs and Caribs practiced it? So you find that more civilized? After all, those deaths were offered to the gods.”
“You will never make me believe that there was a one-for-one trade, slavery for human sacrifice.”
“I don’t care whether you believe it,” said Kemal. “Just admit the possibility. Just admit that there are some things worse than slavery. Just admit that your set of values is as arbitrary as any other culture’s values, and to try to revise history in order to make your values triumpg in the past as well as the presernt is pure&—”
“Cultural imperialism,” said Hassan. “Kemal, we have this argument ourselves every week or so. And if we were proposing to go back and stop that Derku woman from inventing slavery, your point would be well taken. But we aren’t trying to do anything of the kind, Kemal, we aren’t sure we want to do anything! We’re just trying to find out what’s possible.”
“That’s so disingenuous it’s laughable. You’ve known from the beginning that it was Columbus you were going after. Columbus you were going to stop. And yet you seem to gorget that along with the evil that European ascendancy brought to the world, you will also be throwing away the good. Useful medicine. Productive agriculture. Clean water. Cheap power. The industry that gives us the leisure to have this meeting. And don’t dare to tell me that all the goods of our modern world would have been invented anyway. Nothing is inevitable. You’re throwing away too much.”

And in the face of this argument, Tagiri acknowledges the cost, and still presses on with the idea that they can and should try to make the world better, and that they should do so carefully. Kemal is nonplussed at seeing not a bunch of people committed to a specific course of action, but a bunch of people commited to the idea of getting it right, if they can get it right.

Before we go forward, though, I’d like to note that Kemal did admit to what he denied earlier, that slavery was a replacement for human sacrifice. Apparently what he must have taken issue with was the statement that slavery originated exclusively in Atlantis, which does sound like the kind of misconstruction that would drive someone to anger when they want to split a specific hair in specific terms and everyone around them is being more general and assuming they are, as well.

So, now that we’re clear, Kemal’s theory is that human commerce is a replacement for human sacrifice, and that ultimately, the scales show that human commerce is better for the timeline and the people who are trafficked than sacrifice is. The support for the argument, I believe, is that the labor extracted from slaves is what allows civilization to build and flourish, because the leisure afforded to those who own slaves allows for the development of new techniques, scientific innovations, and the like, allowing them to use their labor in ways that ultimately improve society, rather than having to use it on subsistence methods of farming, gathering, and hunting. (At this point, I think I have to make an R.U.R. reference and point out that the word robot ultimately derives from a root talking about labor as well, so even when there is a switch from humans to machines, it’s still labor that’s the thing being extracted so that leisure is possible.) Which makes sacrifice the worse option because it wastes the potential productivity of the slave. I think, and keeps the person who would otherwise use their leisure time for improvement stuck using the same methods to get enough to survive on.

If I’m reading that right, I believe that’s an argument that sounds convincing on the surface, but actually does sweet fuck-all to support itself properly. I feel like I could read this argument as “A necessary condition for civilization to arise and living conditions to improve is for humans to exploit the labor of anything and anyone they consider to be sub-human.” Which could be used to argue that slavery is a necessary evil to inflict on the world to create improvement, but could also be used to argue that slavery is unnecesary to achieve the conditions of civilization and living condition improvement, because domestication of animals, raising of crops, and eventually, the use of machines and the manipulation of genes don’t require the use of slavery to achieve. What it requires is abundance of resources, so that someone has the ability to devote time to a pursuit that is not subsistence farming. Once you have a big enough group of people that you can support children and the elderly not having to do the full work of all the adults, you have the possibility of leisure and improvement. Once you can support specialization such that not every adult has to work the fields/herds/gathering places for all of their time, there’s even more opportunities for leisure and improvement, because then the grouping can afford to spend resources on things that might fail (and will fail until a successful method happens, which can then provide more improvement time to further refine, and so forth.) None of this requires human commerce. Human commerce might be a way of expediting the process, because resource investments on trafficked humans are usually smaller (because they’re seen as sub-human), allowing for potentially greater yield from the smaller investment, but it’s not a prerequisite. So I think all of Kemal’s arguments are bullshit, but I also think that they’re so fundamentally part of the environment that we live in, as survivors of the capitalist hellscape, that it’s extremely difficult to envision how the things that we take for granted as the progression of history and science would have come into existence without the exploitative systems that accompanied them.

Back to the narrative. Because of narrative fiat, we’re still going to be focused on Columbus, but Kemal understands that Hassan’s group is supposed to be looking for alternatives where there would be a better way of achieving things. Kemal asks if they’re planning on aborting Columbus in utero, and Tagiri replies “We’re trying to save lives, not murder a great man.” and again I have to wonder why Tagiri, descendant of the enslaved, insists on calling him a great man, when there’s no reason for her to do so. Hassan points out that the limitation of the TruSite II is that it can only show what has happened, not what might happen, so I suppose there’s my answer as to why they haven’t put together machines that could take a set of inputs and extrapolate from them—the author said they couldn’t.

Kemal also mentions why my earlier objection of “Why can’t they just go back and get Noah to spread the word about the evils of slavery?” isn’t going to work in this particular book.

“If only he had told people slavery was evil, too,” said Diko.
“He told them the opposite,” said Kemal. “He was a living example of how beneficial slavery could be—because he kept with him his whole life the three slaves who built his boat for him, and everyone who came to meet the great Naog saw how his greatness depended on his ownership of these three devoted men.” Turning to Hassan, Kemal added, “I don’t see how Naog’s example inspired you with any kind of hope.”

Hassan says that Kemal’s work on Naog gives them hope becaue it shows how one man can change the world, and the one thing they’re missing is the decision point where Columbus commits to the bit of going westward. At which point Diko pipes up and thinks she found it last night, because she thought it would be a nice thing if it happened while Kemal was here, so she was working on it. Faced with this, the meeting adjourns to see what Diko’s come up with, and Chapter 4 ends.

As with so many of the arguments presented here, I have to take issue with Kemal’s frame. Calling the slaves “devoted” men seems like an assumption without facts in evidence. Much like how saying Naog’s greatness relies on that ownership of other people, rather than, perhaps, as the sole survivors of a flood that wiped out their entire civilization. If Naog talked about how his ownership of men allowed for their survival and was the great thing their civilization was built on, Kemal might have a more serious argument, but I’m still inclined to believe if those three men were given a real chance at freedom and enough to get themselves established as free persons, they would have left Naog without looking back. Especially after the tragedy that left them as the only survivors. They might not have, because they are so used to being property that they can’t really envision what their lives would be like as free men, but that’s not disproving the idea that slavery is evil, it’s only saying that the three men might be more comfortable with the familiar rather than the unknown. After all, what Tagiri has seen, we are told, is even those people who rise to great power and authority as slaves still have the haunted look of knowing they are Other and foreign. Kemal is engaging in cultural imperialism here, but I think the narrative is siding with him, even as it’s trying to show Tagiri rejecting his arguments, because Kemal’a “at least admit the possibility exists” is supposed to be the reasonable position in the argument. Even if Kemal will eventually sink some ships, it looks much more like he’s the one winning the arguments, and that says a lot about who the author wants to win the arguments, even if it is for plot-related reasons.

Next week, we’ll see what Diko’s discovery is, and how it becomes the decision point for Columbus sailing west, despite the clearly juicy target that Kemal had brought to the project that should be looked into.

Deconstruction Roundup for November 11, 2022

(by the Slacktiverse and others; collected by Silver Adept, who has slowly been learning what qualifies as The New Normal in their own world, but it comes with the benefit of things not being quite so terrible.)

The point of these posts is threefold:

  1. To let people stay up to date on ongoing deconstructions. (All ones on our list, including finished and stalled ones, here.)
  2. To let people who can’t comment elsewhere have a place to comment.
  3. To let people comment in a place where people who can’t read Disqus can see what they have to say.

Silver Adept: Here on The Slacktiverse

Let us know, please, if there are errors in the post. Or if you don’t want to be included. Or if there’s someone who you think should be included, which includes you. We can use more content. Or if you have made it through a week where you only had to be in the office for two days.

Pastwatch: The Next Generation

Last time, Tagiri took an interest in slavery as a topic to study, and then, after observing a sequence where the people who were supposedly only visible in the past began to eerily describe the people of Pastwatch looking at them while they were having visions, Tagiri became very interested in the possibility that the past could be affected as well as observed, and significant effort has been made to figure out how to do just that. It’s now eight years since those first forays into the idea of diverting Christopher Columbus from his purpose, and so doing, erasing the era of Spanish slavery and possibly averting the bad timeline that resulted in near destruction before Pastwatch came into being.

Tagiri also married the person who was assigned to the project with her, Hassan, and they had two children. It is with the daughter, Diko, that we pick up in

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Chapter 3: Content Notes: Religious animosity

The narrative tells us that even though Christopher Columbus has been dead for a long time, he feels like an integral part of Diko’s life, almost like family, because of the way that her mother and father have been studying him intently for all of her life so far. But we also get an interesting statement from Tagiri about Columbus.

“Why are you so mad at him? Is he bad?”
“He lived in a bad time,” said Mother. “He was a great man in a bad time.”
Diko couldn’t understand the moral subtleties of this. The only lesson she learned from the event was that somehow the people in the holoview were real after all, and the man called variously Cristoforo Colombo and Cristóbal Colón and Christopher Columbus was very, very important to Mother.

That’s a very specific way of phrasing it that avoids answering the question of whether Columbus himself was a bad man. From the evidence present in our time, and presumably in Tagiri’s, the answer to the question of “Was Columbus a bad man?” is yes, if you consider his part in taking slaves and extracting wealth to be bad. And not a few sentences before this, Tagiri has vowed to stop Columbus from achieving his historical aims. So I would think it would be pretty easy to answer in the affirmative here. Even if you believe that you have a clever trick to make Columbus redeemable or otherwise less bad, right now, he’s still his historical self and unredeemed in any way. As a five year-old, Diko doesn’t understand why Columbus’s son is being educated in a monastery, and when she’s told that his mother is dead, Diko points out that Columbus has another wife that could raise the child, but, of course, it’s a mistress, rather than a wife, and Tagiri, having just used a sly answer in the narrative, calls out her child for evading a question.

“But Cristoforo has another wife the whole time,” said Diko.
“Not a wife,” said Mother.
“They sleep together,” said Diko.
“What have you been doing?” asked Mother. “Have you been running the holoview when I wasn’t here?”
“You’re always here, Mama,” said Diko.
“That’s not an answer, you sly child. What have you been watching?”
“Cristoforo has another little boy with his new wife,” said Diko. “He never goes to live in the monastery.”
“That’s because Colombo isn’t married to the new baby’s mother.”
“Why not?” asked Diko.
“Diko, you’re five years old and I’m very busy. Is it such an emergency that I have to explain all this to you right now?”
Diko knew that this meant that she would have to ask Father. That was all right. Father wasn’t home as much as Mother, but when he was, he answered all her questions and never made her wait till she grew up.

Well done for writing the five year-old like a five year-old, who answers the question in front of her rather than the question that’s implied.

Also, we have two very diferent styles of parenting here! I wonder what kind of conflict that causes when Diko turns up with knowledge she got from Hassan that Tagiri didn’t necessarily want her to know at that exact moment. Current best practice in parenting, last I looked, is that you try to answer questions with age-appropriate answers. Tagiri can answer the question “They haven’t decided to get married,” “Other people wouldn’t think it was appropriate for them to get married,” “They didn’t think it was a good idea to get married,” or any number of other ways that would be accurate and appropriate for a five year-old, without having to go into the details of what adultery is and how the intricacies of the marriage contract are supposed to work.

Diko continues to be a curious child, asking about what would happen if Mama died, wondering about how lonely a child in a monastery must be, and curious as to whether or not Mama misses the younger Diko. Tagiri says she does, but that it’s because every parent misses the young child, even as they become bigger and grow up. Eventually, after being chastised for making a joke about being glad that Hassan isn’t the “bottom” of the project (after talking about other body parts of the project), the five year-old Diko promises that she’ll be the one to stop Columbus, which Tagiri says is her job.

We fast-forward again to Diko at ten, where she’s using the Tempoview to watch recordings. It’s noted that Tagiri has a bad problem with work-life balance as the supervisor to the project, but children and others who are there, respect the rules, and don’t make a fuss, are generally accepted. Just before she becomes twelve, Diko figures out how to bypass the lock that restricted her to only previously-recorded viewings, and Hassan comes immediately to her to explain that the equipment is not for merely “personal” curiosity and spying on the past, but for scientific research. Diko proclaims she’ll take up the mantle of scientist, because the alternative is to be banned entirely from looking into the past, apparently, despite an earlier narrative comment about how “no one even commented on the fact that an unauthorized, half-educated child was browsing through the past unsupervised.” with the implication that nobody has taught her much about the ethics of looking into the past or the reasons why to do it.

“You’ll see terrible things,” said Father. “Ugly things. Very private things. Disturbing things.”
“I already have.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Father. “If you thought the things we’ve allowed you to see up to now were ugly, private, or disturbing, what will you do when you see things that are really ugly, private, and disturbing?”
“Ugly, Private, and Disturbing. Sounds like a firm of solicitors,” said Diko.

I personally prefer Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe as my solicitors of choice, but Diko’s right about how those three would make an interesting law firm.

I’m also interested in how there doesn’t seem to have been much thought about parental controls on the past-viewers. Because I would assume that the society that Pastwatch is situated in probably has broadcasts or programs put together for the enjoyment or information of the laity about the past, and I would presume they have some form of age classification or rating system attached to them or at the very least the presence of content warnings for it. Now, admittedly, Diko may have figured out how to bypass the V-chip on the Tempoview (or figured out what the parental controls password is) or discovered how to execute a privilege escalation attack, but it seems odd that a place that has all of the past to view, including all of the grisly bits and the sexy bits and the rest wouldn’t have some sort of system for classifying all the bits that have already been watched and recorded, and some method from there of empowering someone to make decisions about what parts are acceptable for what ages and audiences. Pastwatch is a strange place, and I get the feeling that it’s always going to be hazily sketched in because that’s not the story that’s being told here.

Anyway, as a condition of being allowed to keep watching the past, Hassan demands that she log and report daily of the places visited and the things watched, she give weekly reports of what she’s learned, and if she sees anything disturbing, to talk to him or Tagiri.

Diko grinned. “Got it. Ugly and Private I deal with myself, but Disturbing I discuss with the Ancient Ones.”
“You are the light of my life,” said Father. “But I think I didn’t yell at you enough when you were young enough for it to do any good.”
“I’ll turn in all the reports you asked for,” she said. “But you have to promise to read them.”
“On exactly the same basis as anybody else’s reports,” said Father. “So you’d better not show me any second-rate work.”
Diko explored, reported, and began to look forward to her weekly interviews with Father concerning the work she did. Only gradually did she realize how childish and elementary those early reports were, how she skimmed over the surface of issues resolved long before by adult watchers; she marveled that Father never gave her a clue that she wasn’t on the cutting edge of science. He always listened with respect, and within a few years Diko was doing things that merited it.

Interesting how Tagiri has dropped out of the frame for these years and steps toward maturity. Is that something that Card couldn’t figure out how to write or wasn’t interested in? Is this something he can’t figure out how to make work between a mother and daughter without introducing some sort of situation where daughter believes mother will never respect her, while father will?

I can’t find an objection with Hassan’s parenting decisions here, because he seems to understand that you treat the work seriously and age-appropriately, and you express your satisfaction with what has been done while nurturing in your child the skills that will allow them to take it further, if they so desire. He seems to be doing it right, at least on this aspect of developing the scientific personality, methodology, and rigor, until such time as Diko can do it according to the spec. Or at least start providing interesting leads for following-up on.

Where Tagiri made her subject of study slavery and it’s permutations, with a focus on turning aside Christopher Columbus from his historical destiny, Diko focuses her studies on the moment of decision of great figures of history. She specifically focuses on the people who are persistent in the face of setbacks and tries to pinpoint the part in their personal histories where they make the decision that will turn them into a great figure, whether or not their achievements last, and, to some degree, regardless of whether the people themselves are upstanding examples of morality, self-serving, altruistic, or monsters. Realizing that for everything that she’d already watched about Columbus, Diko didn’t know when the decision point was for him, but after some study, she narrows it down to a point in 1459, where there is about to be conflict between two great houses, and a weaver with a red-headed child are going to be in the middle of it.

Which gets us into the second RPF section of the book, this time with Domenico Colombo and his child getting a visit from Pietro Fregoso, who is always supposed to be called the Doge, even though he is not currently the Doge (an Adorno, the rival faction, holds that title). Pietro intends to make a bid to become the Doge in reality again, and he’s seeking support in the matter. He’s holding a meeting with other gentlemen in the weaver’s house. Columbus doesn’t catch the beginning of it, because he’s dragged away form it by his mother until he can slip out of her sight. While he’s looping back, he expresses his unhappiness that he’s going to have to apprentice somewhere else soon, and that when he does, the teasing’s going to be far worse than it is here, where his father can protect him from the worst of it through the mere possibility of retaliation. (We could still do without hazing as a rite of passage for young men.) Back to the table, though, Columbus realizes there’s a status gulf between the men at the table, who are talking, and his father, who is standing and making sure that all of the men at the table have full cups of wine and otherwise serving them, even though his father had said that Pietro was their friend.

Is this not one city? Are these men not of the Fieschi as Father is? The Adorno braggarts who pushed over Fieschi carts in the market, Father spoke more like them than like these gentlemen who were supposedly of his own party.
There is more difference between gentlemen and tradesmen like Father than is between Adorno and Fieschi. Yet the Fieschi and the Adorno often come to blows, and there are stories of killings. Why are there no quarrels between tradesmen and gentlemen?

And thus, Columbus discovers the concept of class warfare, even though it’ll be a while before the aristocracy gets bought out by the merchants who eventually control all the money and the property and can basically make themselves into the nobility whenever they want. Or destroy any member of the nobility that they want.

In any case, Pietro is ready to try and become the Doge again, and one of his inner circle cautions that trying now will only end up with everyone dead. Columbus’s father swears his loyalty unbidden, but instead of grace and acceptance of this, the gentlemen at the table seem embarrassed or angry that such a person has spoken. After the gentlemen leave, Columbus’s mother yells at his father that such statements will get him killed and them both on the street. After a calculated wait where Columbus judges that his mother has calmed sufficiently, he asks her about how you learn to be a gentleman. He demonstrates that he can speak the way they do (and gets slapped for “putting on airs”), he points out that they have the cloth to make the clothes the gentlemen wear, and that his father could obtain a sword, and thus look and speak the part, so they would have to respect him. His mother says that it’s not about the look, it’s because they’re not descended from gentlemen, so they aren’t gentlemen. Columbus takes that argument to the logical conclusion, and finds that there is illogic waiting for him.

Cristoforo thought about this for a moment. “Aren’t we all descended from Noah, after the flood? Why are the children of one family gentlemen, and the children of Father’s family aren’t? God made us all.”
Mother laughed bitterly. “Oh, is that what the priests taught you? Well, you should see them bowing and scraping to the gentlemen while they piss on the rest of us. They think that God likes gentlemen better, but Jesus Christ didn’t act that way. He cared nothing for gentlemen!”
“So what gives them the right to look down at Father?” demanded Cristoforo, and against his will his eyes again filled with tears.
She regarded him for a moment, as if deciding whether to tell him the truth. “Gold and dirt,” she said.
Cristoforo didn’t understand.
“They have gold in their treasure boxes,” said Mother, “and they own land. That’s what makes them gentlemen. If we had huge swatches of land out in the country, or if we had a box filled with gold in the attic, then your father would be a gentleman and no one would laugh at you if you learned to talk the fancy way they do and wore clothing made of this.” She held the trailing end of a bolt of cloth against Cristoforo’s chest. “You’d make a fine gentleman, my Cristoforo.” Then she dropped the fabric and laughed and laughed and laughed.
Finally Cristoforo left the room. Gold, he thought. If Father had gold, then those other men would listen to him. Well, then—I will get him gold.

Which reminds me. The conceit of the story is that Pastwatch is watching the events of the past on the holoviewer, so, presumably, without the benefit of a celestial narrator, annotator, or other entity that could provide us with the insight into the mind of Columbus, or anyone else, the best that the Pastwatch viewers would get is what’s spoken aloud and what might be inferrable from body language and other visible elements. If Columbus decides that gold is the key (or at least the start of the key for this) then he would need to speak it aloud or write it somewhere or otherwise externalize the information so that we can know what he’s thinking at the time. It’s a nitpick, most likely, but it does raise an interesting question. If Pastwatch can listen in to someone’s internal monologue and the very thoughts in their head, then that would suggest to me that it’s not that far away from being able to transmit thoughts into their heads through the waves of history. Potentially, anyway. But also, if it can listen into someone’s mind, then it can probably answer more than a few of the really good questions throughout history about why someone did something. Or at least, whey they believed they were doing it.

Back to the narrative. Pietro’s plan gets sunk before it can stand up, and he’s attacked and left for dead. He cries out for his allies, and Columbus’s father goes to aid him while his mother takes the children and the apprentices to the back and sets the journeymen to guard the door against attackers. While they’re waiting to hear what has happened to his father, Columbus’s mother has some choice words for the foolishness of others, and Card does the very thing that he just avoided – externalizes the motivation of Columbus.

“All fools,” she said. “All men are fools. Fighting over who gets to rule Genova—what does that matter? The Turk is in Constantinople! The heathens have the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem! The name of Christ is no longer spoken in Egypt, and these little boys are squabbling over who gets to sit on a fancy chair and call himself the Doge of Genova? What is the honor of Pietro Fregoso compared to the honor of Jesus Christ? What is it to possess the palace of the Doge when the land where the Blessed Virgin walked in her garden, where the angel came to her, is in the hands of circumcised dogs? If they want to kill somebody, let them liberate Jerusalem! Let them free Constantinople! Let them shed blood to redeem the honor of the Son of God!”
[…Columbus says that’s what he’ll fight for, when he’s older and bigger, a Crusade…]
“I’ll have a sword one day,” said Columbus. “I’ll be a gentleman!”
“How, when you have no gold?”
“I’ll get gold!”
“In Genova? As a weaver? As long as you live, you’ll be the son of Domenico Colombo. No one will give you gold, and no one will call you a gentleman. Now be silent, or I’ll pinch your arm.”
It was a worthy threat, and all the children knew well enough to obey when Mother uttered it.

This is supposed to be the important decision moment. The weaver’s son realizes that there’s class differences, and so he resolves to obtain all the things he will need to engage in class mobility – sword, gold, clothes, the proper way of speaking, and, presumably, a willingness to leave the world that he grew up in behind so that nobody really will be able to immediately recognize him as the son of a weaver and not as a gentleman from Genova. The rest of the RPF section is the return of the father, with the blood of the dying man all over him, and then the household springing into action to clean up Domenico and burn the clothing he was wearing with the blood on it. We zoom back out to Diko, who is intently studying this moment as the point of decision, and then laying out her justification for it in what follows, where Columbus picks up studying languages, history, sailing, all the skills he’ll need to leave and remake himself into the person he will be. She presents this conclusion to her father as normal, and he accepts it as excellent work, but Diko senses a hidden criticism. She finally gets Hassan to give it up, and the criticism is that all of the report gives them no clue as to why Columbus believed he could fulfill this destiny by sailing west. Diko, after taking the criticism, dismisses it because it’s not relevant to her work. She proved this was the moment of decision, that was her project, and the greater context is the project of her parents. Hassan considers this, agrees with her analysis, and withdraws his criticism. Diko, however, is unsatisfied at this victory, and declares that she’ll find that missing piece of the puzzle for them.

“I’ve been over the recordings of Columbus’s life, and so has your mother, and so have countless other scholars and scientists. You think you’ll find what none of them ever found?”
“Yes,” said Diko.
“Well,” said Father. “I think we’ve just isolated your decision for greatness.”
He smiled at her, a crooked little smile. She assumed that he was teasing her. But she didn’t care. He might think he was joking, but she would make his joke turn real. Had he and Mother and countless others pored over all the old Tempoview recordings of Columbus’s life? Very well, then. Diko would stop looking at recordings at all. She would go and look directly at his life, and not with the Tempoview, either. The TruSite II would be her tool. She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t ask for help. She simply took over a machine that wasn’t used at night, and adjusted the schedule of her life to fit the hours when the machine was hers to use. Some wondered whether she really ought to be using the most up-to-date machines—after all, she wasn’t actually a member of Pastwatch. Her training was at best informal. She was merely the child of watchers, and yet she was using a machine that one normally got access to after years of study.
Those who had those doubts, however, seeing the set of her face, seeing how hard she worked and how quickly she learned to use the machine, soon lost any desire to question her right to do it. It occurred to some of them that this was the human way, after all. You went to school to learn to do a trade that was different from your parents’ work. But if you were going into the family business, you learned it from childhood up. Diko was as much as watcher as anyone else, and by all indications a good one. And those who had at first thought of questioning her or even stopping her instead notified the authorities that here was a novice worth observing. A recording was started, watching all that Diko did. And soon she had a silver tag on her file: Let this one go where she wants.

And that gets us through chapter 3, with the daughter of a silver tag getting a silver tag of her own. Makes me wonder if the same watcher has been assigned to both of them, even though Tagiri, presumably, has done more than enough publishing at this point that their “in case they don’t do anything” watcher feels pretty safe that they’re not going to have to write that report.

I find it interesting the way that the specific focuses of the two (three, if you count Hassan and his team that supposedly is looking for alternative spaces other than Columbus) members of the family have compatible inquiries that allow them to stay focused on Columbus, rather than Diko’s interests in finding the decision points of historical figures giving her perspective that Columbus isn’t actually that special, or that there are some of his contemporaries who are making the same kinds of decisions for contemptible reasons that will have to additionally be dealt with, and so on. There’s a lot of handwaving going on here to keep the focus on Columbus rather than all of the luggage exploding out all over the narrative and producing infinite pathways to follow down as to whether this historical figure should also be on the list or a higher priority than Columbus.

We’re three chapters in, and Tagiri is convinced Columbus’s charisma is the reason for what happens with some significant portion of the age of slavery, and Diko is convinced that the decision point that sets Columbus on that path is made as a child, where he sees a class imbalance and decides that he’s going to engage in class mobility (which, according to the first chapter’s RPF, the nobility and the mobility will happen when he comes back from his successful voyage, because that was what got written into the contract), so that’s supposed to be our narrative throughline, I think. Child Columbus wants to remake himself into a gentleman for the family honor, and in pursuit of that quest, he will convince royalty to fund a voyage westward, with the promises of riches to the royalty from the voyage and the promise of finally achieving his goal to Columbus. And all of that is entirely doable without the age of slavery happening, except for the part where what Columbus writes back about, makes his charismatic case about, is not just about the possibility of new trade partners and routes and the riches available from this, but because he also says there are people there who don’t believe the same way they do, and that they are ready to be converted to that religion. The underlying assumption that these people are inferior because they’re not part of the religion is there. And while it gets a certain amount of calling-out so far about the beliefs and their consequences, there doesn’t appear to be any serious consideration about whether a historical nudge could be to instill some sort of greater respect for other belief systems into Christianity. Or to have Columbus’s letter get substituted with a different one that emphasizes the parts about wealth and commerce and completely elides the “they’re primitives who should be converted to our religion.”

Of course, if we look at that set of possibilities, the luggage is once again exploding. So much that will have to get left behind as we go from chapter to chapter.

Deconstruction Roundup for November 4, 2022

(by the Slacktiverse and others; collected by Silver Adept, who is really unhappy with the way that their body refuses to believe what their brain is telling them.)

The point of these posts is threefold:

  1. To let people stay up to date on ongoing deconstructions. (All ones on our list, including finished and stalled ones, here.)
  2. To let people who can’t comment elsewhere have a place to comment.
  3. To let people comment in a place where people who can’t read Disqus can see what they have to say.

Mouse: Medium dot Com

Silver Adept: Here on The Slacktiverse

Let us know, please, if there are errors in the post. Or if you don’t want to be included. Or if there’s someone who you think should be included, which includes you. We can use more content. Or if you have finally got someone matched with you for something you probably really need and you’re feeling a lot better about that.

Pastwatch: Living Back To Front

Last time, the book spent several pages of historical RPF before actually getting to the story that it wanted to tell, about someone who uses what is theoretically a machine to view the past to start altering it, instead, on the idea that once people understand they have the power to alter the past directly, they should use that power to prevent as much cruelty and pain as possible for the people in the past, rather than leaving the past to its suffering because the present seems pretty good.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus: Chapter 2: Content Notes: Sexual Assault, Physical Assault, Slavery, Colonialism

The narrative continues its focus on Tagiri, having introduced her as the person who will strand Columbus and alter the timeline, explaining how she learned to use the Tempoview to trace her matrilineal lineage. I have to chuckle a little bit at the word “Tempoview” being used for the device, mostly because it’s a fairly functional portmanteau, and in our capitalist hellscape, it would likely end up being something either far more pedestrian, like a “time television” or something far more pretentious, like the “Pastwatch DeLorean” It’s the 1990s, though, and we haven’t quite yet had the corporatization and corruption of the World Wide Web and its rash of buzzword titles and names.

The matrilineal trace happens because, despite being “as racially mixed as anyone else in the world these days,” Tagiri’s matrilineal line is

the one lineage that mattered most to her, the one from which she derived her identity. Dongotona was the name of her tribe and of the mountainous country where they lived, and the village of Ikoto was her foremothers’ ancient home.

So there’s the juxtaposition that racism is not one of the driving forces of Pastwatch, but also there’s pride being taken in tracing and understanding your own family lineage through those times where, presumably, racism would be a very important factor in the society. Card mostly tries to sidestep this by having the village of Ikoto be mostly isolated, poor, and culturally homogeneous.

These were real people from her own past! Some of them were bound to be ancestors of hers, and sooner or later she’d sort out which ones. In the meantime, she loved it all—the flirtatious girls, the complaining oold men, the tired women snapping at the rude children; and oh, those children! Those fungus-covered, hungry, exuberant children, too young to know they were poor and too poor to know that not everyone in the world woke up hungry in the morning and went to bed hungry at night. They were so alive, so alert.

That description of the children comes perilously close to, if not falls into, a description that would be part of an advertisement from the strain of Christianity that can be flippantly described as “convert the poor darkies with the charity and wealth largesse of enlightened white people.” The description of the adults seems to play into the single story stereotype of Africa that you might find along with kente cloth and women balancing things on their head, no electricity or connectivity or signs of “civilization” from a white perspective in sight. This framing of the past as a simpler and fascinating time is also accented by Card mentioning that using the Tempoview takes “enormous amounts of electricity, but this was the dawn of the twenty-third century, and solar energy was cheap.”

Card unintentionally manages to admit that he’s working on a limited view for this in describing the “significance problem” that Tagiri runs into.

Within a few weeks, though, Tagiri had run into the significance problem. After watching a few dozen girls flirting, she knew that all girls of Ikoto flirted in pretty much the same way. After watching a few dozen teasings, tauntings, quarrels, and kindnesses among the children, she realized that she had seen pretty much every variation on teasing, taunting, quarreling, and kindness that she would ever see. No way had yet been found to program the Tempoview computers to recognize unusual, unpredictable human behavior,. It had been hard enough to train them to recognize human movement in the first place; in the early days pastwatchers had had to wade through endless landings and peckings of small birds and scamperings of lizards and mice in order to see a few human interactions.

He is right that computers are terrible at recognizing and classifying images, at least at this point in our history, as much as peddlers of AI would like you to believe otherwise, but the “significance problem” as described here, and the way that all of those individual actions are classified together as “the same” and explicitly saying that Tagiri has seen “every variation” on a thing makes an assumption that the differences between each of these interactions aren’t large enough to be significant in their own right. I’ll bet there are at least three graduate-level papers about the ways that the girls of Ikoto flirt, especially if there’s a courtship custom or a traditional way of flirting that’s supposed to be followed, such that you can see the differences between the girls, once you know what the Platonic form is.

Tagiri becomes important to the narrative with her research methods, first in that she doesn’t adopt the statistical methods other pastwatchers do, where they observe trends and count behaviors and write reports about that, but instead chooses to focus on individual lives. For the people observing her, they believe that she’s showing her preference to be a biographer rather than a researcher (ah, now we see the bias inherent in the system). But they are then stunned when Tagiri decides to view lives in reverse, from death to birth, rather than from birth to death. The conversations become meaningless (because nobody understands backmasking), and “she was constantly seeing the effect first, then discovering the cause.” Tagiri uses this focus on a woman named Amami. Who walks with a limp in her life, because her husband beat her, because Amami had been raped by two men from a nearby village when she went to gather water.

But Amami’s husband could not accept the idea that it was rape, for that would have meant that he was incapable of protecting his wife; it would have required him to take some kind of vengeance, which would have endangered the fragile peace between Lotuko and Dongotona in the Koss Valley. So for the good of his tribe and to salvage his own ego, he had to interpret his weeping wife’s story as a lie, and assume that in fact she had been playing the whore. He was beating her to get her to give him the money she had been paid, even though it was obvious to Tagiri that he knew there was no money, that his beloved wife had not gone whoring, that in fact he was being unjust. His obvious sense of shame at what he was doing did not seem to make him go easier on her. He was more brutal than Tagiri had ever seen any man in the village—needlessly so, continuing to cane her long after she was screaming and pleading and confessing to all sins ever committed in the world. Since he was doing the beating, not because he believed in the justice of it, but so that he could convince the neighbors that he believed his wife deserved it, he overdid it. Overdid it, and then had to watch Amami limping through the rest of her life.
If he ever asked forgiveness, or even implied it, Tagiri had missed it. He ahd done what he thought a man had to do to maintain his honor in Ikoto. How could he be sorry for that? Amami might limp, but she had an honorable husband whose prestige was undiminished. Never mind that even the week before she died, some of the little children of the village had still been following after her, taunting her with the words they had learned from the previous batch of children a few years older: “Louko-whore!”

If we were aiming for a strong condemnation of toxic masculinity here, we could certainly do worse than this, but also, this is the kind of thing that plays into stereotypes about men, and especially black and brown men. The idea that perception is the most important thing, and that these men need to be seen as strong and in control of their wives is still a stereotype that has negative outcomes for everyone. It allows racists to see black and brown men as threats, and to also dismiss them as culturally inferior to whiteness, because of course, “everyone knows” there are no situations where white men would accuse their wives of willingly having sex with someone who assaulted them. And they wouldn’t do terrible abusive things to those women they believe are sleeping around. And there certainly isn’t any sort of political movement mostly spearheaded by white men (and some white women) to try and ensure that as a culture, we all assume that any woman who gets pregnant did so willingly and should have no other option but to birth any children that might happen from that pregnancy.

Supposedly, this action is “seven generations back” from Tagiri, so that’s about 140-200 years from the dawn of the twenty-third century, which would be 2200s, so this is happening in either our current times (as seen from the 1990s) or a little bit more in our future. So it’s Twenty Minutes Into The Future where we still have these isolated times where an accusation might destabilize a tenuous peace between villages. It sounds like what Card wants is to keep the idea of the “primitive” Africa composed mostly of villages, rather than the fact that Africa is mostly in colonial or post-colonial government and has been organized into nation-states, even if some of those nation-states are not as stable or democratic as the West would like (and others are engaged in an active campaign against the black people of their nation-states.) If Africa were more “civilized,” then this story wouldn’t work so neatly, because then there would be an authority to appeal to and a recourse that could be tried, and possibly justice that could be had by going through those processes, rather than the blithe assumption that there is no higher authority to mediate and to prosecute and therefore the man’s only options are to lose face by admitting he couldn’t protect his woman or to save face by punishing the woman for something she didn’t do. (This is also a false dichotomy, but again, this is pretty clearly someone writing outside of his lane at this point.) In a little bit, we’ll see that the Ikoto in this story is probably the one in Sudan, and at the time of writing the book, Sudan was still in the middle of a civil war (finished 2005, and then in 2011, it split into what we now call “Sudan” and “South Sudan”.) Being a future person with a history in a strife and war-torn country is going to become important very shortly.

In any case, Tagiri continues to view things in a death-to-birth manner, and the people observing her use the Tempoview continue to let her work in this manner, since they recognize she won’t fit into any of the ongoing projects, and because they’re curious to see what kinds of insights she’s going to get out of it, since viewing things future-to-past doesn’t seem to be disorienting for her in the way that it does for others. (They understand story-seekers and pattern-seekers, but they’ve never had one so interested in following effects to their causes.) Card gives us an explanation of why this is so easy for her, by giving her a backstory involving divorce and a miserable marriage.

It was my parents’ divorce, Tagiri would have said. They had seemed perfectly happy to her all her life; then, when she was fourteen, she learned that they were divorcing, and suddenly all the idyll of her childhood turned out to be a lie, for her father and mother had been jockeying all those years in a vicious, deadly competition for supremacy in the household. It had been invisible to Tagiri because her parents hid their pernicious competitiveness even from each other, even from themselves, but when Tagiri’s father was made head of Sudan Restoration, which would put him two levels higher than Tagiri’s mother in the same organization, their hatred for each other’s accomplishments finally emerged into the open, naked and brutal.
Only then was Tagiri able to think back to cryptic conversations over breakfast or supper, when her parents had congratulated each other for various accomplishments. Now, no longer naive, Tagiri could remember their words and realize that they had been digging knives into each other’s pride. And so it was that at the cusp of her childhood, she suddenly experienced all of her life till then, only in reverse, with the result clear in her mind, thinking backward and backward, discovering the true causes of everything.

And thus, Tagiri can trace the misery back through the generations, all the way to this ancestor beaten unjustly as an ultimate cause, the solution to the problem of why everything kept going wrong in each successive generation up to herself.

Hadn’t Amami’s daughter been late to marry? And hadn’t her daughter in turn married too young, and to a man who was far more strong-willed and selfish than her mother’s kind but compliant husband? Each generation rejected the choices of the generation before, never understanding the reasons behind the mother’s life. Happiness for this generation, misery for the next, but all traceable back to a rape and an unjust beating of an already miserable woman.

For me, the modern person, I’m reaching for explanations like the cycle of abuse, intergenerational trauma, transgenerational trauma, and other more systemic approaches, so as to make things less about the individual choices of each of the women through the generations. And even though Card is shaping the lens to be about how the choices of the women involved produced these generations of misery and trauma (and apparently, occasionally happiness?), the way he describes those choices makes me wonder how much the misery was brought on because of the decisions the women made, but the decisions the men in their lives made. Men assaulted Amami. A man decided to beat her for that assault rather than prosecute the assault. Another man was “more strong-willed and selfish” and Tagiri’s parents apparently have great animus with each other over things like status and power. I wonder if we looked at them, how much time would be devoted to how emasculated Tagiri’s father was, to have his wife on his level (or even above him) and so once he finally retook his place as the head of the household, like he was destined to, it must be some fault of hers not to accept the subordinate position and to be a doting wife and mother, rather than continue to try and pursue her career or otherwise maintain herself as a person of status and independence.

This entire subject seems to be one of those things where if the author has a woman passing judgment on other women, then it can’t be sexist or misogynistic. We see that replicated out here in our world as well, where women and wives get trotted out to espouse virulently anti-woman policies, and then all of the men who want to amplify that message point that a woman said it, and therefore it must be okay to promote such things.

Having already had her probationary period extended because she’s an anomaly in the system for her front-to-back thinking and viewing, the system formalizes her as an anomaly. It’s supposed to be a mark of uniqueness and possibly one of pride, but it can also come off as being creepy.

By all signs, she would have a strange and intriguing career, and her personnel file was given the rare status of a silver tag, which told anyone who had authority to reassign her that she was to be left alone or encouraged to go on with whatever she was doing. In the meantime, unknown to her, a monitor would be permanently assigned to her, to track all her work, so that in case (as sometimes happened with these strange ones) she never published, upon her death a report of her life’s work would be issues anyway, for whatever value it might then have. Only five other people had silver tags on their files when Tagiri achieved this status. And Tagiri was the strangest of them all.

So, free reign to do whatever she wants, but she also has a secret spy trying to categorize and synthesize her work and her ideas without her knowledge or participation in the matter if she never produces anything on her own (and probably will do so all the same if she does). The society? University? Foundation? in charge of Pastwatch seems much less like people who do research into the past or of their own lines or do academic work and much more like a more oppressive, shadowy type of entity.

The narrative suggests that Tagiri might have stayed doing this tracing backward to forward, but that she was reliving the life of a woman called Diko who lost a son from her village and never knew what happened to him, even though her husband and the village had turned out to try and find him. Tagiri, with the power of Pastwatch, is able to trace the life of Acho, the son, and it does not end in a tragedy of a child who wandered into hostile nature, but instead with Acho encountering an “Arab” who knocks him out and stuffs him in a bag.

A slaver, Tagiri realized at once. She had thought they did not come this far. Usually they bought their slaves from Dinkas down the White Nile, and the Dinka slavers knew better than to come into the mountains in groups so small. Their method was to raid a village, kill all the men, and take the small children and the pretty women off for sale, leaving only the old women to keen for them. Most of the Muslim slavers preferred to trade for their slaves rather than to do their own kidnapping. These men had broken with the pattern. In the old marketeering societies that nearly ruined the world, thought Tagiri, these men would have been viewed as vigorous, innovative entrepreneurs, trying to make a bit more profit by cutting out the Dinka middlemen.

Acho manages to survive his transport to be sold to someone in Cairo, where he is educated and roses to a position of power controlling the business interests of his owner and his owner’s son. Tagiri notes that even with his great success, Acho always has the look of someone who knows he has been stolen from the place he should be.

Card still isn’t making connections to Columbus yet, and the first example of slavery that Tagiri encounters, while almost certainly historically accurate, uses Muslims and Arabs and their African allies and procurers as the people behaving with evil that will turn Tagiri to the project of tracing the lives of the slaves (rather than the owners) and documenting them, remembering with Pastwatch the people who were likely barely a footnote of history in many cases. Even in the next paragraph, where we’ve fast-forwarded eight years and Tagiri has accumulated a research staff, as well as an upgraded viewer, the TruSite II that allows for computer translation of the past’s languages, we’re getting the context of what’s being watched (one of the last remaining “Indie” unenslaved populations, a few weeks before the Spanish come for them, pointed at them by those nations that have already been enslaved) and Hassan, the primary research assistant, is conveniently a Muslim as well, providing continuity of narrative and giving him the role of foil to Tagiri.

“The Spanish are getting desperate for labor down on the coast.”
“The plantations are growing?”
“Not at all,” Hassan. “In fact, they’re failing. But the Spanish aren’t very good at keeping their Indie slaves alive.”
“Do they even try?”
“Most do. The murder-for-sport attitude is here, of course, because the Spanish have absolute power and for some that power has to be tested to the limit. But by and large the priests have got control of things and they’re really trying to keep the slaves from dying.”
Priests in control, thought Tagiri, and yet slavery is unchallenged. But even though it always tasted freshly bitter in her mouth, she knew that there was no point in reminding Hassan of the irony of it—wasn’t he on the slaver project with her?

And so we’re getting a part of the Spanish slavery that’s not as terrible as it could have been, where they’re trying to keep the slaves alive, they’re just not very good at it. Tagiri feels the full force of the hypocrisy of the priests, but it’s not something she voices. The stated reason is because he already knows, but Hassan strikes me as the kind of man who is earnest in his desire to help and to record the stories of the past, but completely clueless about why other people can’t be as detached about this as he is. Tagiri might very well have explained it to him several times about how these are people’s lives, and Hassan might nod along, thinking he understands without fully getting it, because he’s a dude in a civilization that presumably is father along the equality/equity/justice line than the people they’re studying. The narrative took time to detail how Acho was captured and treated inhumanely by the Arab slaver, but here we’re getting a high-level overview of the situation that didn’t go into the details.

Plot-wise, while observing a man and woman talking about their dreams induced by nicotine water, the woman describes her dream of people observing her and the man from many generations in the future. Tagiri is startled about the description, but Hassan dismisses it as coincidence, except, of course, the details start coming out that make it much less coincidental.

“I dreamed that they watched me three times,” Putukam was saying, “and the woman seemed to know I could see her.”
Hassan slammed his hand on the Pause button. “There is no God but God,” he muttered in Arabic, “and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Tagiri knew that sometimes when a Muslim says this, it is because he has too much respect to curse the way a Christian might.

That’s, well, that’s something I might believe happens in the future where Pastwatch happens, because I am fairly certain that Muslims, regardless of what language they are speaking, are perfectly good at cursing, even to those they have respect for. It’s also interesting that Card choose what is essentially the profession of faith for a Muslim (one of the Five Pillars), and one of the ritual daily prayers, the shahadah, as the thing that Hassan says. It feels a bit like Card asked “what’s the Muslim equivalent of saying ‘Jesus Christ!’ when surprised?” and went with what he found first, rather than digging in any further to see whether it made any sense to use that phrase in that context. (A very short search dive suggests that devout Muslims, like devout Christians, are forbidden from speaking curses about others, but also that languages like Arabic have plenty of curse words that could be employed.)

Tagiri and Hassan discuss whether it is possible for the TruSite to affect the past, rather than simply observe it, with Hassan arguing that it’s not possible, because until now, nobody ever had such direct evidence, and that, theoretically, it shouldn’t be possible anyway. There’s a different gut punch that comes from the past that stands on Tagiri’s feelings of responsibility.

“But…were they white, then? Did they watch the people suffer and care nothing for it, like the white men?”
“They were dark. The woman is very black. I have never seen a person of such blackness of skin.”
“Then why don’t they stop the white men from making us slaves?”
“Maybe they can’t,” said Putukam.
“If they can’t save us,” said Baiku, “then why do they look at us, unless they are monsters who enjoy the suffering of others?”
“Turn it off,” said Tagiri to Hassan.

Tagiri immediately goes to the conclusion that if they can help the past, they should help the past, while Hassan argues that they can’t change the past, and that all of the reports and biographies that have already been published have been good enough, because now they know much more about people who were forgotten, and they have people who recognize their suffering now.

The rest of what is in store for Tagiri and Hassan is the village praying for deliverance (or a plague to wipe everyone out) to, ultimately, gods that do not save them.

Soon others from the village gathered around them and sporadically joined in the chant, especially when they were intoning the name they were praying to: Children-of-Forty-Generations-Who-Look-at-Us-from-Inside-the-Dream-of-Putukam.
They were still chanting when the Spanish, led by two shamefaced Indie guides, shambled along the path, their muskets, likes, and swords at the ready. There people made no resistance. They kept up the chant, even after they had all been seized, even as the old men, including Baiku, were being gutted with swords and pikes. Even as the young girls were being raped, all who could speak kept up the chanting, the prayer, the conjuration, until finally the Spanish commander, unnerved by it all, walked over to Putukam and drive his sword into the base of her throat, just above where the collarbones came together. With a gurgle, she died, and the chanting ended. For her, as for Baiku, the prayer was answered. She was not a slave before she died.

Having watched the destruction of the village, Tagiri returns to the question of whether they can affect the past or not. Hassan seems unwilling to entertain the possibility, because of the theory and the unlikeliness that they could make any changes with any kind of impact on the stream if history, while Tagiri has become convinced that this event they just witnessed means it’s possible for the future to affect the past in better ways.

“If we’re going to be gods,” said Tagiri, “then I think we have a duty to come up with better solutions than the people who pray to us.”
“But we’re not going to be gods,” said Hassan.
“You seem sure of that,” she said.
“Because I’m quite sure the people of our time won’t relish the idea of our world being undone in order to ameliorate the suffering of one small group of people so long dead.”
“Not undone,” said Tagiri. “Remade.”
“You’re even crazier than a Christian,” said Hassan. “They believe that one man’s death and suffering was worth it because it saved all of humankind. But you, you’re ready to sacrifice half the people who ever lived, just to save one village.”
She glared at him. “You’re right,” she said. “For one village, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
She walked away.

Maybe it’s because I know that Card leans into his Christianity hard in his life and his work, but it seems mean-spirited to have the Muslim character think of the Christians as insane for their beliefs, when it’s pretty settled, as far as I can tell, that Muslims are supposed to think of The People of the Book as people who at least worship the same deity, even if they follow different prophets to get there. (How those Muslims practice is, of course, going to have at least same variance with the doctrine, and there are different schools that prioritize the commentaries of some men over others, so it’s not unrealistic for this comment to exist, but it feels like Card is tugging on the assumed Christianity of the reader to get them to discard Hassan’s arguments before presenting the case of why, in-universe, Hassan’s arguments don’t work.)

Tagiri is correct that saving a village is too small of stakes to get Pastwatch involved in changing history rather than merely observing it, and she considers that the two likeliest positions opposing her will be the ones who are convinced that nothing Pastwatch tries to do will change the timeline in any significant way (like how the timeline of the Oxford Time Travel Universe by Connie Willis actively interferes with the historians’ abilities to travel in time so that it preserves itself and makes sure that the events that have already happened in the historians’ timeline continue to happen) and those who will want to shut down the entire project in fear that they will destroy their own timeline by making accidental changes to the timestream. Tagiri thinks both of those positions are wrong, but she can’t get any sleep after this day, and so she goes back and watches another scene – this one of Columbus landing in a space after wrecking a ship, and he and his people building a fort and trying to enslave the locals.

It was a miserable sight to see again—the way the crew attempted to make slaves of the nearby villagers, who simply ran away; the kidnapping of young girls, the gang rapes until the girls were dead.
Then the Indies of several tribes began fighting back. This was not the ritual war to bring home victims for sacrifice. Nor was it the raiding war of the Caribs. It was a new kind of war, a punishing war. Or perhaps it was not so new, Tagiri realized. These oft-viewed scenes had been completely translated and it appeared that the natives already had a name for a war of annihilation. they called it “star-at-white-man’s-village war.” The crew awoke one morning to find pieces of their sentries’ bodies scattered through the fort, and five hundred Indie soldiers in feathered splendor inside the stockade. Of course they surrendered.
The Indie villagers did not, however, adopt their captives preparatory to sacrifice. They had no intention of making these miserable rapists, thieves, and murderers into gods before they died. There was no formula declaration of “He is as my beloved son” when each Spanish sailor was taken into custody.
There would be no sacrifice, but there would still be blood and pain. Death, when it came, was a sweet relief. There were those, Tagiri knew, who relisthed this scene, for it was one of the few victories of the Idies over the Spanish, one of the first victories of a dark people over the arrogant whites. But she hadn’t the stomach to watch it all the way through; she took no joy in torture and slaughter, even when the victims of it were monstrous criminals who had tortured and slaughtered others. Tagiri understood too well that in the minds of the Spaniards, their victims had not been human. It is our nature, she thought, that hen we intend to enjoy being cruel, we must transform our victim into either a beast or a god. The Spanish sailors made the Indies into animals in their minds; all that the Indies proved, with their bitter vengeance, was that they were capable of the identical transformation.

So the first thing we watch after an account of Spanish brutality toward the natives (and the natives praying to the far-future observers for deliverance) is one of the few times that the natives are able to defeat the Spanish, and it becomes an equivocation in the mind of the African woman that the people who are being enslaved and attacked are just as capable of brutality as the white invaders are. It’s becoming rapidly apparent that Card is writing well outside his lane at this point and hasn’t bothered to characterize his future observer in any way that would reflect the history she has and her Arican-ness, even in this post-catastrophe future, nor acknowledging that she’s spent eight years working on this project so far and therefore has more than enough experience with how this usually plays out that she wouldn’t take the position that “ah well, they’re all being cruel to each other” given the legacies of the white Spaniard invaders and the natives who are enslaved. Yes, I’ll admit that I have twenty-five more years of the advancement of philosophy and critical race studies to draw upon than Card does in writing this, but Audre Lorde and Kimberlé Crenshaw and a lot of other academics, historians, and contributors were already well-established and published by the time Card wrote this, so it’s not like he’s trying to write a character where there’s not a corpus of work already present about how Blackness affects experiences and other such things.

Tagiri, despite having an African name, and African ancestry that she’s looking at, sounds like a white man. Hassan, the Muslim man, sounds like a white Christian man rather than a Muslim, even if he says superficially Muslim things. And the fact that I’m picking up on this, being white and perceived as a man much of the time, probably means it’s blatant and unmistakable to someone with lived experience of being a black woman or a Muslim man.

Eventually, after a long amount of thinking, watching this victory scene in the middle of the night, and seeing Columbus write back about all the riches that are available for plundering, and all the Christians to convert and enslave, even though he will die before any of the followers-on see that he’s completely right about the riches, and, according to the perspective of the Spanish, right about the potential slaves and converts, Tagiri goes to see Hassan and lays out her case why she thinks Christopher Columbus is sufficiently a linchpin of the timeline that altering the success of his voyage west will alleviate the suffering of so many slaves throughout history. She’s concluded that it’s the strength of his conviction, the power of his witness, that sends the fleets out after him, because the evidence he has is scant to nonexistent. If she can turn Columbus aside and defeat his voyage, then the age of slavery fails, the age of industrialization that builds on the backs of the age of slavery never comes to pass, and the situation that destroys the world that Pastwatch has recovered from potentially doesn’t happen.

Hassan is skeptical about this possibility, and argues for keeping the status quo, even though he will eventually be swayed to help Tagiri after this quoted part:

“Look at the world around us, Tagiri. Humanity is finally at peace. There are no plagues. No children die hungry or live untaught. The world is healing. That was not inevitable. It might have ended up far worse. What change could we possibly make in the past that would be worth the risk of creating a history without this resurrection of the world?”
“I’ll tell you what change would be worth it,” she said. “The world would not have needed resurrecting if it had never been killed.”
“What, do you imagine that there’s some change we could make that would improve human nature? Undo the rivalry of nations? Teach people that sharing is better than greed?”
“Has human nature changed even now?” asked Tagiri. “I think not. We still have as much greed, as much power-lust, as much pride and anger as we ever had. The only difference now is that we know the consequences and we fear them. We control ourselves. We have become, at long last, civilized.”
“So you think that we can civilize our ancestors?”
“I think,” said Tagiri, “that if we can find some way to do it, some sure way to stop the world from tearing itself to pieces as it did, then we must do it. To reach into the past and prevent the disease is better than to take the patient at the point of death and slowly, slowly bring her back to health. To create a world in which the destroyers did not triumph.”

There is an argument to be made here, although it will be quickly left behind in favor of Tagiri convincing Hassan that Columbus is the linchpin, about human nature and the question of whether even the Pastwatch society has progressed beyond the same things that consumed their ancestors and caused the problems. Being afraid of the consequences of their actions now is probably going to fade, even if they have the ability to watch all of history and document it to the point where when someone asks a question, they can see how the consequences of decisions played out in the past. Considering how much our current society seems interested in repeating the mistakes of the past that we have great documentation for, Tagiri probably has the stronger historical argument that it’s better to make something not happen in the past than let it happen and try to bring those affected back to health.

And, as it turns out, while Tagiri thinks about the consequences of giving herself the power of gods to change the past, she knows that she’s going to try and make the change.

The Europeans had had their future, had fulfilled their most potent dreams, and it was their future that now was the dark past of her world, the consequences of their choices that now were being scoured from the Earth.
European dreams led to this, to a deeply wounded world in convalescence, with a thousand years of physicking ahead, with so much irretrievably lost, to be recovered only on the holotapes of Pastwatch. So if it is in my power to undream their dreams, to give the future to another people, who is to say that it’s wrong? How could it be worse? Christopher Columbus—Cristóbol Colón, as the Spanish called him; Cristofero Columbo, as he was baptized in Genova—he would not discover America after all, if she could find a way to stop him. The prayer of the village of Ankuash would be answered.
And by answering that prayer, her own thirst would be slaked. She could never satisfy the hopeless longing in the faces of all slaves in all times. She could never wipe away the sadness in the face of her ancient great-grandmother Diko and her one-joyous little boy, Acho. She could never give their lives and bodies back to the slaves. But she could do this one thing, and by doing it, the burden that had been building up inside her all these years would finally be lifted. She would know that she had done all that was possible to heal the past.

The chapter closes with Pastwatch agreeing to look into the matter, calling it the Columbus project. Hassan gets put in charge of determining whether stopping Columbus will have the desired effect, or whether they could push on another linchpin and get a better result. Tagiri gets put in charge of a team to study how the effect of affecting the past worked and how they can harness it for the desired end. Hassan and Tagiri also apparently marry and have two children, a son named Acho who becomes a pilot and roams, and a daughter named Diko who sticks close to home and observes and learns the family research project. Tagiri throws herself into the work, because she’s haunted by what might have been if slavers had come and disrupted her family, and worse, if that happened and she knew that there were observers that did nothing to help, because they were worried that it might affect them?

What would I think of them? What kind of people would they be?

Another good question that gets asked here and then left behind is what Tagiri’s motivation is. It seems pretty clear that she’s reaching for the possibility of affecting the past because she personally feels responsible for not having done anything but watched all of the atrocities of the past. We don’t see anything other than “she’s assigned a shadow observer and everyone is told not to interfere with her” as to what the ruling entities of Pastwatch think, and they eventually go along with her to see if they’re able to affect the timeline but it seems like there isn’t an IRB or other entity assigned to watching Tagiri to make sure that she stays within the accepted ethical bounds of the project. Because even though Hassan is the person assigned to figuring out whether it’s going to work, Tagiri’s the one most likely to pull the lever, regardless of whether it works or not. And to keep pulling levers until she’s successfully rid the past of the slavers that destroyed others or wiped out her own self from the timeline.

And, of course, we have to wonder about whether Tagiri’s reasoning is actually sound, or whether because Columbus is a local influencer to the time, he’s getting outsize importance from her, and the right place to start the snowball rolling is in a different place and time entirely. If, say, Europe never really emerges from the fall of Rome in 400-500 CE, but instead falls into a warring states period where no emperor can establish a firm enough foothold to birth the kingdoms/empires that will eventually turn outward to colonize, or the Muslim empires pinch Europe from all sides and conquer them instead, do the Americas and Africa stay safe from being turned into slave populations and colonies? Is the real trick to topple kingdoms and empires at the point where they start looking to other races for their slaves, so that no continent is ever able to act imperially toward another? If the goal is to defeat white enslavement of others, a specific set of actions might work. But if the goal is to stop all enslavement, them multiple interventions will be needed by default, because a lot of societies develop slavery in their history. Columbus may appear to be the charismatic person who makes the thing happen, but there’s a lot of people and things that move behind the charismatic people at the front, and often times, they’re the ones pulling the real levers of power to bring about what the charismatic person says they’re going to do. Getting rid of the figurehead often only means a new figurehead appears and the machine itself continues on unabated.

If you have machines with the ability to look into the past and view any time that’s possible, you should be able to program those machines to take the corpus of history and extrapolate and make best guesses about what history might look like by changing certain variables, to prune off decisions that have a low probability of success.

Next week, the next generation also has some thoughts about the Columbus Project and how to best achieve the goals of changing the past to a more beneficial one.