DOBY SAXON IS A TEENAGER living on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Doby is a little troubled, having been raised by an absentee father and overstressed mother; his family is poor, and they live in a rural setting near Glacier National Park, far removed from any urban center. They live a simulacrum life, something like what their ancestors lived—hunting elk, with permits provided by the state—but with the influences of settler colonialism. Now they have casinos, markets, automobiles, schools. Doby, like many of his peers, struggles with daily life on the reservation, but Doby seems especially tortured, and the cause is unclear. Things escalate to the point where he attempts suicide, standing in the freeway in an attempt to be struck by an unsuspecting driver. Meanwhile, a century beforehand, Francis Dalimpere is assigned as the government agent to the Blackfeet. He has a difficult time communicating with the chief of the tribe, Yellow Tail, and slowly becomes unstable, writing ever more oblique and fevered letters to the fiancée he is separated from. Things culminate in the nineteenth century when Francis is tasked with distributing a winter’s rations to the tribe and accidentally ends up spoiling the meat the tribe needs to survive the winter—all in a disciplinary attempt to punish the tribe for seeming transgressions against his authority. The tribe faces famine, and Francis is wracked with guilt for his behavior. The suggestion is that the future of the Blackfeet is determined in this one moment, this one decision made by an unstable, disciplinary, white government agent. From that one event, their future is determined, leading to Doby’s suicide attempt. And Doby’s desire to kill himself seems to be motivated by having found Francis’s letters to his fiancée—and realizing that he is Francis reincarnated, doomed to live in the future that his decisions have created.
History haunts. That is the suggestion of Stephen Graham Jones’s Ledfeather (2008), where the afterlife of colonial decisions is played out. And where white Americans are usually exempt from having to live with the consequences of the decisions made during the period of westward expansion—and maintained by practices today—Francis is burdened, seemingly forever, to be reincarnated on the reservation, living through the consequences again and again. The realizations might not always come—he might not find the letters written to his fiancée, he might not come to suspect the recursive nature of his experience—nevertheless he will be burdened to live the life his decisions wrought. But it may not be the case that time is operating in this cyclical way; instead, Francis and Doby might be in the “slipstream” of time, a conception of temporality and history that sees time as occurring simultaneously (Dillon 2012). Moments, persons, events, all exist in parallel. Causality is not linear so much as it is sympathetic. Francis’s sins are revisited upon him forever, in parallel, an echo chamber of his own making. Slipstream collapses deep time. Rather than the nihilistic deferral that the displacement of the consequences of centuries of poor decision making allows, slipstream makes those consequences immediately present. The moral and ethical demands that deep time averts are unavoidable; all time, all history, is copresent, and the decisions that are made have immediate, if not always apparent, effects. Maybe this is why Francis unravels in the past, even before he has made the decision that will doom him. The fantasies of deep time—that we might be able to change something to save humanity, if not ourselves—are revealed as a progressivist delusion: there is no time other than the immediate moment, the immanent frame of now, and actions will be judged accordingly. As an indigenous writer, Jones uses slipstream as a mechanism to critique the progressive conception of time as a colonial artifact; for those living on the reservation, time doesn’t proceed in the same way. Changing time, and changing history, depends on changing how people behave in the present, not in some backward-focused way but in the immanent moment.
At the heart of much speculative fiction about time are two questions: What if you could go back in time and change just one thing? What if one change could singlehandedly eradicate centuries of pain and death? No genocide in the Americas, no Atlantic slave trade, no environmental degradation as a result of unregulated industrialization; instead, the Americas will gently develop into a single empire able to peacefully ward off colonization, made possible by a syncretic approach to Christianity that allows the fusing together of European Christian traditions and indigenous religious cosmologies in the Americas. You’ll be plucked from time to complete your mission, and all of your friends and family—your whole world and its history—will be wiped out as if they never occurred. Except that they did—they made you, after all, and you know how history was supposed to occur, and you’ll have the records to prove it to those you meet in the past, just to ensure that history doesn’t unfold like it did last time. This is the central conceit of Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1997), a bureaucratic time-travel novel that posits that Christopher Columbus’s visit to the Americas is the moment at which history tumbles into its progression toward the downfall of society and, eventually, the virtual extinction of the human species. The Anthropocene could have unfolded differently—it could have been a deliberate stewardship of peoples and the environment—if only Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas could have played out in a more coeval way. Tinkering with time to produce this mutant historiography becomes the moral demand of Card’s Pastwatch future, as humanity will come to a virtual end otherwise. To ensure the future, a new past needs to be made.
Progressive time is at the heart of Card’s mutant historiography. As Card explains,
No, explained the physicists, you’re confusing causality with time. Time itself, as a phenomenon, is utterly linear and unidirectional. Each moment happens only once, and passes into the next moment. Our memories grasp this one-way flow of time, and in our minds we link it with causality. We know that if A causes B, then A must come before B. But there is nothing in the physics of time that requires this. . . . Causality can be recursive, but time cannot. . . . Causality is irrational. (Card 1997, 215–17)
Card’s physicists and mathematicians come to this conclusion by reckoning with the fact that another group of time travelers had already intervened in history to produce their (and, presumably, our) future. Those time travelers and their history can be said to exist insofar as they have had an impact on actual history, but as soon as they made those changes in history, their history ceased to exist. As Diko, one of the protagonists of the novel, explains, “Anything sent back in time is lifted out of the causal flow. It can no longer be affected by anything that happens to the timestream that originally brought it into existence, and when it enters the timestream at a different point, it becomes an uncaused causer. When we change the past, this present will disappear” (Card 1997, 201). They could make history, but would have no history of their own. This is possible, in Card’s physics, because time is singular. In its progression, there are a series of moments, like stones in a path. There is only room for one stone for each step, and replacing a stone means that the prior stone no longer exists, but the actions that led to the movement of the stone do exist. The history that Pastwatch exists within has happened, until the moment in which they begin to undo it. In that moment, that history is extinguished from time, its stones removed from the path to make way for the unfurling of a new history. As the lead mathematician in charge of reckoning with the metaphysics of time travel explains, “the end will be painless. There will be no cataclysm. There will be no sense of loss. There will be no regret. Instead, there will be a new Earth. A new future” (Card 1997, 231). The choice to tinker with the past in this way is motivated by Card’s characters’ focus on cataloging human history with their Pastwatch technology, which first only allows them to observe the past, but eventually is refined to enable individuals to make one-way trips back in time. The history they observe is our history, full of pain and violence, full of neglect and abuse. The future that they face is one of immanent collapse: arable land is disappearing as a result of global warming and poor agricultural practices, populations around the world are confronting famine, and cheap, easily accessible fuel is no longer available. When civilization collapses, it will fall for good. If humanity survives the coming wars, famines, and epidemics, there will be no easy return to comfort. Instead, a new Stone Age will persist indefinitely. The pain, violence, and humiliations of this future can only be prevented through an intervention in the past.
This progressive view of time is explicitly put into conversation with a cyclical conception of time that Card ascribes to the indigenous people in the Americas. As Putukam, a seer among the people of Ankuash, explains, “I always thought that time moved in great circles, as if all of us had been woven into the same great basket of life, each generation another ring around the rim. . . . But when in the great circles of time was there ever such horror as these white monsters from the sea? So the basket is torn, and time is broken, and all the world spills out of the basket into the dirt” (Card 1997, 34). It’s no mistake that Card puts this view of cyclical time into the mouth of an indigenous woman. As a romantic notion of cyclical time that stands in tension with the progressive time articulated by male scientists, it’s marked as doubly irrational, associated with a woman and indigenous people; but for Card and his scientists, there is no return, no karmic wheel that spins, reincarnating individuals in a repetitive framework that persists as if without history. Time is linear and there is only one real history. The consequences of the decisions we make—and that our ancestors made—are ours to bear in a game of intergenerational hot potato. This indigenous way of reckoning time and history is literally displaced by the time travelers who return to the fifteenth century to right Columbus’s wrongs—and, by extension, all of white Europe’s. There is only one real history because there must be: if time were cyclical or if it were divergent, offering multiple possible timelines, the moral stakes of intervention would be nullified. Moreover, history isn’t inevitable as a cyclical understanding of time and history would seem to posit; instead it must be malleable so as to make an intervention even possible. Yet, alongside this malleability there must be some forces that compel human action, that make history.
Rather than see the future as inevitably produced by some biological driver in human beings—the will to tinker, the self-destructive embrace of capitalism—Card sees history as contingent, as malleable, as something that can mutate if only exposed to the right forces. Card’s temporal intervention is predicated on the malleability of history and the ability to install social norms that override “human nature.” The inevitability of history—so far as it is inevitable—is an outcome of human desires that are self-destructive at their root. If the forces that shape human action can be changed, then history can be changed as well. As Hassan, one of Card’s Pastwatch protagonists, explains, human history has finally resulted in a level of comfort and care that had previously eluded most societies—albeit only by sometime in the twenty-fourth century. Before knowing of the catastrophes that imminently face humanity, Hassan argues against the temporal intervention for precisely these reasons, suggesting that “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. . . . Do you imagine that there’s some change we could make that would improve human nature? Undo the rivalry of nations? Teaching people sharing is better than greed?” (Card 1997, 46). “Human nature,” nationalism, and “greed” are combined here to index those base human desires that caused so much seemingly inevitable harm throughout history. For Hassan, changing history might not affect these underlying drives, and events would play out as they had previously—a minor change in history might not be enough to change its arc. Had Columbus not arrived in the Americas, then someone else would, and history would unfold in the same, linear fashion, with the same apocalyptic results.
But underlying Card’s speculative argument is his conception that Columbus is a “great man,” a truly singular individual, able by himself to shape the actions of others. Columbus’s ability to sway the queen and king of Spain to fund his exploration of the Atlantic Ocean in search of a path to China is exemplary of his abilities both to be able to see what others cannot and to be persuasive—both of which Columbus attributes to divine grace, but which Card sees as his immutable nature. Despite his greatness, Kemal, one of the historians involved in the intervention, argues that what Columbus uses his greatness for is contingent:
There was nothing inevitable about [Columbus’s] westward voyage at the time he sailed. The Portuguese were on the verge of finding a new route to the Orient. No one imagined an unknown continent. The wisest ones knew that the world was large, and believed that an ocean twice the width of the Pacific stretched between Spain and China. Not until they had a sailing vessel they believed was capable of crossing such an ocean would they sail west. . . . It was because Columbus came to America, with his relentless faith that he had found the Orient. Merely stumbling on the landmass meant nothing—the Norse did it, and where did that lead? . . . It was not the fact that somebody sailed west that led to the European conquest of America and thus the world. It was because Columbus did it. (Card 1997, 47)
Columbus is posited as a great man of history, an individual who can compel the actions of others, singlehandedly shaping history’s course. Key to Columbus’s greatness is his faith in a Christian god. The ability of the first Interveners to shape Columbus’s actions depended on his piousness, convincing him that there was a New World to explore—and to convert to Christianity. Card sees Columbus’s Christianity as malleable, too: when confronted with his racism by Diko, who has taken on the visage of Sees-In-The-Dark, a seer in Ankuash, he is quick to change his behaviors toward those he meets in the Americas, and to condemn the actions of his crew who continue to act in un-Christian fashion, even if such racism was practiced in fifteenth-century Europe without contradicting interpretations of Christianity. Columbus’s Christianity is also supple enough to be shaped in such a way as to help engineer a move away from slavery. In so doing, the members of Pastwatch seek to minimize the pain and violence of our history, and to set social norms onto a more egalitarian path.
Among the discoveries that Pastwatch has overseen through their time-observation technology is that of Atlantis, a protocity in the plains that would become the Red Sea. Kemal, a Muslim historian, is the one who makes the discovery, and along with his observations of the mythical city, now proven to be real, he also learns that the Biblical Noah was also real—and the story of the flood that Noah foretells is both an environmental parable, and the beginning of a set of cultural practices that are adopted among the young civilizations that follow in Atlantis’s wake. One of these practices is slavery, and as Kemal explains, it was the invention of one person:
Slavery was not inevitable. It was invented, at a specific time and place. We know when and where the first person was turned into property. It happened in Atlantis, when 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. . . . It became the foundation of their city, the fact that the slaves were doing the citizens’ duty in digging the canals and planting and tending the crops. Slavery was the reason they could afford the leisure to develop a recognizable civilization. . . . Slavery was a direct replacement for human sacrifice. (Card 1997, 94–95)
The practice of slavery and its malleability is set against the inevitable forces of human nature, and, here, Card sees slavery as based on “value.” The first slave owner depends on the use of money, of a system of abstract value, which is able to substitute a cost for human life. From that initial purchasing of a human life, the European system of slavery slowly develops until it reaches the Americas and is fueled by the European expansion into Africa as well. Card compares that system of slavery, which depends on the abstractions of capitalism, to the forms of slavery that developed independently in the Americas. There, slavery remains steadfastly in support of sacrificial practices, never making the leap to the abstraction of life’s value. It is no better, really, but doesn’t propel the market system in the same way—and, as Card’s indigenous American historian, Hunahpu, explains, it was about to lead to the downfall of the Aztecs: they simply couldn’t produce enough food to feed their citizens as they sacrificed too many viable laborers. A reformed Columbus would be able to steer their practices away from sacrifice—and away from slavery altogether—through a syncretic understanding of Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate appeasement of the blood-hungry gods of Xibalba. It’s hard here to separate Card’s time-traveling tinkering with his own Mormonism, but it may be his own piousness that allows him to think beyond the seemingly inevitable forces of European Christianity and to embrace the promise of an American syncretism that could allow for an acceptance of doctrine that moved beyond orthodoxies and inquisitions. The future, Card suggests, must be syncretic; it might also need to be Christian. But if it is, it will be a mutant Christianity that allows for a diverse set of interpretations and practices. This might be unappealing for secularists, but Card suggests that the pragmatic use of Christianity might serve both as an antiracist ideology as well as the basis for a politics of environmental stewardship that averts the Anthropogenic apocalypse. Columbus is our Noah, and the linear history he will set in motion—in our time—is not the best possible series of events, but failing the invention of time-travel technologies, they are the series of events we are burdened to live through over and over in the slipstream of the Anthropocene.
Card’s intervention in time points to the critical need for syncretism, the need to combine ways of thinking to move beyond the dogmatic theoretical positions defined by earlier modes of thought. Card wants to pervert readings of Christianity that are exclusionary and that motivate bigotry and violence. He also wants to create a challenge for contemporary readers to rethink their relationship to time, causality, and history. Taken together, Card’s concerns ask readers to reassess their ethical frame for the present moment. If this is the timeline that results in an intervention that will eradicate it, is there something that can be done in the present to alter our timeline, without time travel? Jones does the same: in his recursive slipstream narrative that unsettles the decision making of colonial administrators in the past by forcing at least one of them to bear the consequences now in a constantly reverberating echo of time, causality, and history, can something be done to change the course of history? Those speculative questions are at once deeply theoretical—what is the nature of time, causality, and history?—and also deeply social. Social theory in this speculative idiom is not just a game of “what if?” but a challenge to complacency and resignation. Not content to simply diagnose the problem that faces society, speculative fiction asks us to think about how it might be otherwise and what might be done to bring a better future into being. Moving beyond staid efforts at diagnosis, social theory produced about what might be is necessarily unsettling. Card asks readers to consider whether they want history as they have known it to be eradicated as a result of their inaction. Jones asks readers if there is anything to be done in the present to change the course of history. They both ask, implicitly, whether we can mutate away the “madness gene” and its consequences to produce a better present and future. This mutation will be surprising and challenging and might not be something that anyone is ready for. But we know the present, with its inequities, violence, and fear. And we know the likely futures we face, even if we can’t imagine their collective consequences. The blindnesses and comforts of the present contrive to obscure our likely futures.
There must be a way out.