Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Stitching the story together

I've opined before that creative writing is, in many ways, akin to the process of putting a patchwork quilt together -- the goal is to take various bits and pieces culled from life experiences, other people's stories, random news articles, myths and fairy tales, and whatever else takes your fancy, and sew them together as deftly as possible to create what appears to be a seamless whole. Most of the time, when highly skilled storytellers go to work, they create novels and short stories that are so well written as to seem flawless.

But sometimes, every now and again, a reader can see the seams in a story.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the story was poorly written. More often than not, it means that the reader knows the author, or knows something about the author, and so is able to identify where a particular bit of background texture or a plot point comes from. The stitches may be so close and even as to be nearly invisible, but you can identify it as patchwork because you can remember the shirt from which it was cut.

Here are a few recent examples from a book I just finished reading, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, a 1996 novel by Orson Scott Card. Pastwatch is a great read. Its central conceit is a future in which people have developed and refined a technology that allows them to see as far back into the past as they choose, and to observe the fine details of various people's lives. Seeing the many social and personal wounds inflicted by the institution of slavery, one woman decides that she must find a way to alter the past and bring greater justice to the world.

Now that's an interesting premise, and you could go in many different directions with the basic idea. (I immediately began asking myself, "How would such technology affect belief systems? What would happen if you could see for yourself whether Jesus really walked on water, or whether Mohammed actually flew to the various heavens on a winged steed called Buraq, or whether Moses truly parted the Red Sea and allowed the Israelites to walk through on dry ground? How does belief in human beings as a unique creation survive when you're able to see the lives of creatures like Lucy and track the processes of human evolution? By being able to see past events with perfect clarity and certitude, would people lose their faith altogether or develop greater faith than before?" While these questions are not directly addressed in Pastwatch, some characters are depicted as overtly religious, so one assumes they must have found a way to reconcile their beliefs with the knowledge of past events.) But Card decides that the most profitable use of his premise is to focus on a linchpin individual, one whose life changed the course of history: the man known variously as Cristoforo Colombo, Cristóbal Colón and Christopher Columbus. Card (and, by extension, his characters) posits that by changing one man's life, one man's heart, it might be possible to change the entire course of world history in a single stroke.

The first time I noticed a seam in this book was relatively early in the tale. As the Pastwatch participants discuss the relative merits of attempting to retroactively change their past, a character called Kemal points up the differences between slavery and other forms of human bondage. Here's what he says on page 93:
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.
Now, this historical tidbit could have originated from any number of places. It could have come from the Bible, where Nebuchadnezzar takes the Judean King Zedekiah captive, except one can hardly claim Zedekiah was "never harmed" -- they first killed his sons before his eyes, then blinded him and put him in chains to be hauled off to Babylon. (Poor Zedekiah.) It could have come from medieval history, as in the case of Guy de Lusignan, king of the Crusader state of Jerusalem who was captured and held by Saladin, except Guy was only held prisoner for about a year -- no generations of descendants kept in captivity there. But I'm almost certain I know the origin of this idea because Orson Scott Card, like me, is a Mormon. Which means the most likely place he found this tidbit to sew into his story was the book of Ether, a section of the Book of Mormon, where it seems to be a favored political tactic of a people called the Jaredites:
And it came to pass that Hearthom reigned in the stead of his father. And when Hearthom had reigned twenty and four years, behold, the kingdom was taken away from him. And he served many years in captivity, yea, even all the remainder of his days.
And he begat Heth, and Heth lived in captivity all his days. And Heth begat Aaron, and Aaron dwelt in captivity all his days; and he begat Amnigaddah, and Amnigaddah also dwelt in captivity all his days; and he begat Coriantum, and Coriantum dwelt in captivity all his days... (Ether 10:30-31)
Another place where the seams show, although not very clearly, is in Kemal's previous discovery of the ancient civilization on which the Atlantis legend was based, and the life of a man called Yewesweder who survived the destruction of his people by flood, and whose experiences were gradually transformed into the Biblical account of Noah. It's an interesting story, and it is carefully seamed into the greater whole of Pastwatch (the connection: Yewesweder's civilization was the first to invent the concept of slavery), but there was a quality about it that felt tangential, as though the whole tale could have been excised without significant damage to the rest of the book. From a cursory reading of the author's notes, I knew that this book took Card considerably more time to finish than he'd anticipated, and that he left his publishers hanging a long time before it finally came to press. Could this section of the book have come from a short story he'd written earlier, or a piece of another book he'd started and never finished, as a way of padding out the novel?

Actually, yes. From the copyright page:
This novel includes a summary of the novella "Atlantis," copyright © 1992, published in Grails: Quests, Visitations and Occurrences, ed. by Richard Gilliam, Martin H. Greenberg and Edward E. Kramer.
So a novella published four years earlier becomes part of a later novel. And though Card does a very good job weaving it into a greater story, there are still places where the seams show.

Finally, there is another kind of seam, though one much more difficult to detect: the way Card's personal faith affects the choices of his characters. Card is a staunch believer in the teachings and divinity of Jesus Christ, and his belief system shapes the course of his novel through the use of characters making painful personal sacrifices to achieve a greater goal.


Tagiri, the woman who decides to stop Christopher Columbus from bringing slavery to the New World, undergoes a psychological journey where she experiences a very deep change of heart. From her passionate determination to stop the horror and injustice of slavery, she becomes enmeshed in a project designed to change the past -- and in so doing, she is made aware not only of the doomed future of her own timeline, but the very strong probability that changing the past will create a time paradox that will cause her, all potential future generations, and all the past generations back to 1492, never to have existed. Tagiri therefore has to make a terrible choice for her entire timeline: do nothing and potentially doom humanity to extinction, or send people back to fix the past and wipe out the very existence of billions of people, including herself. Although she is never described as a Christian, her agonized decision to make the necessary sacrifice to salvage mankind's future defines Tagiri as a type of Christ figure.

Likewise, the three people chosen to go back into the past also function as Christ figures. Not only do they sacrifice the continuity of their lives in the past and sever their connection to their entire society, but Hunahpu and Diko choose to sacrifice the love that has grown between them, and Kemal literally lays down his life for the cause. All three participants, though working separately, are united by a single goal: to make both the Old and New Worlds kinder, more tolerant of others, and more authentically Christian.

(A tiny bit of irony: by creating a timeline in which more people are true Christians, Card may have caused another kind of paradox. A timeline wherein Christian beliefs prevail would probably be one in which the Protestant Reformation would not need to occur, and thus a timeline in which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would never have come into being. Thus Card's personal beliefs, strongly influenced by Mormon doctrine, helped him to craft a fictitious timeline in which Mormonism probably wouldn't exist. Weirdness reigns in science fiction!)


Now, does any of this seam detection detract from Pastwatch as a novel? Not to my way of thinking. As I wrote above, it's a great read. And just because it's possible to see the seams in a story doesn't make the story any less worthy of your time. In fact, in some ways, being able to see where the sections of the story came from and how they coalesced creates a greater understanding and enjoyment of the whole -- like looking over the pieces of fabric in a patchwork quilt, being able to identify the places where they came from, and appreciating the overall beauty and comfort of the quilt all the more because you happen to have a bit of the inside story.

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