When it comes to entertainment, books are my meat and potatoes. Always loved them, always will. I picked up novels at an early age and never stopped consuming them. There are good stories in all kinds of media, but for me, the absolute best books trump the absolute best of everything else. No matter how powerful and amazing Breaking Bad is, I was more moved by the sublime tragedy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, or the rich tapestry of family and history in The Brothers K, or the sheer raw emotive power of the writing in Sometimes a Great Notion.
This is all a lead-up to the fact that books are my real passion. At any given time, I’m reading 3, give or take 1, at once, and I get through somewhere between 50 and 100 a year. What sometimes happens, though, is that a story will really grab me and I’ll concentrate on just that one until I’m done with it. A couple weeks ago, this happened with Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder. Let me tell you how it caught my attention and why it’s worth your time.
Pathfinder tells the story of Rigg, just your average 13-year old who lives in the woods with his dad and has the ability to see the “paths” of every living thing he comes across. Which is to say, he can track them through time – when he comes across a path (which he sees as a blurred line through the air), he can tell to whom it belonged, and how old the path is. Needless to say, this skill proves invaluable to a hunter and his son living in the woods.
Of course, also needless to say, since this is a sci-fi novel, we don’t stay in the woods for long. Rigg’s father becomes mortally wounded and trapped under a tree, and sends Rigg off to the Big City with a Mysterious Message to find a Suspiciously Absent Sister.
Every chapter also begins with a short scene of something completely different: colony ship pilot Ram Odin on the brink of testing out an experimental jump drive – Earth’s first attempt to colonize another planet. On the surface, these two settings have little to do with each other, until you realize that, of course, Rigg’s world and the colony world are one and the same.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how these two settings work in parallel, gradually expanding and contracting to meet one another. Rigg’s world is tiny, and the society he lives in seems to be pre-industrial, with no knowledge of Earth or its history. Ram Odin’s colony ship is chock-full of sci-fi tech like human replicants, a jump drive, and gravity manipulation fields. What do the two have to do with each other? How do they matter to each other when they’re separated by so much time?
The answer is a little dab of time travel.
Rigg soon learns, with the help of an uneducated but startlingly astute kid named Umbo who can speed up his perception of time, that the paths he sees are actually people, and that he can interact with their previous selves in a meaningful way.
The real gem of the book is how Rigg and Umbo learn about their powers. Since it’s an Orson Scott Card novel, for every scene of them doing something, there’s five or six of them discussing and talking about the implications and ethics of that action. Card leans heavily on dialogue as a means to work out the way time travel works in his novels, which is a pretty original take on the subject.
Card has what he calls a preservation of causality. In your classic time travel story, you can generate paradoxes by setting up a situation where a character gets beat up in a fight, then travels back in time to warn his previous self about the fight so he can avoid it, but then wait, if he avoids the fight, he won’t need to travel back in time to tell him to avoid it, and oh no I’ve gone cross-eyed.
Most stories tap-dance around this issue. In the world of Pathfinder, however, such paradoxes are resolved (smashed through, more like) by the mechanics of the world itself. In this world, it’s causality that controls reality, not the other way around. Regardless of where (or when, I guess – grammar for time travel isn’t exactly a science) events occur on the timeline, they have primacy. That leads to a kind of no-holds-barred universe where it’s entirely possible to jump back in time two seconds so that your previous self doesn’t jump back in time because he notices you and now there are two versions of yourself.
Insert your own mind=blown meme
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I won’t spoil too much, because one of the great things about this book is learning, right alongside Rigg and Umbo, what’s possible and what’s not, and what exactly their simple village life has to do with a colony ship from Earth. Twists are a tough needle to thread – too many hints, and they’re not effective, too few and they come out of nowhere. The best “twists” aren’t really twists, they derive naturally from the story, but are hidden from the reader because you’re seeing things through the perspective of a character who doesn’t have the whole picture. In Pathfinder, none of the POV characters have the whole picture, or even a large part, and you have to put the pieces together yourself.
When you do, and you realize what’s happening, there’s a very, very satisfying “ah ha!” moment that makes you understand some important things about the world, gives you a fresh perspective on what’s happened before, and makes you really want to see what’s going to happen next.
A very artfully well-done buildup and slow reveal, is what we’re talking about here.
And guess what? Once it makes you hungry for more, you can go ahead and check out the sequel:
And guess what’s coming out in a few months?
Now is a great time to jump on this train.