All reviews and site design © by Thomas M. Wagner. Wink the Astrokitty drawn by Matt Olson. All rights reserved. Book cover artwork is copyrighted by its respective artist and/or publisher.

Search Tips Advanced Search
Search engine by Freefind

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHistory, as they say, is written by the winners. Which is to say, what we’re taught about the past is very likely not the whole story. Winners are highly motivated to remain winners, and if that means what we learn about history gets heavily edited by those in power, then it’s up to us to work that much harder to get to the truth. But what if history itself, and not just the teaching of it, could be edited? You know exactly the kinds of people who would be all over that.

The concept of time travel and the dangers and consequences of altering the past is a premise that’s gotten a vigorous workout over the years in science fiction. Poul Anderson wrote several stories about the Time Patrol, who prevent time traveling troublemakers from screwing around with the past and erasing entire timelines. Similarly, Fritz Leiber wrote about the Change War (arguably not all that well). And in more contemporary entertainment we naturally have stuff like the Terminator franchise. But what about a time war saga that’s rooted in current political concerns about ongoing efforts to roll back women’s and LGBT+ civil rights? If that sounds too political to you, try to remember that every alternate history story is about speculating on political inflection points. If one of these stories makes you uncomfortable and another doesn’t, maybe that’s a reflection on who you think the winners should be.

The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz’s brilliant second novel, sets up a pretty unique time travel scenario. Geological time “Machines” exist in five locations around the world. Theyve been in place since at least the Ordovician Period, roughly 450 million years ago, give or take. Are they machines? Were they put there by aliens like the Monoliths in 2001? Or are they some kind of bizarre natural phenomena operating under laws we haven’t begun to understand? No one quite knows.

All anyone does know is that when specific rhythmic patterns are tapped onto the ground, the Machines can transport you in time. And travelers have been using the Machines since the earliest days of recorded civilization. But there are rules, which no one can explain. You can’t travel into your own future, only into the past and back. You can bring the clothes on your back but no technology from your time. If you want to travel at all, you first have to live for four years within 20 kilometers of a Machine. And no, you can’t go back and shoot Hitler or do anything else that would be an attempt at massive historical change in one go. Somehow there is a self-correcting process involved here. Early in the book we find out that some travelers who went back to assassinate an imperialistic French general were shocked to learn that their target had simply been replaced by an equally tyrannical upstart named Napoleon.

But the novel doesn’t work because it’s got some Sanderson-like focus on systems and rules. It works because of its beautifully drawn characters, its immersive depiction of both past and present settings, and because Newitz knows exactly how much to leave unexplained, so that we can still suspend our disbelief and never get confused despite all the time-hopping. (There’s a moment when we realize that a timeline has actually changed the past for one of the characters, but they don’t know it, and it’s finessed masterfully.) Finally, it works because of the very real passion Newitz has for its themes of freedom and personal autonomy for those living on society’s margins.

We follow two women from two different time periods, whose lives intertwine, but not in the way we expect. Beth is a teenager nearing her high school graduation in 1992, in Irvine, California (or in this timeline, Alta California). Beth’s father is a scumbag in more ways than one, and her mother is distant. So she finds solace in her group of friends and the SoCal punk rock/riot grrl scene. But she has one friend, Lizzy, who turns into Dexter whenever they come across abusive, skeevy men, and it’s a worrying habit, to say the least.

Tess is a traveler from 2022 living in an America where, among other things, abortion has been illegal for decades. She works with a group of women calling themselves the Friends of Harriet, after Harriet Tubman — who, in this timeline, became a Senator — and she has discovered that the same group of men are turning up in multiple pasts, pushing a misogynist agenda. These men, as it happens, are working with the infamous 19th century moral crusader and culture warrior Anthony Comstock, to make edits to the timeline that erase all gains in women’s rights. A woman from the distant future, Morehshin, shows up to confirm their goal is a society to make Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale look like a garden party.

Once the Comstockers have locked in all of their edits, they plan to destroy the Machines to prevent time travel altogether. So time is of the essence to stop them, and the time in which to do it appears to be 1893, at the legendary Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the Columbian Exposition), where Comstock himself will have to be confronted head-on.

If you’re foolishly tempted to roll your eyes at the premise of a war between the sexes like this, consider how everything Newitz’s story is talking about has only become more disturbingly relevant even in the few brief years since its publication. The United States in the 2020s is in the grip of an evangelical movement in politics that can only be called fascistic, and it has already made great gains in rolling back women’s reproductive rights, as well as book bans, censorship of history education in public schools, and an unprecedented wave of attacks on the LGBT+ community. It’s tempting, but you can’t really dismiss it as the final, flailing death throes of a calcified, pathological belief system that knows it’s on its way to the dustbin of history, because even if it is dying, it’s causing as much actual damage as it can on the way out.

Tess and Beth both feel like genuine, lived-in characters, and the women and men they encounter on their journeys are warm and real. As the Chicago World’s Fair is an event I’ve often fantasized about going back in time to visit, these scenes are my personal favorites. Newitz populates them with both real figures from history, like the music empresario Sol Bloom, and fictive women who are pastiches of real people. Most colorful of these is the “hoochie coochie” dancer Lady Asenath, based on a dancer who went by the name Little Egypt. Throughout the book, the storytelling is briskly paced and never less than completely absorbing. The Future of Another Timeline is a timely and thrilling tale to remind us all that each one of us can make our own timeline the best it can be, even through the smallest actions, if we have the courage to rage against the machine.