Annalee Newitz’s new science fiction novel, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE, is about to be published – it comes out on September 24. Here is my review. I got to read an advance copy of the novel thanks to Netgalley, which asks me in return to write a review. I loved the novel, but in order to explain it I will need to be a bit nerdy. I will try to avoid too many spoilers, but give a warning when one I cannot omit discussing is about to come up.
The novel is set in a United States, and a world, that is similar but not identical to our own. In the world of the novel, time travel is a reality; there are five portals, in Canada, Jordan, Mali, India, and Australia, which allow people to travel into the past (but not into the future). Nobody knows who or what forces created the portals; they have existed for hundreds of millions of years, at least since the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Time travel is an object of academic study, in the field of geochronology, which seems to combine geology and history.
There are two main protagonists in the novel. Tess is a geochronolgist and a professional time traveler; she is based in California just-past-the-present (in the year 2022), but spends a lot of time in the late nineteenth century. Tess is tough and resourceful, but also deeply troubled. Beth is a teenager in Irvine, California in 1993, who is fascinated by geochronlogy, and also likes to go hear riot grrl bands. Newitz gives us vivid descriptions of a number of such bands, which never actually existed but which really ought to have; this alternative-punk invention is one of the pleasures of the novel. Of course, Tess’ and Beth’s trajectories intersect over the course of the book; but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will not say anything more specific about how this happens.
Aside from the existence of time travel, the biggest difference between the world of the novel and our actual world is that, at least at the start of the novel, abortion is still illegal in the United States both in 1993 and in 2022. The timeline is also different in other subtle but important ways. Reconstruction was not brutally halted in the world of the novel as it was in our own world in the 1870s; and as part of the process, women were given the vote (half a century before they actually attained it) alongside black people. On the other hand, the Victorian backlash against women’s sexuality was even more brutal in the world of the novel than it was in ours.
But due to the existence of time travel, all this is subject to revision. Tess and her friends use time travel not just to do scholarly research, but also to change history in various ways. How this is done is one of the main innovations of THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE. Usually in science fiction, the paradoxes of time travel are sidestepped by using the multiple-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. If you change the timeline, in effect you create a new universe that diverges from the previously-existing one, without abolishing it. This allows you, for instance, to go back in time and kill your grandfather without thereby eliminating your own subsequent existence; you still exist in your own timeline, but you also create a different one in which you are never born. The trouble with this approach is that it means that you cannot really change anything; even if you go back and kill Hitler and create a world without the Holocaust, the world in which Hitler and the Holocaust happened continues to exist as well. This is unsatisfactory, because it means that you cannot really ever change things at all.
But THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE takes a different approach. Here, there is only one timeline. If you succeed in changing things in the past, then the present you return to is altered as well. Only the person who went back and intervened can remember the earlier state of the timeline; everyone else only remembers the past the way it was revised. At one point in the novel — WARNING: HERE IS A SPOILER THAT I CANNOT AVOID DISCUSSING — Beth gets pregnant, and has an illegal abortion. Later, after Tess has changed the timeline so that abortions became legal in the late 20th century after all, Beth instead remembers going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion, which she gets despite being vilified on the way by fundamentalist-Christian extremists. Only Tess knows that abortions used to be illegal in 1993, but became legal back then due to her own “edits” of the timeline. I enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this metahistorical revisionism.
What this leads to is a time-editing war, between feminists and misogynists. Both sides go back to the past in order to change historical outcomes. As the novel traces this history of revisions to history, we go back not only to 1993, but to the famous Chicago world’s fair (the Columbian Exhibition) of 1893, to the Nabataean Kingdom of 13 BCE, and even to the Paleozoic Era, when the world was dominated by trilobites. Along the way, Newitz drops a lot of vivid historical references, most of them more or less true of our own world. We meet a number of personalities who really existed in the late 19th century, including the notorious censor Anthony Comstock, and the really cool feminist anarchist Lucy Parsons.
You can read this book as an empowering feminist story — I don’t think I am really giving away a spoiler when I say that the good guys win — but also as an intensely thoughtful form of speculation (which is what science fiction at its best does). In the course of its rousing story, THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE asks us to think about a number of big subjects. For instance: how does history happen? To what extent do Great Men – or Great Women – make a difference, and to what extent does it depend on collective action? What is possible at any given time, and how are possibilities limited? Do small changes make a difference, as opposed to major historical events? Or another example: how do memory and history work in the case of individual personalities? In the course of the novel, Tess breaks one of her group’s main taboos, which is that you aren’t supposed to change your own personal timeline; as a result, she suffers greatly from extreme cognitive dissonance.
The novel also makes us think about contingency and precarity. Even when the feminists succeed in changing the timeline for the better, we remain aware that the bad guys could try to change it back. I think this speaks to one of the biggest issues that we are facing today. In order to keep hope alive, we need to have some sort of faith in the possibility of progress. The gains made by people of color, by women, by gays and lesbians, by trans people, and so on, over the past fifty years, give at least some credence to the hope expressed by Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But at a time of Trump and all the other fascistoid leaders in power around the world, and the renewed attacks in the US on fundamental freedoms like abortion rights and voting rights, we must also realize that these victories are precarious, that we can never totally guarantee that they will last, that we cannot take anything for granted, that we must continue struggling and remain vigilant. This is grim, but it is not a counsel of despair: and it is something that we really need to keep in mind in these troubled times. THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE is one of those not-common-enough novels that addresses important questions, and really helps us think about them.