Is our writers learning? The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE by Annalee Newitz is very much a curate’s egg for me: parts of it are awesome, but I skimmed about half of it. Though that’s more from personal taste than finding flaws (caution: spoilers follow).

The setting is the present, but in a world where ginormous ancient time machines have been found around the world. For centuries people have been popping back and forth through time which has led to some changes: women got the vote in the 1800s, Harriet Tubman became a senator but thanks to the odious anti-sex activist Anthony Comstock, abortion has never been legal in the United States.

The protagonists, Tess, is one of the self-proclaimed Daughters of Harriet working to edit the timeline for women’s good. Early on they discover a group of men’s rights activists and Comstock admirers pushing in the other direction: they want to establish male supremacy (I don’t know if “Full reproductive access!” is actually an online misogynist phrase but it fits perfectly), then smash the machines so that their edits can’t be undone.

As you can tell, this book is decidedly political, which is its great strength. It’s what I thought Weighing Shadows would be and wasn’t. And I find the alternate timeline tends to be more complex than Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It’s an improvement in lots of ways, but not utopian, even for women (no abortion), nor are all the women on the side of good. And as they note at the end it’s always possible someone could edit their gains away (their win over the Comstockers is more muted than I’d have liked, though given our current politics I can understand the feeling). I do think a world where people are constantly making edits would be a lot weirder and more confused (much like R.A. Lafferty’s short story Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne), but that would probably get in the way of the story.

And I really like the academic dickering over just how much change is possible: is the great man theory of history just a myth (you kill Genghis Khan or Comstock and nothing changes)? Is gradual social change the only option? One character notes that these academic theories seem to go in and out of fashion in cycles. Newitz herself seems to be advocating for both individual action and collective movements; happily the politics never feels like it’s turning the book into a Western Union.

So what didn’t I like? Well, the sections set back in the 19th century dragged for me; I’m not much of a fan of historical fiction and this got much more into that vein than “time traveler in the past” (possibly I’m parsing too finely but that’s how my taste runs). And then there was … Beth.

Beth is the other half of the book, a rebellious 1990s teen with a psycho best friend, Lizzy, who kills people (which felt like a bad knockoff of the film River’s Edge). Tess shows up and tries to walk Beth away from the madness but Beth doesn’t want to give up her friends. It looks like Tess is Future Beth but it turns out she’s Future Lizzy: Beth killed herself after getting an abortion which radically changed Lizzy’s perspective on everything. Tess came back to steer her away from suicide and succeeds, but as a consequence finds her mind snapping under the weight of new, radically different memories (something handled better here than in most time-travel films).

This bored me silly. I was in my thirties in the 1990s; I have no nostalgia for the era’s teen life and teen life is something I get less interested in as I get older. So it may just be a mismatch with my personal taste — I don’t think a 1990s teen setting is any worse an idea than me putting Southern Discomfort in the 1970s for instance. Though that said, I pegged that Beth’s father molested her at least 100 pages before the big reveal (any time someone refers to that Terrible Unstated Thing Daddy Did, it’s a safe bet).

Despite my lack of interest in Beth, the good stuff made this a satisfying read.

#SFWApro. Cover design Will Staehle, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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