Book Review: The Future Of Another Timeline Is The Riot Grrl Feminist Time Travel Fantasy We Need Right Now
Back in a different timeline (before the pandemic) we previewed the new sci-fi novel by Annalee Newitz – The Future Of Another Timeline. However with so much going on in the world, I didn’t get around to reading it until it ended up on a reading list for my feminist book club. (At least I was the one who recommended the book!) Now that I’ve read it and discussed it with my fellow feminists and aspiring time travelers, I’m ready to dive into a review. So join me won’t you, and let’s travel through time together.
The Future Of Another Timeline Is The Second Novel From Newitz
Photo by Sarah Deragon | Image via Author’s Website
Annalee Newitz is known for many things. They have written for Popular Science and Wired magazines. Newitz co-founded Other magazine with partner Charlie Jane Anders. They were editor-in-chief of io9 and Gawker for years. Currently they work as a contributing opinions editor for The New York Times. This is the second novel that Newitz has published, following Autonomous published in 2017. (Newitz also changed their gender pronouns from ‘she/her’ to the neutral ‘they/them/theirs’ in 2019 – in case anyone was wondering.)
The Future Of Another Timeline came out back in September of 2019 (i.e. a lifetime ago) and kind of flew under the radar. I didn’t hear nearly as much buzz about it as I have about books published by other former Gawker writers like Charlie Jane Anders and Lindy West. And this lack of attention is a shame, because the book is smart, fascinating, and extremely timely.
Waging A War Over The Past
The book centers around two female characters living in different timelines. Beth is a high school student in the 90’s, living her best punk rock/riot grrl life. In the beginning of the book Beth gets caught up in a murder after the attempted rape of a female friend. The events that unfold in her timeline have major ramifications on the primary protagonist Tess. The latter is a Traveler, the name given to those who travel through time ostensibly to study history.
In reality, Tess is part of an organization known as the Daughters of Harriet. The group follows the teachings of Harriet Tubman (who in this timeline became a Senator). And they are waging a secret war across time against a group of violent misogynists. Both groups are trying to edit the timelines to create the future they want to live in. The women (plus some non-binary folks) are struggling to edit the timeline to engender equal rights for women. The men are trying to create a world where they hold all the power, and women are just stock to be used for breeding.
How Successful Is The Future of Another Timeline?
Image via Tor
There are a lot of ideas in this book. And I wish that this had been the first book of an ongoing series, or a trilogy. It feels like there are three separate novels that exist in this one book. And coming in at under 400 pages there isn’t a lot of room for those stories to breathe. Often Beth’s storyline feels completely disassociated from the time traveling of Tess and the other Travelers. In the end they all tie together of course, but it feels a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Still, these things did not keep me from enjoying the book and wanting to read more about the characters involved.
There are also many disturbing elements to the book: abortion, rape, murder, and violence are all part of the story. Newitz utilizes the tropes of women who have been sexually assaulted seeking revenge. I feel like Newitz wanted to subvert these tropes. However, at times it feels like they fell into the trap of using these heavy issues as plot device. These issues need to be handled carefully, but in under 400 pages it can be difficult to be nuanced or subtle. Still it is to Newitz’s credit that none of these plot points felt gratuitous or unnecessary, even if they were a little triggering to read.
How Would The World Change If We Had Time Travel Machines?
Why is it so hard to find images of wormholes? | Image via Unsplash
The time travel elements of the book are fascinating. The devices that are used for the time travel are described as ancient machines with unknown origins. The machines were discovered thousands of years ago, meaning that the entirety of human history has been altered repeatedly. The entire world knows that time travel is possible, and there is plenty of cognitive dissonance surrounding it. The Daughters of Harriet start each meeting by recounting timelines that they remember. It is possible to change the past, but the women who have lived through the changes can remember their alternate timelines when others do not.
I have a philosophical issue with the idea that time travel has always existed in this world, and yet history somehow unfolded almost identically to our own world. It seems to me that if you write something like this into a story, something that fundamentally reshapes the world where the story is being told then the world should be different too. I know that Newitz wanted to stick close to familiar history for thematic parallels to emerge. But I can’t help but feel like it would have made more sense for this world to be entirely different. A self-contained fantasy world would have made more sense to me. A world that started off like our own, but was drastically altered by the knowledge and use of time travel. But I digress.
A Darker Timeline Than Our Own
In the beginning of the book it is made clear that the timeline of the books is close to our own world, but there are major differences (other than the time travel itself obviously). For example, other women can remember a timeline when abortion was legal in the United States. Tess has never lived in such a timeline, and one of her primary goals is to edit history to gain access to abortion and birth control. This is a fundamental feminist issue, and the primary goal that the group seeks to achieve.
An image of the Chicago Worlds Fair via Wikimedia Commons
In order to achieve this goal, the group focuses on one man who did alter the course of American history. Anthony Comstock, the man who set into motion the anti-obscenity laws known as the Comstock Laws. Tess travels back in time to 1893 and the Chicago World’s Fair. This sets off a plotline involving belly dancing and freedom of speech and expression. In our timeline, Comstock did try to shut down the dance halls, and had a woman (Ida Craddock) arrested for obscenity. Comstock drove Craddock to suicide, a plot point that is reflected and subverted in the alternate timeline of Newitz’s book. The 1893 storyline is the strongest of the many plotlines in the novel. It introduces a fascinating cast of characters, including many real-life historical figures.
Collective Action As A Force For Change In The World
There is an argument that persists in The Future of Another Timeline between the Travelers. Does killing one man change the course of history? Or does that change require small actions (or edits) from many people working together? This question is clearly relevant to the timeline that we all live in. Would voting out one racist/xenophobic/sexist president change the oppressive institutions that were already in place? Or do we require more collective action, people working together to change the structure of society so it is more equal for everyone?
It is this kind of philosophical argument that makes the book feel very much like a zeitgeist, while also presenting timeless questions and historical injustices that continue to persist. Newitz makes the reader examine these questions, and take a hard look at the timeline we live in.
In the end, The Future of Another Timeline is a fascinating read. The characters are compelling and true to life. The book’s salient messages about the nature of time and how history affects us is highly relevant. Although the book is a bit messy and uneven in places, the strength of the concept and writing carries it through. Recommended for time travel fans, history buffs, and feminists everywhere.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.