The Future of Another Timeline

by Annalee Newitz

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 0-7653-9212-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 350

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Tess is a time traveler from 2022, a member of the semi-secret Daughters of Harriet who are, under the cover of an academic research project, attempting to modify the timeline to improve women's rights in the United States. Beth is a teenager in suburban Irvine in Alta California, with an abusive father, a tight-knit group of friends, and a love of feminist punk rock. The story opens with both of them at a Grape Ape concert in 1992. Beth is hanging out with her friends, and Tess is looking for signs of a conspiracy to alter the timeline to further restrict the rights of women.

The Future of Another Timeline has a great science fiction premise. There are time machines buried in geologically-stable bedrock that have been there since before any current species evolved. The first was discovered by humans thousands of years before the start of the story. They can be controlled with vibrations in the rock and therefore don't need any modern technology to operate. Humanity has therefore lived with time travel for much of recorded history, albeit with a set of rules strictly imposed by these mysterious machines: individuals can only travel to their own time or earlier, and cannot carry any equipment with them. The timeline at the start of the book is already not ours, and it shifts further over the course of the plot.

Time travel has a potentially devastating effect on the foundations of narrative, so most SF novels that let the genie of time travel out of the bottle immediately start trying to stuff it back in again. Newitz does not, which is a refreshing change. The past is not immutable, there is no scientific or magical force that prevents history from changing, and people do not manage to keep something with a history of thousands of years either secret or well-controlled. It's not a free-for-all: There is a Chronology Academy that sets some rules for time travelers, the Machines themselves have rules that prevent time travel from being too casual, and most countries have laws about what time travelers are allowed to do. But it's also not horribly difficult to travel in time, not horribly uncommon to come across someone from the future, and most of the rules are not strictly enforced.

This does mean there are some things that one has to agree to not think about. (To take the most obvious example, the lack of government and military involvement in time travel is not believable, even given its constraints. One has to accept this as a story premise.) But it removes the claustrophobic rules-lawyering that's so common in time travel stories and lets Newitz tell a more interesting political story about the difficulty of achieving lasting social change.

Unfortunately, this is also one of those science fiction novels that is much less interested in its premise and machinery than I was as a reader. The Machines are fascinating objects: ancient, mysterious, and as we learn more about them over the course of the story, rich with intriguing detail. After reading this summary, you're probably curious where they came from, what they can do, and how they work. So am I, after reading the book. The Future of Another Timeline is completely uninterested in that or any related question. About halfway through the book, a time traveler from the future demonstrates interfaces in the time machines that no one knew existed, the characters express some surprise, and then no one asks any meaningful questions for the rest of the book. At another point, the characters have the opportunity to see a Machine in something closer to its original form before aspects of its interface have eroded away. They learn just enough to solve their immediate plot problem and show no further curiosity.

I found this immensely frustrating, in part due to the mixed signaling. Normally if an author is going to use a science fiction idea as pure plot device, they avoid spending much time on it, implicitly warning the reader that this isn't where the story is going. Newitz instead provides the little details and new revelations that normally signal that understanding these objects will be a key to the plot, and then shrugs and walks away, leaving every question unanswered.

Given how many people enjoyed Rendezvous with Rama, this apparently doesn't bother other readers as much as it bothers me. If you are like me, though, be warned.

But, fine, this is a character story built around a plot device rather than a technology story. That's a wholly valid mode of science fiction, and that part of the book has heft. It reminded me of the second-wave feminist science fiction of authors like Russ and Charnas, except updated to modern politics. The villains are a projection forward of the modern on-line misogynists (incels, specifically), but Newitz makes the unusual choice of not focusing on their motives or interior lives. They simply exist as a malevolent hostile force, much the way that women experience them today on-line. They have to be defeated, the characters of the book set out to defeat them, and this is done without melodrama, hand-wringing, or psychoanalysis. It's refreshingly straightforward and unambiguous, and it keeps the focus on the people trying to make the world a better place rather than on the redemption arc of some screaming asshole.

The part I was less enamored of is that these are two of the least introspective first-person protagonists that I've seen in a book. Normally, first-person perspective is used to provide a rich internal monologue about external events, but both Tess and Beth tell their stories as mostly-dry sequences of facts. Sometimes this includes a bit of what they're feeling, but neither character delves much into the why or how. This improves somewhat towards the end of the book, but I found the first two-thirds of the story oddly flat and had a hard time generating much interest in or sympathy for the characters. There are good in-story reasons for both Tess and Beth to heavily suppress their emotions, so I will not argue this is unrealistic, but character stories work better for me with more of an emotional hook.

Hand-in-hand with that is the problem that the ending didn't provide the catharsis that I was hoping for. Beth goes through absolute hell over the course of the book, and while that does reach a resolution that I know intellectually is the best type of resolution that her story can hope for, it felt wholly insufficient. Tess's story reaches a somewhat more satisfying conclusion, but one that reverses an earlier moral imperative in a way that I found overly sudden. And everything about this book is highly contingent and temporary in a way that is true to its theme and political statement but that left me feeling more weary than satisfied.

That type of ending is a valid authorial choice, and to some extent my complaint is only that this wasn't the book for me at the time I read it. But I have read other books with similarly conditional endings and withdrawn characters that still carried me along with the force and power of the writing (Daughters of the North comes to mind). The Future of Another Timeline is not poorly written, but neither do I think it achieves that level of skill. The writing is a bit wooden, the flow of sentences is a touch cliched and predictable, and the characters are a bit thin. It's serviceable writing had there been something else (such as a setting-as-character exploration of the origins and purpose of the Machines) to grab my attention and pull me along. But if the weight of the story has to be born by the quality of the writing, I don't think it was quite up to the task.

Overall, I think The Future of Another Timeline has a great premise that it treats with frustrating indifference, a satisfyingly different take on time travel with some obvious holes, some solid political ideas reminiscent of an earlier age of feminist SF, a refreshing unwillingness to center evil on its own terms, characters that took more than half the book to develop much depth, and a suitable but frustrating ending. I can see why other people liked it more than I did, but I can't recommend it.

Content warning: Rape, graphic violence, child abuse, gaslighting, graphic medical procedure, suicide, extreme misogyny, and mutilation, and this is spread throughout the book, not concentrated in one scene. I'm not very squeamish about non-horror fiction and it was still rather a lot, so please read with care.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-02-07

Last modified and spun 2021-02-08