The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
There are five-time machines embedded in the earth’s crust in Annalee Newitz’s 2019 novel. These objects, growing out of prehistoric rock, may be machines, or sentient entities, or some kind of strange natural occurrence, but they react to certain rhythmic sounds by sending a person back in time … and allowing them to return to their present.
The Machines are awesome.
The book follows two characters, Beth in a 1992 timeline that isn’t quite ours, and Tess from a 2022 that is upstream from Beth. Tess is an approved time traveler, who, using the cover of academia, works with a circle of women who call themselves the Daughters of Harriet (after Harriet Tubman) to protect women’s rights and especially reproductive rights. In 1992, Beth, a high school senior, embraces the punk music scene, struggles to navigate the arbitrary rules and scary strangeness of her father, and dreams of the day she will escape to college.
The Future of Another Timeline starts off with Tess traveling to 1992, even though technically she is not supposed to, and attending a concert that Beth and her three friends are at. Tess is disturbed to see a men’s rights group handing out pamphlets, and thinks she recognizes one of them from her present. These men are Comstockians, modeling themselves on an anti-feminist activist of the 1890s. (The historical Anthony Comstock inflated his assignment at the US Post Office, searching for obscene materials, to include anything sent through the mails that discussed contraception. The real Comstock bragged that he had driven women activists to suicide, a fact used in the book.)
Tess overhears the Comstockians discussing plans to make timeline changes, or “edits,” and then disable the Machines so it will be impossible for others to travel in time and edit things back. (This theory doesn’t seem to consider that people living in a timeline, even a changed one, might want to change it themselves.) Tess has another, personal problem; she grew up in Irvine, California, in this time period, and has a connection to 1992 Beth. She believes she must stop events in that time from playing out, but she also has to make the Daughters aware of the plans to attack the Machines.
The story alternates first-person point of view between Beth and Tess. Shortly after we meet Tess, Beth and her punk friends kill a boy who is trying to rape and murder one of them. Rather than tell the police what happened, they hide the body. Meanwhile, in 2022, Tess has a chilling moment when she mentions a woman named Berenice, who no one else in the group remembers, even though Berenice, a trans woman, was a Daughter and the partner of one of the group members. Clearly, Berenice has been “edited” out of the timeline. The concerns over attacks on trans women, plus the need to stop the Comstockians by defeating the original Anthony Comstock, send Tess back to Chicago in 1893, where she uses North African tribal dancing, called “belly dancing,” music, and the power of community to attack Comstock.
Beth, meanwhile, sees that a streak of violence has been unleashed in one of her friends, Lizzie. Beth feels powerless to stop Lizzie, whose attacks on men grow more brazen, and soon Beth caught up in her own conflict, in a 1992 where abortion is not legal.
These are interesting concepts. As I said, I loved the Machines, which are never explained. I didn’t mind that they weren’t explained. That seemed logical for 2022, based on what we are told. The protocols and “rules” for time travel presume a world where time travel has happened for a least two millennia, and that’s a cool idea. I liked the degree of detail in the Chicago Columbian Exposition, and the characters of the people Tess enlists to help her, some of whom are historical people.
While the Machines didn’t need to be explained for me, there were long-term cultural changes that are not addressed, and those omissions bugged me. There is a millennia-old bureaucratic protocol around the Machines, but it seems unlikely in 2,000 years that some empire, government or would-be conqueror wouldn’t have tried what the Comstockians are doing. These wonderful, powerful, enigmatic constructs are the backdrop for what is largely a political novel and a message book, but they overwhelm the main characters. I wanted to know more about a world formed by 2,000 years of time-junketing.
The characters of Beth and Tess let me down. Tess experienced a pivotal change at some point between her teen years and her twenties, something that made her the kind of crusader she is now. At the end of The Future of Another Timeline she tells us about a moment that may have been the pivot, but I couldn’t find it believable. While Beth’s story was believable, and her struggles with her father very real, Beth never came to life for me.
This story is largely about women’s reproductive rights and equity for all gender designations, and it felt like the story, to some extent, takes for granted that the reader will agree with Tess and the Daughters about those particular issues. I don’t necessarily dislike message stories, but I want the story in the foreground, not the message. The Comstockians are not developed or complex, and that was also a disappointment.
The Future of Another Timeline looks at social change through the lens of the “Great Man” theory (as described in the book) versus concerted social/community action. Unfortunately, the plot of the story makes it seem that grass-roots social movements only happen when time travelers arrive and start them.
The ideas here are wonderful and the time machines are great. There is a segment that takes place in an ancient city called Raqmu, where the first Machine was discovered, that was powerful and magical. The Future of Another Timeline did not satisfy me as a story, but I enjoyed the ideas presented here. Readers who love Big Ideas will probably embrace this book.