(2019) Annalee Newitz, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 353pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51123-8
This is a solidly written, fast-paced time travel story from the co-founder of the io9 website, Annalee Newitz. It’s an intelligent, character-driven piece that just about manages not to trip itself up in time travel paradoxes.
Time travel stories are tricky because it’s difficult to credibly imagine how causality might work. If you go back in time and kill your former self, for instance, how can you still be alive o go back in time to do the deed? And – like the existence of aliens (obviously there are aliens but where are they?) – the absence of any proof of time travellers in the real world suggests there may be problems with getting it to work – after all, where were all the future people when the Titanic sank or Jesus was crucified?
Newitz’ time travellers can change the world, but ‘edits’ work best in small ways – major changes are more difficult since the timeline snaps back. There’s much discussion of the ‘Great Man’ syndrome – that one man such as Hitler can single-handedly change the course of history, and it’s suggested here that wouldn’t apply – without Hitler maybe Himmler or Goering or someone else may have taken the role – the times dictated the man rather than the man dictating the times.
There are two primary points of view. Tess, from 2022, and her old friend Beth, who in the initial timeline committed suicide in 1993. Tess, who was indirectly responsible for the suicide, profoundly changed after that incident (giving up, for instance, on being a moral-crusading serial killer) and (against the time travel rules) went back in time to save her friend. When she does, the event that had driven her whole later life is no longer present which gives her major cognitive conflicts – manifest in blinding headaches.
So this is partly Tess’s story, about coming to terms with what she’s done and who she is, and Beth’s, negotiating a strained relationship with her parents, swerving a toxic friend and finding her way in life.
But it’s also about a plot by future men – the Comstockers, latching on to real-life 19th Century ultra conservative outraged moralist Anthony Comstock – to deny women’s rights across the timeline, specifically (but not exclusively) abortion rights. In the far future (which is hinted but not visited) some women are ‘queens’ who breed workers for the men in charge – and are routinely mutilated with their hands amputated in what appears to be a way to control and humiliate them.
Tess and her friends time travel by means of some ancient mechanisms embedded in rock in four parts of the world, discovered and used through the millennia. The machines make the rules – only one person at a time and you only carry clothes with you (i.e. no weapons). Though a future time traveller found a way to circumvent these restrictions. No going back to where you’ve been before as a time traveller, though you can cross your own natural timeline. No travel to your own future (though you can travel forwards to your own present from the time-travelled past).
These rules seem a bit arbitrary, but they do make the plot work. I liked the characters and the dual narrative (Tess/Beth and the Comstocker conspiracy) and I found the novel readable and engaging. Men generally don’t come out well in this narrative, though, and I found some of its implications somewhat uncomfortable – it’s certainly made me think about gender roles and biases. But I liked its characters, its complexity and its spirit – a good read.
Editorial note: The Future of Another Timeline was put forward as one of SF² Concatenation's Best SF novels of 2019 in the team's annual, informal poll.
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