When one is an aficionado of time travel books, as I am (no one is surprised to read this, if you’ve been reading my blog at all), the appearance of a new one is cause for celebration, and The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz, is definitely worth celebrating. Naturally, there are some features that most time travel books share (a chronology that you need to pay close attention to, people meeting themselves in the past, the question of how you deal with paradoxes and whether the past can actually be changed), but each book has its own unique features that make it particularly worthwhile.
In The Future of Another Timeline, the actual mechanism of time travel is one I’ve never seen before, and the author handles it with audacious confidence. There are what are called Machines in various spots on earth, but no human being invented them, and no one knows, at least as of 2022 (one of the time periods involved in the book), where the Machines came from, who or what created them, or exactly how they work, other than that they use wormholes to deposit someone in another spot in time, and they will not transport weapons. There are other rules that people have intuited about how the Machines work, whether they can send people into the future or not, whether more than one person can travel to the same place at the same time, and so forth, but these are subject to change over the course of the book. One of the cool things about the Machines is that they appear to be natural phenomena and they have been around since at least the Ordovician period (the characters make a few jaunts into that period as well), and are accepted by humanity as a part of the world (this is what I mean about being audacious).
There are lots of things going on in this book, but there are two main storylines you have to keep track of. One of them takes place in 1992, where a teenage girl named Beth is trying to survive the summer between high school and her starting college at UCLA. Her family situation is extremely tense (her father has mental health issues), she’s getting involved in a romantic relationship that leads to trouble, and, worst of all, her best friend, Lizzie, killed the abusive boyfriend of one of their friends and Beth finds herself lying and otherwise becoming an accomplice to Lizzie’s escalating vengeance.
The other storyline follows Tess, a time traveler working in 2022, who, with a somewhat secret group of women known as the Daughters of Harriet (Harriet being Senator Harriet Tubman in this timeline), has been trying to change history (or “edit” it, as they put it) to make things better for women in her timeline. She’s been tracking some of the worst aspects of the modern world back to the world of 1893, where Anthony Comstock and his followers have appointed themselves guardians of morality and are influencing governments, state and federal, to restrict birth control and female freedoms. But the Comstockites are doing more than just changing the laws in the present; Tess is finding evidence that some of Comstock’s followers are trying to change history so that women never got the vote, and then destroy the Machines so no one can undo their edits.
Naturally, these two people are connected, and they run into each other frequently as Tess travels from the 1890’s to 2022, meeting a woman from the far future and going back to prehistory. Part of the fun of the book is trying to figure out who Tess really is, whether she’s a grown up version of Beth or someone else. She’s certainly familiar with Beth’s life in 1992, and she’s determined to save Beth from wherever her path with Lizzie is leading her, but her motives are somewhat clouded for most of the book.
The author is great on historical details, to the point where, when you’re in the 1992 with Beth and she’s raving about this punk group, Grape Ape, you feel you should know about this group, and you almost want to look them up on the internet. When Tess is working at the Expo in Chicago in 1893, similarly, people act and talk the way they would have in that time and place, and the sights and sounds and smells of the era come alive. Using real life characters in historical fiction (or time travel fiction) isn’t new, but she gets a good sense of the real life Anthony Comstock (and good for her in choosing such a great real life character as the ultimate villain!) and the real life anarchists and the Four Hundred of New York City. Putting them in Tess’ milieu adds more verisimilitude to that whole world (though I really do wish she’d referred to suffragists as such and not as suffragettes).
The author also shows the immediate effect of edits in a particularly vivid way: a character is killed in the past, and her lover in the present doesn’t remember that she ever existed; laws are changed in the past and an event which we witnessed with Beth turns into something she remembers completely differently later in the book.
The plot is propulsive, with both storylines suspenseful in different ways. Because this is so clearly a different timeline from our own (the early mention of Senator Harriet Tubman is a good clue to that), you can’t use any of your own knowledge of history to guess how things are going to turn out, and that’s a good thing.
It’s a wild ride and an entertaining one, and if you’re a fan of time travel, it’s a book you won’t want to miss.