|Cover design by Will Staehle|
Orbit, 24 October 2019
PB, e, 340pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Future of Another Timeline to consider for review.
In 1992, Tess attends a concert in Irvine, California. It's one of her favourite punk-feminist bands and she's revisiting her youth, listening to music she grew up with.
Also in 1992, also in California, Beth lives with a manipulative, controlling father and a tuned out mother. She finds release in stolen moments with her friends, parties, a few drugs - and attends that same concert, where something bad is going to happen.
And in Chicago, in 1893, a group of women put on a show at the World's Fair, challenging the moral puritanism of their time by exhibiting sensual, erotic dances from North Africa.
One of them, oddly, is Tess...
This is a book about time travel, timelines, destiny, history and struggle. In Newitz's universe, the world contains five "Machines" - inscrutable, geological structures that allow for travel backwards in time. Of almost unimaginable age (they seem to have been created in the Ordovician era - look it up!) their origin and purpose is mysterious, but humanity has learned enough to be able to use them, crudely, and a complex etiquette has been evolved over the generations permitting different ages to share this gift without (too many) dire consequences.
I'm sure you've know the classic SF story A Sound of Thunder, where a traveller to the past inadvertently alters their own present by treading on an insect. That spectre - of a trivial change altering the timeline - haunts the world Newitz describes: there is consensus that such a thing couldn't really happen, that the broad outlines of history are stable - but really, how would anyone know? The central paradox at the heart of this book is that you wouldn't. Living in the present, the past is the past and it always was as it was.
Only that returning traveller might recall a different past... a world, for example, where abortion was illegal... and so there is scope for mischief.
The Future of Another Timeline is a book with a clear message, I'd even say a necessary message. It is really a book about a time war. Not the massed opposition of huge forces in direct conflict, but patient, cumulative snipping away, "editing", to tilt the balance one way or another. The two contending sides are the "Applied Cultural Geology Group", a loose alliance of women time travellers (in this world, "cultural geology" is the name for the study of time travel, based on the deep-time origin of the Machines) and a cabal of misogynists who want to prevent women's rights ever being won (and - as becomes clear - to push things towards a future which makes Margaret Atwood's Gilean look like a paradise of equality). We see the women meet, discover that a hostile edit has caused one of them to wink out of existence, forgotten by all but a traveller from the past. We see the action they take.
We also see them encounter their pig-headed enemies in bars, theatres and concert halls across the past. This was where things slightly came apart for me. The antagonists - a mixture of real people, such as the Victorian moralist Anthony Comstock, and fictitious characters - comes across as pretty two dimensional. In various historical guises (sometimes literally) they're basically men's right "activists", alternately spouting overblown Victorian sexism, the debased language of their modern chatboard forums, or pick-up artist jargon. They are as tedious and self-evidently wrong as you might imagine, and hardly seem like credible opponents for the women described here. While some vile things do happen to these women of the Group and to their allies, the two seem utterly mismatched. Indeed, final defeat of the men only seemed to be in doubt because of the women's (especially Tess's) scruples, refusing to kill or injure in service of the cause. (Tess does have her reasons, as we eventually find out.)
So I found that "Time war" angle, while interesting in concept (and involving some great worldbuilding) rather frustrating in practice. In contrast, another strand - that of Beth and family in the 1990s - was well realised with a couple of truly disturbing, brilliantly realised and complex characters. One of them is Beth's father, and the depths of his... wrongness... are painted subtly and slowly, building up to a really unsettling portrait and giving the reader - or at least this reader - many moments of fear for her and her friends. This is an alternate timeline where Comstock's meddling paid off, resulting in sweeping prohibitions which affect Beth, but it is not (yet) the utterly nightmare world that may yet come and the real tension comes from her claustrophobic, pressure cooker family situation. I would have liked to read much more of this strand: I felt Newitz's writing came especially to life here, even though more could possibly have been made of the links between her father's attitudes and the patriarchal drift of that timeline.
Instead, that theme - the origin and development of rules that trammel women - is much more the focus of the 1890s parts of the book, focussing on those dancers at the World's Fair who are the target of "Comstockery" aiming to shut down and even imprison them. Those parts impart a great deal of detail about 1890s attitudes and about the real Comstock's actual activities, but they do come over much more as conveying research, despite the strong female characters here - and real suffering. There wasn't, for me, as much heart in this bit as in Beth's story.
Technically it's all very well thought out and realised - in particular the handling of the time "edits" is impressive. The descriptions of their effects are done subtly and are reflected sideways rather than head on (we are not told what has changed but have to wait till the characters' memories reform to accommodate the new reality). This all felt very believable, as did the, literally, geological time travel tech whose existence and operation is simply a fact of life (so familiar that it features in TV dramas, and the phrase "lucky edit" is used for any fortunate occurrence, such as two friends encountering each other).
So, overall, I found this a fine book and a rattling good story, but one where the different threads felt quite assorted, with one much more readable and affecting than the other. It isn't only Beth's home life, there's a real affection to the accounts of gigs and scuzzy yard parties where she hangs out with her girlfriends (though a sense of menace hangs over those scenes too, I won't say why because spoilers), of female friends and the help they give one another, of love and loss. That's actually what remains most strongly with me from this book: fittingly, perhaps, the flattish male villains fade away while the edit preserves those determined and vividly portrayed women, whether comrades in arms, friends, or both.
For more information about this book, see the publisher's website here.