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Review: The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz


I have a review of Annalee Newitz’s second novel, The Future of Another Timeline, up at Strange Horizons. We’ve discussed Newitz’s previous novel, Autonomous, in an early Political History of the Future entry. Like that novel, Timeline uses a core SFnal concept—in this case, time travel—as a metaphor for social and political forces. It’s about a group of time traveling historians who are clandestinely working to change history, making it more amenable to women’s rights, who discover that they are in an “edit war” with misogynists from the future. Devoted readers of this blog may be interested to know that the spiritual leader of these men is none other than Anthony Comstock, whom Erik has (quite convincingly) dubbed “The Worst American”. And in fact large chunks of it take place during the Gilded Age, among anarchists and reproductive justice activists.

Most of all, however, this is a novel about how to achieve change, which concludes that there is no one way to do it, and no way that doesn’t leave you open to backlash.

The central question of Timeline, and the one that plagues its time-traveling heroines, is: how do we best achieve change? And how does change happen in the first place? A time traveler from the Daughters’ future, Morehshin, insists that a certain pragmatic approach towards violence is required—kill Comstock, and his adherents from the future, and the rights of women will be secured. But beyond the moral objection to this approach, there are practical and philosophical ones. Getting rid of one villain might simply clear a space for another one, while ignoring the social forces that created that space in the first place.

One of the Daughters’ leaders, Anita, insists that to opt for violence when attempting to change history is to implicitly buy into the Great Man theory, which holds that historical change comes about purely due to the actions of certain remarkable actors (who are usually privileged white men). Real change, to her mind, comes from the bottom up, and is achieved through the activism of groups. When we get a glimpse of Anita’s own history, we learn that she comes by her convictions honestly, having clandestinely given aid to the Haitian slave rebellion, and returned to find a world that treats people of color more equitably than the one she left.

While you’re visiting Strange Horizons, you might be interested in their annual year-in-review project (parts 1, 2, and 3), in which the magazine’s reviewers (including myself) are invited to pick their favorite genre-related things—books, movies, comics, TV shows, games, whatever—from the last year. It’s always an eclectic list, and I always come away from it with lots of stuff to check out.

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