The Future of Another Timeline
by Annalee Newitz
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 7, 2019
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Even knowing Annalee Newitz's The Future of Another Timeline was a time travel story going in, I didn't have any pre-conceptions about it. After all, there have been many variations on the theme going back long before H.G. Wells. In some cases it is like Wells' independent traveler, building a machine in secret. In others it is a government, military, or corporate project, but still usually secret. This one is different from any I've read, and while I wasn't quite sold on the mechanism of the travel itself, everything else made up for that, from the characters to the dilemmas they face. The Machines that control time travel were discovered in five different locations around the globe; Australia, Canada, India, Jordan, and Mali. No one understands how they came to be, if they were natural formations, or the creation of a previously unknown intelligent species, or perhaps aliens. They aren't a secret either, the world has known about them and about travelers for thousands of years since the first was discovered. Later, the Chronology Academy was established to study them, and draft a set of regulations for their use. Even though the rich were allowed limited temporal tourism, the primary utilization of the Machines was research. Each Academy traveler has a coded tattoo identifying their origin year. They can go back in time, then return, but not forward to any period beyond when they've lived in normal time. Perhaps that might be possible when more is discovered about the Machines' capabilities, or at least so says someone from several hundred years past 2022, the baseline of the main characters of this story.
The debate in academia is whether a significant change can be made in the timeline, with the majority opinion being small changes were possible, even inevitable, but major ones were unlikely. Some subscribed to the "Great Man" theory, which led to multiple assassinations, which still did not avert World War 1. The collective action of large groups of people over a longer period of time was likely to gain better results, and yet travelers were still cautioned to only observe, not interact. That doesn't satisfy a group of Academy members, some of whom have memories of an alternate timeline, and they desperately want to revert to that. Their group is officially known as the Applied Cultural Geology Group, but they refer to themselves as the Daughters of Harriet (as in Tubman). In the timeline most remember, Harriet Tubman became a U.S. Senator, mainly because women were granted the vote at the same time as the freed slaves with the 15th Amendment. In spite of universal suffrage, other progressive things had changed. The group always started its meetings with each recounting a memory of a timeline that is no more. One of those was, "I remember abortion being legal in the United States," with a couple of "Me too" responses, yet Tess is not one who has ever known that to have been a fact. Their goal is trying to track down what changes had been made, and by whom, so that they could be reversed. Tess had been traveling to 1893 Chicago during the Columbian Exposition, her working theory being that Anthony Comstock, a notorious religious fanatic, was a person of interest in the case. He had obtained a position of importance with the U.S. postal system, able to track mail that had any mention of sexuality, contraception, or abortion, and was influential enough with police that they accepted many of his citizen's arrests. A few personal side-trips Tess makes to 1992 seem to confirm some of Comstock's followers are also travelers, who are wreaking havoc against womens' rights issues in multiple time periods.
Comstock and Tubman are not the only historical figures used, even if their timelines differ from what our history recalls. Others are fictionalized versions of real people and events, detailing the long, hard struggle for progressive ideas and causes. But it's not so much about the major figures as it is about the multitudes of everyday people struggling under the yoke of a repressive society. My take is that the smallest of events can result in the greatest of changes, regardless of intent. Everyone makes decisions every day that not only affects them, but potentialy others, whether it be family or friends, perhaps even strangers through random encounters. Don't wait for the "great man" to make the changes, do it yourself. The last line of Annalee's afterword says, "I remember a world where abortion was legal in my country. I hope you do too." I remember a world in which women, non-binary, and other marginalized people are writing some of the best science fiction. That timeline is the here and now. Don't miss it.
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