Cover image of "The Future of Another Timeline," a feminist alternate history.

What is history, and how does it work? We know, of course, that history isn’t fixed and immutable. It’s subject to the revision and reinterpretation of successive waves of scholars. Sometimes the fresh approach is based on new information that comes to light. But more often what we call history is merely a story historians tell us using carefully selected facts filtered through the cloudy lens of their own values and beliefs. We know, too, that history doesn’t travel in straight lines. But what makes it swerve? Indeed, how does change happen? Is it the product of the individual genius of so-called Great Men or the inevitable outcome of the ideas and social movements that engage a nation or an era? These are among the questions explored in Annalee Newitz’s thought-provoking feminist alternate history, The Future of Another Timeline.

Abortion is illegal in this feminist alternate history

The Future of Another Timeline is primarily the story of two women, Tess and Beth. Tess is a middle-aged scientist who experiences 2022 as the present. Beth is a teenage punk rock fan in Irvine, California, living in the early 1990s. They may, or may not, be the same person.

Tess, we learn, is a “geoscientist,” a specialist trained in accessing the time machines that have lain embedded in rock for at least half a billion years at five locations around the world. Together with others in the Daughters of Harriet (Tubman), she is dedicated to reversing the misogynist laws and attitudes that dominate her life in 2022, when abortion is illegal. Against the background of her fraught relationship with Beth, Tess journeys back and forth through time from 2022 to 1992 to 1893 to 13 BCE and, yes, to more than 400 million years ago in the Ordovician Period.

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz (2019) 344 pages ★★★★☆

Anthony Comstock terrorized advocates of birth control and abortion as a “special agent” for the US Postal Service. Image credit: Church and State.

Tess and her colleagues have traced the tipping point that set their history in motion to the work of the anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. Comstock was the scourge of anyone who ran afoul of Victorian morality and the driving force behind the Comstock Laws, the original US statutes outlawing birth control. And through the ages after his time men determined to keep women “in their place” call themselves “Comstockers.” The Daughters of Harriet have mobilized to “edit history” through time travel to reverse the Comstock Laws and all the other restrictive measures inspired by them.

I read this book even though it wasn’t written for me

I was mesmerized by Annalee Newitz’s first novel, Autonomous. So, it was natural for me to pick up her second in short order. But I soon wondered why. I am male. My pronouns are he/his/him. I’m also nearly eighty years old. So, you might well imagine that, on the basis of demographic factors alone, I’m not likely to be found in the target audience for a story about punk rock fans and radical feminism.

Yes, I regard punk rock as noise not music, the existence of which is intended merely to annoy people who are much older than its fans. And I’m distinctly uncomfortable with the more extreme manifestations of radical feminism—killing men, for example. (Once upon a time my staff inadvertently hired a mentally unbalanced young woman who used my company’s photocopier to reproduce feminist tracts advocating exactly that.) However, with all that said, I gritted my teeth and waded through the teenage angst in the early chapters. I’m glad I did. I found reading The Future of Another Timeline to be a satisfying experience. Annalee Newitz is, simply put, a brilliant writer. And, like me, in reading this feminist alternate history you might just gain new insight about how history works.

About the author

Annalee Newitz is a Berkeley-based author or editor of five nonfiction books and two novels. (A third, Terraformers, is on the way as I write.) They and author Charlie Jane Anders have founded and edited several online magazines, including the popular io9. Newitz was born and raised in Irvine, California, the setting for the teenage scenes in The Future of Another Timeline, but they have lived in Berkeley for more than thirty years. (I really wish those who want to erase gender distinctions in language would come up with a less confusing pronoun for the ungendered than “they.”)

For more great reading

I loved Annalee Newitz’s first novel, Autonomous (In 2144, Arctic resorts, autonomous robots, and killer drugs), as well as her nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction?)

You might also be interested in my post, 10 best alternate history novels.

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