Last year, the critic Aja Romano posited a new movement within science fiction, which she dubbed “hopepunk” (a term coined by Alex Rowland). Works in the hopepunk subgenre, Romano argued, reject the cynical, anti-social stance of the genre writing that came before them in favor of imagining positively. I found Romano’s framing overly broad—everything, it seemed to me, could be classed as hopepunk according to her system. But where I agree with her is that there does seem to be a thread running through a lot of recent SF writing, which concerns itself with the question of how smart, determined people can band together to change the world for the better. A lot of this writing turns on questions of process, and through them, of philosophy. It’s hard to know how to change the world without understanding just what it is that causes change to happen. Science fiction, with its ability to imagine new worlds and new technologies, is a perfect laboratory for exploring such questions.
In her second novel, The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz approaches those questions head-on, following a working group of time-traveling scholars who seek to improve history, specifically for women. As in her previous novel, Autonomous (2017), Newitz uses her central McGuffin as a powerful, versatile metaphor for real social currents. In Timeline, this is the realization that history is not—as the children of well-meaning, privileged liberals are often taught at school—an inevitable progression towards greater equality, but a constant back-and-forth between those who wish to expand freedom, and those who wish to suppress it. In the world of the novel, the fifteenth amendment to the US constitution guaranteed universal suffrage, giving the vote to all races and genders (in reality, it did so only for men). This led, among other changes, to the election of Senator Harriet Tubman. But as the novel’s narrator, middle-aged academic and time traveler Tess, observes, “change is never linear and obvious. Often progress only becomes detectable when it inspires a desperate backlash” (p. 66).
In the novel’s timeline, one form that this backlash has taken is that abortion is and has always been illegal in the United States. Our heroines, who call themselves The Daughters of Harriet and are clandestinely trying to change history in order to make things better for the disenfranchised, discover that they are in an “edit war” with men from hundreds of years in their future, who have taken the nineteenth-century moralist and anti-family-planning crusader Anthony Comstock as their inspiration, and seek to establish a future in which women have been genetically engineered into subservience.
In its early chapters, Timeline is perhaps a little inelegant in explaining to us how the mechanism of time travel works. There are, it turns out, five time machines in fixed locations on the planet, embedded in some of the oldest rock in existence. Their origin is unknown, and the subject of much speculation among scientists. There are certain restrictions—you can’t travel past your own present moment, travel in groups and with weapons is impossible, and would-be travelers have to live in close proximity to a machine for several years before it opens a wormhole for them. Furthermore, there are institutional and legal barriers that keep time travel off-limits to most people. It is illegal to change the past, or even to reveal details about their future to people from the past. But since only time travelers who were present for an “edit” will remember the original timeline, it’s commonly accepted that everyone is breaking the law, and that history is a patchwork of different travelers’ influence.
Once the novel gets over the hump of establishing its terms, it still needs to set up the challenge facing its characters. In 2022, the Daughters of Harriet realize the existence of the edit war when Tess, returning from a trip to 1992, not only reports meeting a time traveler there whom she had previously encountered in the 1890s, agitating against women’s rights in both time periods, but is the only one to remember another member of the group, who in the new timeline was murdered as a young woman. (Newitz’s powerful metaphor rears its head for the first time, literalizing the way that the work and even the names of activists, particularly ones who are not white men, are often written out of the official history.) Tess travels back to 1893 to try to discover the plans of the Comstockers, while her colleagues in the present investigate increasing malfunctions in the behavior of the machines, suspecting that the Comstockers are trying to disable them, rendering the timeline inalterable once they’ve changed it to their liking.
In the nineteenth century, Tess finds work as a seamstress at one of the dance halls in the Midway of the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair. This particular show features Middle Eastern dancers performing the previously-unseen-in-the-Americas danse du ventre (belly dancing; or, as the more risqué, Americanized version of it eventually comes to be known, the hoochie-coochie). This puts Tess in the path of several “misbehaving” women—Aseel, the show’s manager and a dancer herself, and Soph, a free-thinker and spiritualist who dispenses tracts about female hygiene, family planning, and the secrets of the clitoris. Both of these activities—dancing in revealing clothing and promulgating information about reproductive medicine and female sexual pleasure—arouse the wrath of Comstock, who in actual history hounded many turn-of-the-twentieth-century abortionists and reproductive justice activists into jail or suicide. Together with Aseel and Soph, Tess hatches a plan to defeat Comstock, and hopefully change her own present.
Through it all, Tess is also making regular jaunts to the 1990s, where she tries to intervene in the life of the teenaged Beth, the novel’s second point-of-view character. Beth’s story has the contours of a slightly overwrought YA novel. Over the space of a few months, she loses her virginity, has an (illegal) abortion, and helps her best friend, Lizzie, cover up the murder of a boy who had been trying to rape one of their friends (as she puts it, “It was getting hard for me to keep track of all the things I couldn’t talk about: the sex, the abortion, the murders” [p. 138]). When Lizzie begins to stalk other victims whom she sees as predators against women and girls, Beth doesn’t know whether to go along or cut off her most important friend. Complicating matters is the fact that Lizzie has been Beth’s only support against her abusive father, who has kept Beth in a state of constant fear and hyper-awareness. Tess, in her occasional intrusions into Beth’s life, tries to convince her to see Lizzie for the toxic presence that she is, though the real reason for her interference takes a while to reveal itself.
Over-the-top as it is, Beth’s story is deeply moving, especially the chapters in which she describes the stifling atmosphere in her home, and her growing understanding that her father’s mental illness is not her fault, and that she can exist outside of his judgmental, domineering power. But it’s not until the novel reveals the connection between Tess and Beth that we understand its scheme with this storyline. It is reminding us that change can mean different things on different levels, none of them more valid or more important than others. On a personal level, Tess is trying to save one person. On a local level, she joins forces with Aseel, Soph, and the other hoochie-coochie dancers to discredit Comstock and give American women rights over their own bodies. And on a global level, the Daughters of Harriet work to preserve time travel, and prevent the Comstockers from setting in stone a future in which women are enslaved.
These changes can also affect one another in unexpected ways. Beth always ends up having an abortion, and the ordeal always causes her to break up with Hamid, the boy who got her pregnant. But in the original timeline, in which abortion is illegal, the procedure is painful and humiliating, and in the timeline Tess and the ladies of the Midway achieve, it is above-board and respectful. In that less traumatizing timeline, Beth is able to reconnect with Hamid later on, and to confide in him about her father’s abusive behavior. His supportive reaction is what gives her the courage to speak out to the authorities about the abuse she’s experienced, and achieve financial and legal independence from her parents. So Tess’s actions end up saving Beth twice, once directly, and the second time indirectly.
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.
But Morehshin is also shown to be right on some occasions, in which violence cuts through a morass of problems and makes a decisive end of them. Even Lizzie, whose violence quickly escalates into stalking and premeditated murder, has a point when she observes that no one was going to stop the men she targeted, that everyone around them knew that they were predators and didn’t care enough to do anything about it. There’s an anger underlying much of Timeline that makes the categorical rejection of violence seem like too easy and too comforting a solution. Its characters witness and experience violence that is normalized and even valorized, and the novel refuses to judge or condemn them when they respond with violence of their own.
Other characters offer their own theories of change, to which the novel is open without ever fully embracing. Sol Bloom, the promoter who brings the danse du ventre to the Midway, argues that “You change a man’s mind by showing him a good time“ (p. 112), and that his show functions as much as a form of cultural exchange as it is a burlesque, broadening the horizons of its audience. The method that Tess, Aseel, and Soph land on to defeat Comstock relies on this observation, as they manipulate him into clamping down on one of the entertainments of the rich. But as Tess observes the preparations for this event, she finds herself wondering where the line lies between empowerment and exploitation. Are the ladies dancing a sexualized version of the danse du ventre, one that often crosses the line into striptease, claiming their own power and sexuality, or are they pandering to the misogynistic preconceptions of the rich, entitled men in the audience, who see any semi-sexual woman as fair game? What about the punk scene of Tess’s youth, which had seemed like a path towards liberation? When Tess travels back to a concert she attended as a teenager, she observes that
“Everyone looked so scrubbed and affluent ... I watched a guy in a Dead Kennedys shirt urging a hip flask on a woman who was already so drunk she could barely stand ... The punk scene, once my inspiration, now looked like a bunch of future bankers and tech executives learning how to harass women.” (p. 13)
The answer that Timeline gives to these questions is inevitably “it depends.” There’s never a clear-cut path to empowerment and a better future in this story, merely tactics that can work better or worse in different situations. As in this exchange between Aseel and Morehshin:
She nodded. “I got a big raise, too. I can buy a house.”
Morehshin talked around the bacon in her mouth. “That’s good. A house is important. My sisters have a saying: If you have property, you can’t be property.”
Aseel gave us both a quizzical look. “I’m not sure that’s true, but I definitely feel more secure.” (p. 301)
At some points, this ambivalence feels countered by Timeline’s somewhat narrow focus. The existence of Morehshin and the specter of her horrific future (in which breeding women are designated “queens,” as in ants or bees, created solely to give birth to sterile workers), when placed side-by-side with Tess’s goal to legalize abortion, can create the impression that the future of gender equality rests solely on one feminist issue in one country. Timeline is clearly aware of, and taking steps to avoid, the pitfall of mistaking white women’s problems for women’s problems in general. In one scene, Tess visits the offices of a local Suffragette branch in 1893, only to be stunned by the ladies’ racism and whorephobia, dubbing their vision of the future “Great Moments in White Feminism” (p. 120). Later on, these women will join forces with Comstock to try to shut down the theaters of the Midway. But there is a difference between a feminist movement that centers women of color and queer women, and the broader struggle for the rights of POC and LGBT people. Timeline seems to elide this difference. By placing all its eggs in the former basket, it creates the impression that all of history depends on one specific change for the better, in stark contradiction to its insistence on a panoply of approaches and methods to achieve change.
Such a critique shouldn’t downplay, however, the importance of Newitz’s message—the idea that history isn’t fixed, nor does it have an obvious trajectory—and of her embrace of a multiplicity of approaches to this problem, including angry and violent ones. The Future of Another Timeline ends with its characters winning the day, but also infused with a greater awareness of how precarious that victory can be. It’s a rallying cry to readers, to fight for a better future in any number of ways, while always remembering that hard-won victories can be rolled back.