RogerBW's Blog

The Future of Another Timeline, Annalee Newitz 18 February 2020

2019 science fiction. There have always been the Machines: nobody knows how they work or where they came from, but they let people travel back in time, and return. Tess is a traveller from 2022, studying history and making illicit changes to it. In 1992, Beth is trying to work out the right thing to do as her life goes out of control.

This is how you win the time war.

This book does many things I usually don't like. The villains' motives are not explored in any sort of detail; they just want what they want because that's who they are. There's a dual first-person narrative, mostly alternating chapters with a couple from other voices, and they aren't in distinctive writing styles. It has time travel, but the protagonists never seem to get out of narrative order with their own experiences; there's an unspoken second time dimension that keeps everything sorted out.

But this is still the best book I've read this year, and if I'd read it last year would have been the best book I'd read then.

Yes, it's a time travel story, and it's one in which people aren't completely clear about how things work; but the viewpoint characters aren't the first people to travel in time (though they may turn out to be the last), and there's a consensus on what's probably going on. There's more consideration of the Great Man versus Collective Action theories of history than there is of whether there are many timelines or one. There's speculation on how historical trends arise and can be suppressed, and information from the future, and people in the past are shown not as stupid but just with a different set of information available to them. Most impressively of all to me, both the primary narratives are compelling, and I never felt disappointed at switching back to the "less interesting" one.

Oh, and separately from all that other good stuff, it's unabashedly feminist and intersectional. Without compromising the story or the characters. (There don't seem to be a lot of good men here, but unlike some of the modern parables I've met recently there isn't an absolute correlation between being of the oppressor genotype and villainy. Or the other way round.)

All right, some other things aren't perfect. I don't really believe in thousands of years of time travel without the world's governments trying to use it against each other, or at least aggressively preventing each other from doing it, and with a resultant world that's recognisably adjacent to our own. So in that respect I suppose it's more fantasy than SF; but given that second impossibility (time travel being the first), I felt that everything else pretty much cohered in ways that made sense. This is also a book which pays essentially no attention to society outside the USA… but it does offer us Senator Harriet Tubman.

A minor spoiler for people who care about the same things I do, because I was worried through the book that this might happen: ab, gur erfbyhgvba vf abg gung gur jbeyq gheaf vagb bhe bja.

Definite Hugo nomination unless I read many truly amazing things over the next month and a half.

Bonus music video.

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