Dark Books for Dark Times

By Amal El-Mohtar

  • Published Oct. 20, 2019 (NYTimes.com)

Annalee Newitz’s THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE (Tor, $26.99) stems from the premise that we exist in a heavily edited reality — and it’s dark. Two sides (at least) are engaged in a fraught, secret war over past and present. The Daughters of Harriet, a covert group of academics, are trying to secure voting and reproductive rights for women as far back as they can, while a group of men called Comstockers — after the real-life 19th-century anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock — are trying to strip these rights and destroy time travel to prevent any more edits from taking place.

But making edits is hugely difficult. In this version of our world, there are five known Machines that allow travel through time. These exist as vast, geological curiosities that require stone tapping in specific sequences to open wormholes into the past; consequently time travelers are called “geologists,” and need to live in proximity to a Machine for four years before the wormholes will admit them. The Machines allow travel through time, but not space, and are continents apart, which makes for interesting logistical limitations. Thus, Newitz’s time travel is not a frictionless endeavor; and the work of editing the past requires thorough research, which is complicated by the fact that several people remember different histories depending on whether or not they were present when the edit occurred.

Tess is a geologist, working with the Daughters on diminishing Comstock’s power — but she has a deeper secret. She’s also trying to edit her own personal history, illicitly visiting the early ’90s of her youth to affect the outcome of an important friendship between two Los Angeles riot grrls, Beth and Lizzy, that will either shape or destroy her.

Conceptually “The Future of Another Timeline” is breathtakingly brilliant, and part of a constellation of time-travel stories this year that wed present-day activism to a willingness to change the past. But as I read, I found myself far more affected by the smaller, fiercer story of Tess and Beth’s early years — the story of feral friendships formed in extreme circumstances, of surviving abuse and finding the power to seek revenge or walk away from it. Everything about that story clutched at my heart, while the broader time-travel stakes and narrative diminished in effect; I became less concerned with the overarching conceit than with the story of these young women arguing over what love and honesty demand. But time travel creates the space for that story to happen — and Newitz’s book is, more than anything else, about the importance of fighting for such spaces. In that, it’s entirely successful.Correction: Oct. 25, 2019

A biographical note with an earlier version of this column misstated the title of a story written by Amal El-Mohtar. It is “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” not “Seasons of Glass and Wine.”

Amal El-Mohtar, the Book Review’s science fiction and fantasy columnist, won the Nebula, Locus and Hugo awards for her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron.” She is also the co-author of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”

Follow New York Times Books on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast. A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 27, 2019, Page 22 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Otherworldly. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

I enjoyed this review—they had me at statement that “Tess…[is] trying to edit her own personal history….”

Michael Kelly, H.W.

(Contributed by Michael Kelly, H.W.)

One thought on “Dark Books for Dark Times”

  1. Thanks Mike for posting this piece, including the author of the review, which I left out, and my comments too.

    Well-done time travel stories are as enjoyable as they are rare.

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