“The Future of Another Timeline” Pits Time-Traveling Riot Grrrls Against Time-Traveling MRAs
If Annalee Newitz could go back in time, they would punch James Watson
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Nothing grabs my attention like an email featuring the words “time travel” and “riot grrrl.” I hadn’t realized I was dying to read a novel fusing those subjects, but I’m thrilled they were tackled by Annalee Newitz, a veteran of both science journalism and the riot grrrl scene.
The founder of io9—Gawker’s immensely popular science and sci-fi blog—Newitz also co-founded other magazine with Charlie Jane Anders, with whom they currently co-host the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Newitz’s non-fiction has tackled everything from mass extinction survival strategies to capitalist monsters (the latter even has a riot grrl title, Pretend We’re Dead). Their Lambda Award-winning first novel, Autonomous, follows a drug pirate hacker scientist in a biotech-fueled future.
Their latest, The Future of Another Timeline, imagines a parallel reality that feels uncomfortably familiar, despite time travel being an accepted academic strain of geology. Devices called “Machines” have been found in the earth, with “control interfaces embedded in rock that originated before life on land.” With the proper paperwork and credentials, scientists can travel to different periods in history by jumping in and out of wormholes contained by the Machines. In some cases, travelers can “edit” the timeline, and see the results of that edit in their own present. In 2022, one such geologist, Tess, embarks on a mission to stop a radical group of travelers—who, in this timeline, might be called Men’s Rights Activists—from permanently editing women’s rights out of the timeline.
In alternating chapters, we hear from Beth, a riot grrrl in 1992 who witnesses the murder of her friend’s abusive boyfriend. As the two women navigate questions of murder and morality across the timeline, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways.
Over the phone, Annalee Newitz and I discussed Harriet Tubman, Wonder Woman, Reconstruction, and, of course, riot grrrl.
Deirdre Coyle: The Future of Another Timeline seamlessly blends familiar and unfamiliar elements of our timeline in politics and pop culture, to the point where I kept second-guessing my own knowledge of history and having to check whether I was remembering our timeline correctly.
Annalee Newitz: So my scheme worked.
DC: It really worked. Did you ever start to second-guess our 2019 timeline while you were writing?
AN: The whole book is about second-guessing it, and I certainly was trying to imagine a world that’s basically a step away from ours, but one that felt lived-in, in the sense that certain things are worse, from a feminist perspective. Women have no access to abortion legally. But at the same time, there are things that are—again, from a feminist perspective—better. At various points, I just put stuff in that, from a feminist perspective, felt real, and almost like a timeline that I’ve lived.
I’ll give you an example: the whole set-up for this alternate timeline is that Harriet Tubman is elected a senator in 1880. That’s the result of universal suffrage being declared in 1870, so women get the vote and can run for office. Especially now, when we look back on the 19th century and we center the histories of women and people of color that haven’t been [centered] previously, there’s almost a way in which we’re able to install figures like Harriet Tubman back into their rightful place as heroes. Because at the time that she was alive, she was incredibly famous. She really was a Civil War hero, no one would have doubted that. Everyone would have known her name. It’s in the process of history being written that she’s been forgotten as really anything other than the woman who ran the Underground Railroad, or who was the popularizer of the Underground Railroad. People don’t know about her Civil War career, they don’t know about her legal battle to get a pension from the government. Because she was a woman, [the U.S. government] didn’t want to give her a pension, even though she risked her life millions of times. Because I think of Harriet Tubman as such a hero, and so many people now look back and see her that way, it’s almost like that history that I was writing is becoming more real. Even though she wasn’t actually a Senator, we’re starting to understand that she was perhaps more important than a Senator. She occupied this position that was so important for the course of 19th century history. Without her, we would be living in a very different world.
And of course, there’s stuff in the book that was just totally, like, alternate timeline Mary Sue stuff, like where Tim Burton makes Wonder Woman movies instead of Batman movies. That was my “I wish it happened.”
DC: I never knew I wanted those movies so badly until I read about them [“the Tim Burton Wonder Woman movies…with their badass heroine in fishnets and leather”].
AN: Not only do I want those movies, but I want them to have existed in the 1990s. So that now, when we get a Wonder Woman movie, we’re like, “Oh, we’ve already re-imagined Wonder Woman, and now we can do an even better job.” It makes me so annoyed that it’s only right now that we’re having to figure out what Wonder Woman looks like, because, you know, she could be better. I just want us to be on the second or third iteration of Wonder Woman movies.
DC: Like we are with Spider-Man.
AN: Exactly. Like we are with Spider-Man, like we are with Batman. We could argue about whether [Batman’s] getting better, but Spider-Man’s getting better, gosh. The Spider-Verse movie is the greatest ever.
DC: It’s so good.
AN: [Laughs] I know.
DC: A really important premise of this timeline is that women and freed slaves got the right to vote at the same time, and intersectionality seems to be a deeply ingrained tenet of 20th century feminism in the book’s timeline. Can you talk a little about how you re-imagined the ’90s riot grrrl scene with this in mind?
AN: That’s a great question. And actually, it was one of the very first thought experiments that I did when I was coming up with the premise of the book. I was part of the [’90s riot grrrl] scene, and I knew tons of women of color in the scene. There were lots of bands with women of color. But the bands that really achieved national recognition were almost exclusively white. Not entirely, but mostly fronted by white women. And I was like, what would have had to have changed in our culture for the riot grrrl scene to have big, internationally famous bands that were fronted by women of color? So because I’m a nerd, I was like, “Well actually, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1870s!” Because I was like, okay, what would be the things that we would have to edit historically? One thing would be, how do we undermine white feminism? There’s always going to be white feminism, because there’s always going to be sort of liberal, racist white ladies—that’s just life—but you could have less institutional support for it, and less of a long movement. I really do think that this toxic white feminism we have now grows partly out of the fact that the suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement, which had been so closely linked in the 1850s and ’60s, are driven apart when Congress decides that freed men will get the vote, but women won’t. And so then, white women who might have been enthusiastic about abolition—we actually see, in the literature and in things that they’re arguing, that they start to become more openly racist and questioning, “Well, why would Black people get the vote, when women couldn’t?” So it creates this rift, it creates this space for a really toxic form of white feminism, and it also means that feminist culture gets, I think, more heavily associated with white women than with a diverse group of women. So I was like, okay, we go back, we get rid of that rift, and we have a feminism developing that is completely still connected to the abolitionist movement. What does that look like?
I’ve read historians saying that Harriet Tubman very likely would have become a politician because of her fame, and because of her role in the Civil War. If we had a figure like that in women’s history being acknowledged and remembered in the history books, I think, again, that that would have this kind of orthogonal cultural effect where women who are involved in fighting for women’s rights don’t see their movement as being separate from movements for civil rights for people of color, and fighting for Jim Crow in the 20th century, for example. I can’t be sure. I wish that we could run an experiment and see if that would work. But it struck me as a good place to start an alternate history of feminism.
I feel like alternate histories and time travel stories, they’re all obsessed with the Civil War for very different reasons. There are these historical turning points in the U.S., and if we start to center the experiences of women and people of color, the important parts of that time are not, “Did the North or the South win the war?” Of course that’s also important, but also, how does the vote shake out? How does suffrage work after that? How does Reconstruction work? There’s a whole other book that could have been written just about Reconstruction, and there is a character that we know has been going back and working with slaves in the 18th century. To me, ultimately, what was fun about it was thinking, “Well, what are the historical turning points that are actually important for people who aren’t white guys that lead battalions? All of the rest of the people, what’s important for them, historically?” It’s really this moment, when Congress decides who’s going to get the vote.
DC: I love that it brought us to a very different riot grrrl scene.
AN: Yeah, and so then the ultimate payoff, of course, is that we get way better music [laughs]. An unexpected benefit of having given women the vote early is that one hundred years later, we’re rocking out to women of color on a stage, and it’s not just white ladies yelling—which is great, everyone should be able to yell, it’s just—that’s the point. Everyone should be able to yell.
DC: You co-created a music video for the riot grrrl band in your book, Grape Ape, starring Desi López as the charismatic lead singer. What was it like to see one of your creations come to life and literally take the stage?
AN: It was amazing. It actually was intensely moving, and I think that was partly because when we did both the recording of the song, and then when we filmed the video, there were a number of people there, so it was the energy of the whole crowd participating in this alternate history where we got to dance to a different kind of music, or we got to scream with a different kind of singer. I’m a huge fan of Desi’s music, and I’ve been following her various bands for a while now. There was a little bit of a tiny, personal piece in this book, where I was like, “I want a world where she becomes really famous, and she’s onstage and yelling.” Especially the day that we filmed, there were a bunch of people there, who I invited, who were extras, and the energy was so great. When we all started screaming, “SLUT,” a lot of people afterwards were like, “That was so cathartic!” There was a little bit of crying. It was pretty rad. And we got to tie up the Comstocker, so that was fun.
DC: The video turned out amazing.
AN: I was super hyped. [Director] Fivestar did an amazing job. She’s a great videographer, a great director.
DC: In the scientific world of the book, the time travel methods are ancient and geological. They’re literally embedded in the earth. When you describe the way these Machines work, I could so clearly envision them and these wormholes that are part of them, despite the fact that even academics in this world don’t fully understand how they work. What kinds of research did you do to create the Machines and explain their functionality?
AN: There were two things. One was that when I started the book, because I am a science journalist, and my previous novel was—people described it as “hard science fiction,” even though that whole hard/soft dichotomy is kind of dumb, but—I still have the urge to always consult scientists, and I want the science in my books to be as realistic as possible, because I’m a science nerd. So I talked to a couple of physicists, and both of them said time travel is not possible. There’s no way to have scientifically accurate time travel because it just will never happen. So that was sad. One of them, Adam Becker, said, “You know, look, it’s not a scientific device, it’s a literary device.” That was a very freeing moment. Oh, and they did give me permission to use wormholes, even though that’s kind of silly, it was like, okay, the scientist said it was fine. So once I was thinking of time travel as a literary device, it allowed me to really explore what I wanted to, which was the cultural experience of watching history change in front of you—which happens all the time, it’s happening in the United States right now with our politics veering wildly to the right. We’ve had a lot of revisionist history, also coming from progressives who are uncovering new perspectives on history from people who’ve been ignored.
On top of the literary conceit, I did want the science to feel real. One of the things that Sean Carroll, one of the physicists I talked to, said, was like, “Look, the science isn’t real, but you can make the scientists real. You can kind of give them a world where there’s time travel and imagine how they would go about studying it.” That was great because one of my favorite subjects to write about is geology, and also paleontology and archeology, which are fields where there is a bit of—especially in archaeology—there’s a bit of overlap with the humanities anyway, because we’re filling in cultural history, we’re discovering things that are out there and trying to put explanations on top of them, as opposed to things like computer science, where you build something yourself, so you essentially know how it works. You put it out into the world, as opposed to going out into the world and saying, well, why do we have time? Or, why do our cells divide the way they do? Or, how did this rock come to be in this shape, or have this piece of metal embedded in it? So, it gave me the opportunity to scratch that itch of wanting to talk about discovery science and what that feels like. And that’s the area of science where we have the greatest sense of wonder as well. I mean, that’s the feeling of looking up into the night sky and saying, “Wow.” We know that there are these other worlds out there; we can only speculate about what they would really be like.
The other thing [that] was fun about it is that, because of how things like geology work, people have been engaging in the science of geology for a really long time, from before we had the scientific method. People have been banging on rocks and using rocks to do all kinds of stuff, and quarrying rocks, and investigating them, for thousands and thousands of years, I mean, for probably a million years, actually, because Homo erectus was, like, totally into geology. They were like inventing biface tools and stuff. So it’s just a fun way to get to describe how science works but then also have this crunchy cultural center to what’s going on where really you’re in the realm of thinking about society and culture and looking at it from a literary perspective, if that makes sense.
DC: Totally. So, when the characters are going back and forward in time and making edits, they’re adjusting the timeline. There are a few discussions between characters in the book about whether there’s only one timeline that’s just constantly being edited or if there are these parallel timelines. We have characters with memories that don’t match up as they’re editing, and it’s done really seamlessly in a way that makes sense within the story. But I was wondering, how did you avoid, for lack of a better phrase, breaking your brain while thinking about all this merging and splitting of the timeline?
AN: [Laughs] I had a big document where I was keeping track of everything, so that I would hopefully maintain continuity. I worried a lot about plot holes. When I had beta readers reading it, and my editor at Tor reading it, they would give me lists of, like, “Well, why isn’t this happening? Well, how are they able to do that?” Finally I got so frustrated that I actually just have a scene where a character goes to the office hours of a time traveler at UCLA—because all the time travelers are academics in this book—and so there’s just an office hours scene. Like, all right, let’s go to office hours and ask the questions that you have! It’s a little bit info-dumpy, but it’s also fun, because you get to know these characters better in the course of the conversation. But there are so many questions, because the scientists themselves don’t understand it.
Part of what I wanted to do was leave this space in the middle of the Machine where there really is just an unsolvable mystery. It really is possible that there might be multiple timelines. The characters are assuming that there’s one timeline. They have a lot of evidence that there’s one timeline, because when they make edits, they can go forward in time again and see the results of the edits. Whereas if you had a multiverse (they think), you would be able to jump between those multiverses and see one version of the universe where the edit didn’t happen, and another version where it did. But they don’t really know, because, as one of the characters points out, if you’re in a universe, it looks the same whether it’s a multiverse, or a monoverse, or whatever. So they might actually be spawning a whole bunch of other universes, and just creating a million versions of history. They just have to live with that uncertainty, in the same way that, today, when we’re doing, say, experimental medical therapies, we have to live with the uncertainty that they may not work, or they may cause unexpected side effects. It’s just a risk that they have to take because they want so badly to make these edits and make women’s lives better.
DC: Ambiguity is something that I, personally, could use more of in science fiction. I like a little mystery, I guess.
AN: Yeah, ambiguity is my favorite. I’m always going to throw in a lot of ambiguity.
DC: So if you got a time travel grant tomorrow, what’s the first edit you would make?
AN: Wow. That’s a good question. I mean, I have been thinking a lot about this question of suffrage. It’s a pretty tough edit. I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own; I’d have to have a lot of help. But I think having universal suffrage as early as possible would be great. That would be a good edit.
I also have this fantasy of being able to go back in time and rescue Rosalind Franklin from her early death. I’m not sure how I would do that, because she wouldn’t have made her discoveries without exposing herself to radiation. But I wish I could just go back and prevent James Watson from snooping in the drawer and stealing her ideas. If I could have just, like, punched James Watson right at that moment! I really have a lot of feelings about that. So maybe that would be the edit that I would make, that he would just get punched really hard when he tried to steal a woman’s ideas, and that Rosalind Franklin could have been recognized as the discoverer of DNA instead of this sexist douchebag.
DC: That’s a great answer.
AN: Punch James Watson. Leave.