Annalee Newitz is never short on a good concept.
Their previous book, Autonomous, is all about androids and cyborgs and bootlegged prescription drugs and pirates. Their newest, The Future of Another Timeline, is packed with time travel and murder and political intrigue and wormholes. Despite the incredibly cool concepts in this book, though, reading Future felt like two separate stories that never quite gelled into one.
In Future, time traveling (backwards only, not forwards) is possible via a set of wormholes around the world, and are used mainly for things like research or relocation. But for the activism-minded traveler, the past represents the potential to make “edits”—that is, change the course of history by nudging or suppressing movements, or even killing or saving the life of someone important to the future. When someone makes an edit, only someone who was present in that timeline before it was changed can remember the way things were, leading to a Mandela Effect-like collection of recollection among any given group of travelers that differ from the way things are in the current timeline.
We start out following Tess, a time-traveling professor from 2022 who belongs to the Daughters of Harriet, an organization dedicated to establishing and protecting women’s and nonbinary people’s rights through the ages. And such an organization is necessary, both given the bleak state of things—abortion is absolutely illegal, things that should be considered basic like voting rights are in flux, and trans activists are being assassinated—and the fact that a rival organization is trying to take away every shred of women’s and non-binary people’s rights. Sorry, they’re advocating for men’s rights. Tomato, tomahto.
Meanwhile, Beth is a high school senior in 1992, sneaking away from her strict and unpredictable parents to go to punk rock concerts, especially if it’s by Grape Ape, a sort of fictional descendent of The Runaways. It is after one such concert that Beth and her friends find themselves covered in blood after a male friend attacks one of them—and the resulting attempt at self-defense turns deadly. But the boy’s death is dismissed as the work of drug addicts, and the girls escape without so much as being questioned by police. The rush that comes from stopping a predator and getting away with it emboldens the girls, and despite the warning a mysterious middle-aged woman gives Beth, the bodies start piling up from the group’s vigilante efforts.
It’s Tess. The mysterious woman is Tess.
And honestly, this is where the book felt a little unfinished to me.
From the very first chapter, we know that Tess and Beth are in close proximity at a Grape Ape concert. Cool, fine. At Beth’s first visit from the “mysterious woman,” we suspect that it’s Tess, or another of the travelers. But the next time we’re in Tess’s POV, she tells us that, yes, it was her and, yes, she probably shouldn’t have gone back to 1992 but she needed to warn Beth. Which hit weird to me because she had just been in 1893 Chicago, not 1992 Los Angeles, and although that kind of travel is totally plausible through the wormholes, Tess herself never gave any indication that she had another agenda. And considering that that both Beth and Tess’s POVs were in first-person, it really seems like she should have mentioned something.
In fact, Tess as a character felt a little…thin, we’ll say, especially compared to how warm and well-rounded Beth seemed. I liked the contrast between their characters and they did always feel distinct, which can be tricky when having more than one first-person POV in a book. But Beth plausibly seemed like a real person, whereas Tess sometimes felt merely like a set of reactions and tasks. I loved Beth; I rooted for Beth; I cheered for her in the end. Tess? She was fine, I guess.
This frustrating contrast, particularly in those moments when Beth and Tess met, could have been due to my reading, certainly. I was reading quickly because I did want to find out what happened next. The first time I was confused at the Beth-Tess interaction, I slowed down, went back, read again. The second and third time, it seemed like either I was supposed to have predicted Tess’s deviation back to 1992 or that it was a Big Reveal that forgot its confetti. And there was a reveal, if you’ll pardon the hint at a spoiler, but because it wasn’t forecasted in Tess’s point of view, it felt less satisfying than I think it could have otherwise been.
Which is why I say Future felt like two stories not fully knit together. Beth’s story feels solid. Her character feels solid. But it’s true that her story isn’t quite as exciting as a time-traveling war across centuries. And in that respect, it’s almost a shame that Tess is the one at the forefront of that story, because while the two stories do eventually entwine, Tess’s story seems like perhaps it doesn’t quite belong to the same timeline, if you will. If that mismatch was intentional, if Newitz was trying to show the disconnect between a choice and the ripple-effects of that choice, it’s brilliant, it just didn’t quite work for me. Which was a shame, because there were a lot of good things going on that were overshadowed by these moments of confusion and frustration.
Still. Incredible ideas. Very cool story. So much potential. Just a little disappointing.