5 March 2020
What if geologists studied more than just Earth processes and history, but also how to go back in time and manipulate that history? That’s the job of the “cultural geologist” who is the flawed protagonist of Annalee Newitz‘s novel The Future of Another Timeline. (I’ve previously read her book Autonomous, and enjoyed it. I see her as a leading thinker about futurism’s intersection with feminism.) In TFOATL, the main character, Tess, lives in a United States that oppresses women even more than the current one does. Abortion is illegal for instance, but Harriet Tubman was a Senator. The book is set partially in the near-future (2022) and also in the early 1990s, but also in 1893/4, as well as the early and late Ordovician period of geologic time. Plus one of the characters comes from the distant future, a few hundred years down the line, bringing some intriguing technology with her. Tess is part of a group of female geoscientists who are working to edit the past so that women of the future can live freer lives. They are battling followers of a smut-obsessed U.S. Postal Service special agent, intent on subjugating women for all time. The action ranges from the World’s Fair in Chicago to suburban Los Angeles’s punk rock scene to the ancient city at Petra, Jordan, as well as the desolation of Flin Flon, Manitoba. An interesting feature of all these times and places are the “Machines,” time travel devices that are natural features associated with the Precambrian cratons of most continents – except the one at Petra (‘Raqmu,’ the site’s original name, is used instead), which is apparently a master Machine that controls the others. Humans can tap a rhythm into the Machines to go back in time, but they cannot go further forward than their present, and they cannot visit the same time twice. It’s weird to think of time travel as being a natural phenomenon, thought these wormhole-generating spots, though maybe they were made by alien intelligences in the deep past. The possibility is raised and set aside. It doesn’t matter: if they exist, people will use them, and pursue their own agendas accordingly. Geoscience takes on whole new levels of significance in such a world, and readers of this blog will be tickled to see that the fictional American Geophysical Union of the novel has a library in Raqmu, where geoscientists from across human history meet in the year 94 CE to compare notes on their edits in upstream and downstream in the timeline. (Take that, Fall Meeting!) As various characters go to various times and spawn new and divergent timelines, it gets dizzying to try and keep track of it all. Ultimately though, the good gals win, and manifest a future where collective action results in women having control over their own bodies. A warning: there are some scenes of real nasty violence and one of sexual abuse. The novel is by turns inspirational, fantastically creative, righteous, and extremely unsettling. I’ve never read anything quite like it.