Time Travel! Annalee Newitz is playing with it in their new novel The Future of Another Timeline! Or, perhaps, has been playing with it already, or will have been playing with it at some unspecified point in what might have been the future! Maybe! They’re here now to sort all the timelines out for you.
I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to tropes. I love to see them done well, but mostly I love to see them turned inside out, mutated, genderswapped, racebent, unraveled, or forced to wear a silly shoes. When I set out to write a time travel novel, though, I knew the tropey situation might be dire. The list of time travel tropes at TV Tropes is instructive: there are roughly a hundred of them, ranging from the Grandfather Paradox to closed time loops, and that’s not counting all the other tropes related to alternate history.
The Future of Another Timeline (on sale today!) wasn’t even supposed to be a time travel story. It started as an alternate history that was kind of small and personal. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if abortion had been illegal when I was growing up, and the spectre of getting pregnant was looming over my horny high school self like a kaiju ready to barf napalm. So I started taking notes, building up an alternate reality without abortion rights. Then I added some angry riot grrls going on a murder spree in high school, killing rapists. Because obviously extreme times call for extreme measures.
But then I started asking myself what would have led to this dire scenario. The answer I kept returning to was time travel. A secret group of feminist time travelers was in an edit war over the timeline with a group of men’s rights activists from the future. The bad guys had deleted abortion rights from U.S. history, but my heroes would go on a mission to revert that edit, trying to create a world where riot grrls could just enjoy punk rock instead of murdering people.
I already had a pretty unusual premise, so I decided to make my time travel as mundane as possible. I chucked out the “secret time travel” tropes, and the “omg one thing in history has changed we have to change it back” storylines.
Instead, I created a world where time travel has always existed, everybody knows about it, and we all take for granted that the timeline has been heavily edited by travelers for millennia. Time machines are embedded in ancient shield rock formations on the Earth’s surface that have endured virtually unchanged since the Cambrian period half a billion years ago. Nobody knows how these devices got there, or who built them, but if you tap on the rock with a specific rhythm it opens a wormhole to the past. Humans discovered them in pre-history, and have been mucking around with the timeline ever since. In the modern era, geologists are the people who study time travel.
The idea of a heavily-edited timeline felt real to me. Plus, who doesn’t want to push the “go” button on an incomprehensible technology that’s barely distinguishable from nature?
As you might guess, this setup raises even more questions. Why isn’t everybody changing everything all the time? Are there any limits? Who is in charge of running these Machines when we discover them? What I found was that the more I set limits, the more the standard tropes could be helpful. After all, a trope is basically a narrative limit we’ve all seen before, so it doesn’t sound so damn strange when I say that of course there’s an organization called the Chronology Academy that controls access to the Machines. There’s only one timeline (and you know what that means, Back to the Future fans), and we can only go to the past. If you meet yourself in the past, as you know from Tropey McTroperson, BAD THINGS HAPPEN. If a traveler changes the timeline, or is present for a change, only they remember the old timeline.
Then I came up with more weird rules that I haven’t seen in any trope list yet. For reasons that scientists don’t understand, the wormhole won’t open for travelers unless they’ve lived in close proximity to a time machine for roughly four years. So you have to be pretty damn serious about time travel, and willing to devote a lot of time (heh) to it, before you can jump into the past.
Most of my characters are women and people of color, so I also played with a trope that’s become quite common recently in our slightly-more-woke-but-not really times. That’s the “scary to time travel if you’re not a cis white man” trope. You’ve seen it on TV in shows like Timeless and Legends of Tomorrow, and much further back in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. The idea is that everything was much worse for women and people of color in the past–and, implicitly, that things are better for us in the present.
In Future of Another Timeline, I wanted to question that idea. First of all, the present is no piece of cake, and in many post-colonial places it’s hard to say things are definitely better than past eras. Yes, there were different hardships in the past, but throughout history there have always been spaces of resistance where women and people of color and other marginalized groups could organize. When my character Tess goes back in time, she’s able to ally herself with 19th century feminists and anarchists; when she travels back to the 1st century BCE, she finds safe haven among priestesses of the goddess al-Lat. I wanted to recognize that there have always been powerful women and people of color in history; it’s just that historians have deleted our contributions.
One of the major differences between our timeline and the alternate one in my novel is that women and freed slaves achieved universal suffrage in 1870 in the U.S. As a result, Harriet Tubman became a senator in 1880. I wanted to center an event that’s rarely glimpsed in time travel stories, instead of the usual (tropey) Civil War and World War II. And the Big Bad my novel, Anthony Comstock, is trying to crush women’s reproductive rights. Only the Daughters of Harriet, a secret organization of intersectional feminist time travelers, can stop him. YES IT’S A TROPE. But it’s swerving in a new direction.
Navigating the trope obstacle course to write about time travel has been delightful and hard as hell. Still, I love that it allowed me to visit a 1992 Grape Ape concert, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the ancient city of Petra in 13 BCE, and the Ordovician period about half a billion years ago on a megacontinent that no longer exists.
I think of stories as map overlays on a skeletal field of tropes. One story might be like the traffic layer in Google maps, which draws angry red lines down the freeway during rush hour. But another is like the terrain layer, which converts the cartoony perfection of an abstract map into an overhead view of mismatched houses and blobs of unexpected trees. Each new layer, like a new story, offers a fresh perspective on the same old piece of land. I hope The Future of Another Timeline gives you a new way of navigating the histories you thought you knew.