Annalee Newitz made a well-deserved splash with her 2017 debut novel, “Autonomous.” In her second novel, a politically charged, punk-rock time-travel tale called “The Future of Another Timeline,” Newitz returns with a story that’s simultaneously sillier and more serious than any of her other work. It’s like “The Handmaid’s Tale” meets “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Readers meet Tess, brought up in Orange County, a suburban punk girl surrounded by creepy, sexually abusive dudes who haunted the scene and oppressive, abusive adult authority figures.
By a miracle of luck and determination, she grew up to be a geologist. By 2022, she becomes one of the scientists who use giant time traveling machines hewed into the Earth’s prehistoric rock formations to visit other parts of history. They study other eras and under no circumstances try to change them. That is strictly prohibited.
Tess also is a member of the Daughters of Harriet. The secret cabal of feminist geologist time travelers is inspired by the amazing (alternate timeline) Senator Harriet Tubman, whose justice struggle changed the course of human history (alas, not enough to ensure that women would be allowed to have abortions — that remains illegal).
The Daughters of Harriet are increasingly convinced that someone is messing with the timeline — trying to use time travel to edit the past and keep feminism from ever emerging. These Men’s Rights Advocates dream of a world where women are forever controlled by men. They are related to Anthony Comstock, the 19th century sex-phobic moralist and misogynist whose Comstock laws are still casting an outsized shadow in Tess’s 21st century.
When Tess travels back to 1990s Orange County for a punk show, where she and her friends once experienced a life-changing moment, she finds Comstockers in attendance. They are in full punk regalia, spreading zines that claim birth control is an authoritarian plot and that real anarchists don’t force women into traditional masculine roles.
To make things worse, when Tess gets home to 2022, one of the Daughters of Harriet has vanished — killed decades before outside a gay bar. She realizes that the Comstockers are trying to edit the Daughters of Harriet out of existence.
The premise that Newitz sets up is fairly madcap — a time-traveling Wikipedia-style edit war between Men’s Rights Advocates and Social Justice Warriors. While there’s plenty of light, fast-moving action here, the story also has a pulsing, claustrophobic, dystopian heart.
Part of that is carried in the scenes of Beth, a young version of herself that Tess remembers from those 1990s punk days. Her psychologically and sexually abusive father and enabling mother had her counting the days until college and smashing away her pain in the obliterating roil of the mosh pit.
The darkness also comes through in Newitz’s misogynists, whose creepiness is never as absurd as it might be. Newitz’s Comstockers are far too real and present to be mere satire. That’s because so much of their ideology is lifted verbatim from men’s rights message boards, murderous incel (“involuntarily celibate,” a bizarre, violent eugenic conspiracy theory that blames women for men’s lack of sex) cults and “Dark Enlightenment” self-parody.
The upshot is a book full of heart, consequences, stakes, action and surprises. Newitz blends exquisitely rendered historical research with a complex science fiction, the time-travel premise whose internal logic is well-thought-through, throwing up all kind of hard puzzles for her characters to solve.
This is a hell of a book from start to finish and could not be more timely.
Tor: 352 pages; $26.99
Doctorow is the author of “Radicalized,” “Walkaway” and other books. He lives in Burbank.