Annalee Newitz Goes Back To 'The Future Of Another Timeline'
The noted sci-fi author shares why they love talking about the intersection of science, technology, and culture, and how heavily Riot Grrrl music influenced their latest book.
October 8, 2019
SD: Hi. I'm Sam, Audible's sci-fi and fantasy editor. I'm thrilled to be here today chatting with Annalee Newitz, who is the author of Autonomous and, most recently, The Future of Another Timeline. Prior to that, they were the founding editor of io9, editor in chief of Gizmodo, and the tech culture editor at Ars Technica.
Annalee currently contributes science writing to a variety of other publications, including opinion pieces for The New York Times and a monthly column for New Scientist. They cohost a podcast called "Our Opinions Are Correct" with fellow sci-fi and fantasy writer Charlie Jane Anders, which recently won a Hugo. Congrats, you guys.
SD: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, Annalee.
AN: Of course. Thanks for having me on.
SD: I'd like to dive right in. I just finished this novel last weekend. I loved it, but to call it genre- bending would be an understatement. You tackle science and politics and punk rock music and intersectional feminism and alternate history and even murder. I'd love to hear you describe what this story is about in your own words.
AN: It's a story about a woman named Tess, who is part of a secret group of feminist time travelers who live in a world where time travel is really mundane. Time travel has been around for a really long time. People discovered time machines buried in the earth's crust thousands of years ago, so people just think of time travel as normal. Geologists study it because the time machines are part of rock. And they're really just supposed to go back in time to look at stuff. They're not supposed to change anything.
But Tess and her friends have decided that they want to change history. The other main character is a girl in the early 1990s, [Beth],a high school Riot Grrrl who is stuck in time. She cannot move around in time at all, and she's just trying to survive high school. Her father is really abusive, and she's trying to cope with that situation. Then, her best friend decides that it would be a great idea in the name of feminist punk rock to start murdering guys who are rapists and creepers. She has a lot going on in her life that she's coping with.
Then the time traveler, Tess, shows up, and starts telling her stuff that she needs to do. So now, she's just really stuck and trying to figure out what her next move is going to be. Part of the fun of the book is figuring out the relationship between Beth and Tess, and why Tess has come back to talk to Beth. But also, it's about this broader story of how do you change history? How do two women try to cope with living in a time when they feel like they don't have as much freedom as they want to have? So, it's a lot.
SD: It's a lot, but it works. Within the first couple chapters of this novel, as you mentioned, as if it's not hard enough to be a teenager, this group of teenage girls suddenly become unwitting murderers, or at least the accessories to murder. I'm a true crime person, so this part of the story hooked me just as much as it made me super anxious, but especially because I feel like women's rage and anger, and the validity of those emotions, is such a visible topic right now in books and otherwise. How did you decide to approach that?
AN: That's a really good question, and I'm also a true crime fan, so...
AN: ... I knew that at some point, I would be writing about murder in some way. This is [about] two different women who are at different points in their lives. Tess, the time traveler-- at various points, she talks about how she's sworn off violence. She wants to change. She's going back in time to try to help women get more reproductive rights and to make abortion legal. And she refuses to engage in violence, even though people around her are trying to.
But, meanwhile, Beth is doing the opposite. She's in a situation where, like I said, she's kind of stuck. She can't just go back to the 19th century if she wants to change stuff or run away from home very easily. For her and for her friend, in some ways, because they've experienced violence, especially early in the book... And this isn't a spoiler. The way that this whole thing starts with murdering people is that one of them is attacked, and they kind of just do to this guy what's being done to them. They're blindly reproducing the violence that they're experiencing.
They feel cornered. I wanted to evoke that feeling of helplessness and how that can easily turn into rage, and murderous rage. Sometimes when people are backed into a corner or they're horribly, horribly oppressed, it feels like murder is the only solution. One of the things that I think this book tries to ask is, are there times when it actually is justified? When do you actually start murdering people? Some of the murders that take place are not necessary... But that's one of the questions that the characters are constantly asking themselves: "Well, is there another choice?"
It felt like a really vital question to be asking right now. Politically, in this country and lots of places in the world, we're at this point where things feel really extreme, and it feels like people are starting to ask those questions. I wanted to step back and say, "All right. Let's be real here. When do we really need violence, and when do we use other kinds of ways to change things?"
SD: Right. That's really interesting. Thank you for explaining that. I found it such an interesting topic to explore within the context of this time-travel story, where sometimes drastic measures have to be taken to change the past.
AN: Yes. As one of the characters says, "Sometimes you've got to render a guy."
SD: [Laughter] Well, one of Beth's outlets as a teenager is also the punk music scene. The punk music scene of the early '90s is a huge component of this story in general. Is that a world that's kind of near and dear to your heart?
AN: It very much is. And there [are] definitely bits of the book that fit to my own childhood and teenhood. I grew up in Irvine, California, where Beth is located at the beginning of the book. It was a pretty typical Southern California suburb, very conservative. So a lot of the kids that I knew rebelled through their music, [but] not as much as the characters in my novel. I was a giant nerd, so I rebelled by going online most of the time.
SD: Same. Same.
[Narrator Laura Nichol] did a fantastic job. Everyone who's listened to the book has been raving to me about it, so I couldn't be happier.
AN: Yeah, downloading illegal games and stuff like that. Once I got to college, I was pretty involved in the punk rock scene. It was a really specific moment in history, where a lot of things were changing in the United States. We finally had a Democratic president after a really long time. It just felt like everything was possible. We were going to do punk rock and change the world, and there was going to be a revolution tomorrow--because we were mad and because we knew what we wanted, finally.
I loved being able to write about the people in that world. Also, the fun thing about this for me is that it's an alternate history. There are some things that are different because time travel has been around for so long. History has changed. So, in this version of the Riot Grrrl scene, the bands that get famous are a lot more intersectional. There are a lot more women of color who are leading the bands and who are major faces in the movement. My experience of the Riot Grrrl movement in the early '90s was, yeah, there were local bands that had women of color in them, but the bands that got really big were almost all white.
I think that's part of the whole problem we're struggling with: white feminism. So, I really started the book by thinking, "What would I have to change about history so that Riot Grrrl music would have been really intersectional?" I decided the way I would do that is have women get the vote at the same time as freed slaves in 1870. So, that's what happens in the book. A lot of other things result from that, but one of the things that results is that we get more intersectional Riot Grrrl music. The characters are all obsessed with this band called [Grape Ape], which is a bunch of Latinas who are singing about racial injustice and immigration and feminism. It's just great. I wish that Grape Ape existed.
SD: I know. I kind of had the same feeling. I even looked them up to double-check if there was music I could listen to. So, yeah, I really appreciated that angle. Speaking of Grape Ape, you wrote a song for that band. As I understand, your friend helped you with that. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
AN: Yes. That was an amazing experience. I have a friend who has done a bunch of different bands, and she performs under the name Desi Lopez now. She's been in some bands where she sings partly in Spanish and partly in English. And she's very influenced by Riot Grrrl music. I really wanted her to be kind of the template for the women in Grape Ape, who are also bilingual and Latina.
When I was working on the book, I wrote the lyrics for part of a song by Grape Ape. You'll hear it in the audiobook. In fact, in the Audible version, we have a song that Desi wrote. She wrote all of the music and then wrote some of the lyrics with me. We wrote the entire song and recorded it at an old-school punk rock recording studio called Tiny Telephone in Oakland, California. And then we did a music video. I basically saved a part of my advance for the book so that I could pay some musicians to help me out. So now, a little tiny piece of Grape Ape exists in our timeline. We had so much fun doing it, but now Desi keeps threatening to do more Grape Ape stuff. So, you never know. It could actually come into being for real.
SD: You edited the timeline.
AN: I did. I wish I could edit it more. So far, all I've been able to do is make one song appear.
SD: Right. Well, I listened to the song. It appears at the end of a chapter. And I got chills. I was like, "Oh, I wasn't expecting this." That is so cool, that background. What other bands influenced you while you were writing this novel? Is there anything in particular that you listened to while you were working on it?
AN: The Bikini Kill was a big, important band for me when I was young, and for a lot of people. It's pretty exciting that they're touring again, because I think a lot of us old farts, Riot Grrrls, are like, "Yay." I mean, we're young farts, really. So that was a huge influence. I was listening to a lot of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, which was Kathleen Hanna's more recent band, and bands like L7 and X-Ray Spex, which were a band from the early '80s, late '70s/early '80s. The lead singer of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene, was mixed race. She was one of the handful of people of color who actually were pretty towering figures in punk rock.
Another band that super influenced the book was The Bags, led by Alice Bag, who continues to have an amazing solo career and just actually just did a show in the Bay Area, where I live. She's amazing. She's a Latina. She grew up in Southern California. She has an amazing autobiography called Violence Girl, which really influenced my thinking about the punk scene. She was more active in the '80s, but she was a big influence on a lot of the Riot Grrrl bands that I like. And there were a lot of local bands that I liked, especially when I got up to the Bay Area.
So, for me, the Riot Grrrl sound and scene were a lot about not just particular bands, but a mood or a feeling of just, yes, it's okay to be angry. Yes, it's okay to play with things that used to be for just boys. That was a big part of what drew me to it... It was a space where I could just be really tough and scream and nobody would be judging my gender, saying, "Why aren't you wearing a miniskirt or something?," which I could have if I wanted. That was what was great. You could dress like a girl. You could dress like a boy. You could dress like a freaking dinosaur. It doesn't matter. And that was really delightful.
SD: That's awesome. Thank you. I feel like you can really hear your passion for that kind of scene come through in the writing.
AN: Yeah. It's real.
SD: Another artist is actually the narrator. I had to look this up, but The Future of Another Timeline is narrated by Laura Nichol, who is the lead vocalist of a melodic death metal band called Light This City. This has to be one of the coolest and most on-brand narrator casting choices I've ever heard of. Do you have any information about how that came to be?
AN: I know that Tom Mis, who was producing this for Audible, either knew Laura or knew of her. But when he told me that she was in this band and she's also a person from the Bay Area, he was like, "Hey, just take a listen to some of her work." He had her do an audition. So I listened to her music, which is awesome, totally my jam.
And she was reading a part of [The Future of Another Timeline] that was in the voice of Glorious Garcia, who's the lead singer of Grape Ape. She went into this punk voice that people use when they're yelling--I don't know how to describe it, but it has a little bit of a Cookie Monster flavor to it. It gave me chills. I was just like, "Holy crap. This is so amazing." So I was immediately like, "I can't deny it. I have chills. You must hire her. Please hire her if you can." I was really, really, really excited.
Tom is a musician himself, so I think he was just [as] excited. He actually composed the music that's in the intro to the book. Right when it starts, you'll hear some metal-sounding music that he composed. There is a big overlap, I think, between punk and metal, and that was the delightful place that we all landed. Whatever that place is in a Venn diagram, we're all there.
SD: That's amazing. I love when a narrator just perfectly matches the content of a book, and she does a really great job.
AN: Yeah. She did a fantastic job. Everyone who's listened to the book has been raving to me about it, so I couldn't be happier.
SD: Great. Since you've listened to Laura's performance, and hearing the music of your invented band come to life, how do you think that influenced how you felt about your writing and about the characters in this novel?
But I liked the idea of having [time travel] feel kind of mundane, like in the way that we discover things in rocks or discover ancient rocks, which feels like, well, discovering rocks. I mean, that's what geologists do.
AN: It's always interesting to hear other people read your work. Last year, I was in Vienna at a festival where they hired an actor to read part of Autonomous in German. I speak a little bit of German, enough that I could maybe understand a third of what that translation was doing. It gives you a whole other way of hearing your work and interacting with it, and it gives you a little bit of distance from it.
I think, for me, it's very pleasurable, obviously, to feel like, "Oh, my work is out in the world and people are interpreting it." It feels like the sort of first moment of other people taking possession of the book. That's what I hope every reader does because, even if you're not listening to it, if you're reading it in your head, you're giving it your own voices. I think people will hear Grape Ape in their minds, and that was actually one reason why a little part of me was like, "Maybe we shouldn't do a song for Grape Ape, because everybody is going to want to have it be their own thing that they're imagining." But I did it anyway, so I was like, "Too bad."
But people can imagine it however they want. That song could just be an aberration. It could be that all of Grape Ape's other songs sound like death metal or something. What I really like about it is just that feeling, "Okay, people are going to turn this into what they want." And I want them to. I think every writer wants people to take their work and apply it to their own set of desires and feelings. I hope this is just the first stage in people creating their own versions of these bands in their heads and their own voices for the characters, because they're yours. They're not mine anymore. I'm done with them.
SD: That's great.
AN: I mean, I'm not totally done. I like them still. We're still friends. I'm not inside them anymore.
SD: Still visit them from time to time.
AN: I will. Yes. I will hang out with them once in a while.
SD: On a personal note, I have to admit that your novels are checking all of my favorite sci-fi boxes right now: AI, time travel, and all the effects that come hand-in-hand with those technologies. I know you're a science writer yourself. Do you find that, in your fiction, you often start with the science you want to tackle, or does it start more with a character?
AN: It's a little bit of both. In the case of Autonomous, it definitely started with the science. I was really interested in thinking about robots and pharmaceutical technology. In Future of Another Timeline, it really started with the teenagers murdering someone. That was really the first bit that came to me, and I kept thinking about it and wondering, "Well, why are they doing this? How did this happen? Why are they so freaking angry?"
That was when I was like, "Oh, it's an alternate history where they can't get abortions, and that's why they're so angry," because that made perfect sense to me that that would be the thing. That would be the tipping point where you'd go from just being a nice teenage girl to being a murderous rampager. Just, well, can't have an abortion, so you're pissed. And then I was like, "Okay, it's an alternate timeline. Well, why is it an alternate timeline?" That was when I realized that I had to write a time- travel novel, which I did not plan to do. They are very, very hard. Plotting a time-travel novel is probably the hardest outlining I've ever done, because there [are] so many plot holes that can open up.
So, in this case, it was really the story. Then, once I knew I wanted to do time travel, I went out and talked to scientists about how would that work? I talked to geologists about the rock formations. The characters eventually go back quite far in time. This is not really a spoiler, because you can easily see they're going to go back to a geological period before humans exist and the earth is quite different.
So, science second, which is why it's time-travel, because as soon as I talked to physicists, they were like, "Yeah, that's not a thing. Time travel is not real, and it's not ever going to be real." So I was like, "Damn it."
SD: Don't crush my dreams. Come on.
AN: I mean, they threw me a bone. Sean Carroll, who I talked to for this a lot, who has written his own book about physics, he was like, "Sure. Use the wormhole. Whatever. I don't care." So I had his permission to go ahead and use the wormhole, but he was pretty dubious about the whole thing.
SD: Time travel is so intrinsically linked to geology in this novel, which I've never seen before. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to set these machines in ancient rock formations and where that interest came from?
AN: Sure. That would definitely be an example of starting with the science... I'll just admit I am a huge fan of geology. I've written a lot about geology and environmental science. So I was like, "Okay. I definitely know I want heroes to be geologists. So, why would geologists be studying time travel?"
Then I got really interested in this idea of the time machine, and we don't know that either. The characters are like, "Well, they could be machines. They could be some natural formation." But I liked the idea of having them be discovered in ancient rock, because there are these chunks of the earth's crust, these shield rock formations that exist all over the world that are left over from a really early time of Earth even having dry land.
I was like, "Well, if, say, there had been a previous group of life forms on the planet or aliens or whatever, they could have come and done a bunch of stuff, and all of it would be washed away except for just a few little rock formations here and there." So, I thought it would be visually interesting. I thought it would be fun to describe. I thought it would be... I hate to say realistic, because none of this is real. But I liked the idea of having it feel kind of mundane, like in the way that we discover things in rocks or discover ancient rocks, which feels like, well, discovering rocks. I mean, that's what geologists do.
I wanted the time machines to feel as mundane as that, but also as awe inspiring, too. There are some rock formations that people have found that are billions of years old. There's definitely a certain amount of awe there. So, I wanted to capture that and also just to think about the fact that geologists deal with these incredible time scales that we, as humans living in history, just never do. When geologists think about time, they'll sometimes say, "Well, this is going to last for a while." When I think "for a while," I think, oh, a couple hours. But for a geologist, that's like 1,000 years.
So, I wanted my characters to be in that mindset of "a while" is 1,000 years. "A really long time" might be several million years. And because they're time travelers, those are not distances that are very hard to go. They can go back a couple million years, no problem. I loved bringing all that stuff into it, plus all of the academic shenanigans of having to get grants and having to sort of bargain with committees to get time on the very fancy time machine, which is also very much part of geology because there's a limited number of giant machines with lasers that you can use to date your rocks. So there's always a line at the machines.
SD: I love that injection of academia. That's the one part that's not sci-fi.
AN: Yeah. No. Sadly, no.
SD: You're definitely going to have me looking twice from now on every time I go hiking in a mountainous area to see if I can locate one of these machines.
AN: Yeah. Go visit the Canadian Shield, which is beautiful, and that's where the time machine is.
SD: Amazing. Well, that brings me to my next question. I read that you're now at work on a nonfiction book about ancient lost cities. First of all, you have to stop writing things that I need to listen to immediately because my list is already too long. But tell me more about that.
AN: I have a book that I'm working on for Norton, which is about archeologists and the archeology of ancient abandoned cities. I'm looking at four different cities that were quite central to their civilizations and then were later basically abandoned. There had been huge populations there, and then people drifted away and the city became mostly empty. In one case, the city was buried under lots of lava. That was Pompeii. So, really, no one could go back there.
What I am interested in is, why do people abandon cities even though they're so awesome and they're these incredible places to socialize? The whole time I've been researching that book, which has been about five years now, I kept wishing I had a time machine. And in the middle of doing this book, I wrote Future of Another Timeline, partly just to satisfy my urges to travel back in time.
But that book will be coming out probably late next year. I'm almost done writing it up. I've spent all this time traveling to these different archeological sites and interviewing scientists. It's been really amazing and also has kind of made me think, in the next 100 years, a lot of big cities might empty out because a lot of the things that cause people to leave cities are things that are happening right now, like climate instability and political instability and stuff like that.
SD: Right. That's interesting. On a personal note, I live in St. Louis, and there's actually a pre-Columbian Native American city that you can visit.
SD: Yeah, yeah. I haven't visited it yet.
AN: What?! You haven't visited?! Oh my gosh.
SD: I know. I just moved there, in my defense.
AN: Okay. You have to go... A huge part of my book is about Cahokia. I was out there on a couple of archeological digs, and it's amazing. It's so incredible. Basically, people abandoned it, and it became a pilgrimage site. It's still so awesome.
SD: I know. It's amazing. We were so excited when we found out that was there, and now I have to listen to the book.
AN: Yeah. It's a great place to go for a walk, too. It's a big enough park that you can wander around. It was a huge, dense city. About 30,000 people lived there, which makes it definitely the biggest city in North America for a long time, until Europeans came.
SD: Yeah. It's incredible to think about. So, for either that book or maybe an upcoming title, do you have a dream narrator that you'd love to narrate that? And I'll let you edit the timeline. They can be alive or dead.
AN: Oh, wow.
SD: No pressure.
AN: Wow. Okay. Let me think. This is... Gosh. A dream... I don't know.
SD: No, it's okay.
AN: I'm trying to think of actors that are amazing. Okay. If I can have anyone, I want someone like Janelle Monáe, who has...
SD: Oh, wow.
AN: ... an incredible voice, or Viola Davis, who's just so good at going between really calm and really hardcore, so maybe not for my lost cities book, but for my next novel or something like that. I like the idea of someone who's able to be, like I said, both calm and really tense. Actually, for the lost cities book...as long as it's someone who's passionate, I think that that's good. It has to be someone who's able to pull off a Carl Sagan kind of feeling, so kind of a sense of wonder but also a little bit of a sense of intensity as well. So yeah. Now I'm going to be thinking about that all day.
SD: Something to mull over. You have time. I have to say Janelle Monáe narrating a sci-fi novel would be my "Drop everything right now; listen to this" dream.
AN: I know. Right? Oh my God. It could happen.
SD: Someone has to make that happen.
AN: My next novel is going to be kind of a western, so it would be... I mean, she has a touch of a Southern accent, so she could be perfect.
SD: Amazing. Janelle, listen.
AN: "You've always wanted to do a cowboy story in space, right?" Oh, man. She would be an amazing space cowboy. I just want to see her in a movie as a space cowboy now.
SD: Right. Okay. My last question is--because it's a time-travel novel and I have to--if you were a traveler and you had the opportunity to edit one big thing and maybe one super mundane thing in our timeline, what do you think those would be?
AN: It's a good question. I think for the big thing, I'd really like to... I mean, I've grown up in the United States, so there's a lot of things about US history that I would like to edit. There has to be some edit that we could do where white settler colonialism just would have failed horribly, like Europeans would have arrived and just been, either because of some social issue or some environmental issue, just completely thwarted and, instead of colonizing the nation, would have entered into trade relationships with the indigenous people.
So, the Europeans would have come, but it would have been as, "Oh, we get to set up a little tiny European neighborhood in these American cities that belong to indigenous people." That would be great. That would be [my] number-one fix. That would require going back a ways, so that would also be kind of fun in my time machine. As for a small thing, I would like to fix the city I live in, San Francisco, so that in the mid-20th century we didn't get so many rules about... We have a lot of rules around development in San Francisco, which means that you can't build enough housing for the people who live here.
I'd like to change that so that our city was much more high density and tons of people could live here and it wasn't so expensive. So, however that edit would happen, I would like to fix that so that the city was maybe twice as big and there was lots of room for artists and working-class people to live here along with all the people who can afford giant condos. So, those are just two things that I think would make life better--for not just me, but lots of people. Let's just start with those, and then we'll move on to eliminating the patriarchies later.
SD: Right. Small steps first. I like that your mundane edit actually leads to a very huge change that would affect millions of people. I think that gets to the heart of the idea behind The Future of Another Timeline. It's these actions, these collective actions that people can take, that just completely alter the scope of history.
AN: Yeah. Small things can really make a big difference, and that's kind of the whole point.
SD: Very true. Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today, Annalee. It has been a pleasure.
AN: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I'm going to come up with a really good answer to the question about who should narrate. Well, I think Janelle Monáe is the best answer, ultimately, but that's a good answer to everything.
SD: Right. Awesome.
AN: All right. Cool. Well, thanks again.
SD: Thanks so much.