Bookish Content

A Million People and a Thousand Places

I recently reviewed Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. This sophomore novel from the founder of io9 was excellent. Like their first novel, Autonomous, it wove together science and technology, with social change and politics.

One of the main concerns of the time travelers in the book is what they name as the “Great Man” vs. “Collective Action” theories of time travel and social change.

According to the “Great Man” theory, key people and specific times are integral to the time line. Therefore, if one were to say, kill a young Adolf Hitler, one would sidestep the rise of German Nationalism and the Holocaust (or at least the worst of them). I think this idea might be found in the “fixed points” in Doctor Who. Certain times, people, and places, are integral to the way things currently are. Therefore, if one were somehow able to change a fixed point, the timeline would change in dramatic ways.

Those who espouse the collective action theory would argue that any significant changes to the timeline can only be achieved through broad social movements and gradual shifts in attitudes and behaviors. So if one were to kill young Hitler, all of the other factors leading to the Third Reich, etc. would still be in place, and history would more or less play out in the same way, granted with changes in the details. Perhaps certain events could be less or more severe. Events might happen later or earlier. Different people would be involved. But much like the toppling of a powerful autocrat without substantive multilateral change in a government or country, another, perhaps worse leader will take their place.

For me it seems pretty clear that the latter view is much closer to the way the world actually works, though the debate remains only a thought experiment as it relates to time travel obviously.

There is another angle on this discussion, however. While meaningful social and political change may only be achieved through changing the hearts and minds of many people and cultivating a community of action, as it turns out, each individual in that group is vitally important to the end result. Somehow, even though the many, many individuals in a particular movement may not be discernible as one looks back in time, each and every one is integral to the whole. Each is in a sense a “Great Man” within the collective.

Beth, one of the main characters in the novel, writes a paper on these two views. She encapsulates this new angle when she writes that “collective action means that when someone does something small or personal, their actions can change history too.”

The theme of the individual vs. the collective is central to Western culture, often emphasizing the former over the latter. It’s a theme that has certainly been central to my own life, as I became obsessed with Rush, whose early lyrics were initially heavily influenced by Ayn Rand but whose later lyrics were more interested in the tension of personal autonomy in the midst of loving community (more on that here). I think that it’s also been central to my religious life. I grew up in a religious milieu that was hyper-individualized, and I’ve spent the last ten years or so defining myself as “not that.”

There was a moment, then, in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Resistance Reborn, that I simply loved. Poe Dameron, who in many ways represents the classic, rugged, Western individualist, is giving a speech to the rag-tag group of Resistance supporters who are again on the run from the First Order. Then Poe Dameron, the guy who put his own ego above the safety of the Resistance,, tells his comrades that their fight is not about one person and one place but rather “a million people and a thousand places.”

Book Reviews

Review: The Future of Another Timeline

Tor, 2019

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five stars for an excellent sophomore novel from Annalee Newitz that is truly “speculative fiction” that deals with some moral and philosophical ramifications of time travel technology while dealing with two satisfying character arcs. I picked up Newitz’s debut, Autonomous, on a whim, and I loved it. As I was excited to read more from them, this book did not disappoint!

I’m not sure it’s fair to say that this book was “about” one thing, as it dealt in many motifs and larger themes. For me, the book was ultimately a look at the way in which the universal and the individual (or perhaps the political and the particular) play with and against one another in the grand scheme of the timeline in which we live.

Tess and Beth, the novel’s two main characters, each consider the Great Man vs. corporate action theories of timeline edits. Great Man theories see key people and places as fundamental to the progress or regress of society and culture. Conversely, corporate action would argue that for instance, if one traveled back in time and killed the infant Adolf Hitler, it would alter the circumstance of the timeline, but not create lasting change. A true edit that erased the Holocaust would consist of influencing groups of people across time altering the waves of white nationalism in many small ways that add up.

In The Future of Another Timeline, the patriarchy of the future teams of with the patriarchy of the past in order to…you know…be the patriarchy. Tess and her feminist geoscientist cohorts discover that certain deplorables are attempting to not only edit the past to maintain the oppression of women, transgender, and non-binary people but also sabotage the ur-time machine in order to inhibit others from reverting their edits.

Though Newitz’s novel is an alternative history to our own, by being only shades different in some ways, it is able to point an accusing figure at elements of our own culture. At one point, Tess thinks about women in the West: “Our place in this nation was still fragile. It was far too easy to edit us out.”

Tess discovers how truly contingent social change is and that while history does not depend on the role of specific people and places, each individual is crucial to the change that collective action brings.

I am not at all qualified to speak to the quality of the science in this book, but the time travel and geoscience were very engaging and I didn’t question it. So…

Overall in this novel that I would truly call science fiction, Newitz brilliantly tackles social and political questions and how they might interact with the advent of new technology in our world.

View all my reviews

this week in fandom

This Week in Fandom (1/17/20):

This week, I finished up my third pass through Brandon Sanderson’s The Well of Ascension. See my review here.

For more Sanderson and Mistborn goodness, check out the most recent post in my “Cosmeric Faith” series.

With passing of Rush drummer Neil Peart last week, I opened up the week with a bit of a retrospective of his work and its impact on my own life. For that post, go here.

This week, back at work after a few days off, digging into writing, and life, etc., etc., I have been trying to focus on actually playing when my two-year-old is therefore it. I’ve been startled recently by my own propensity to toward distraction and “what’s next?” while my son just lives *here* in this moment. More on that in What Kids Know.

Speaking of having some time off recently, my wife and I watched A Marriage Story (d. Noah Baumbach, 2019) on our anniversay. Still unclear as to whether it was fitting or not. But I really enjoyed this film. Check out my review here.

I’m still working through Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, slowly but surely–more on that next week hopefully. Also next week, look for my review of Disenchantment season two!

I’ll leave you this week with a quote from Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse, the main tie-in movel with The Rise of Skywalker which, yes, I am also reading (audio books, man). I have a lot to gush say about this novel, so more on that soon. For now, the book leads with Poe Dameron dealing with the fallout of his boneheaded, mutinous moves in The Last Jedi. Seeing Poe have to deal with the film’s events and his own actions has been satisfying, and I’m excited to finish the book.

“Was he talking about former Imperials, or was he talking about himself?”

Resistance Reborn, Rebecca Roanhorse (2019)

While not wallowing in self-pity, which would have been out of character and nearly unbearable, it is striking that Poe can identify himself with former Imperials. His own experience of shame due to misguided actions has made room for empathy and open-mindedness toward others. He puts it beautifully later on, talking to a rag-tag group of Resistance sympathizers, some with questionable backgrounds:

“Many of us have dubious beginnings. It’s how we end that counts.”

Resistance Reborn, Rebecca Roanhorse (2019)
this week in fandom

This Week in Fandom (1/10/20): Say Hello to Heaven

The Good Place

This week I jumped back into The Good Place. The Soul Squad has given up on making themselves good enough to get into the Good Place, but they’ve turned their attention toward helping someone from each of their pasts get there. Unable to carry on in ignorance, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, are perhaps more free than ever to truly pursue the good. They ironically chase the best for those who hurt them, as Michael explains that they are eligible to enter the real Good Place, knowing the truth of the eternal game as they do.

I really want to see what happens in the upcoming final season of this show, even though I think it peaked in season one. The show has been interesting and engaging but in the big reveal/turnaround at the end of the first season, there was a certain something lost for the audience as well as the main characters. Giving more weight to Eleanor’s story has been a strength of season three, and Michael’s role has been very satisfying. However, that first season just felt so perfect, and like Chidi and co., viewers just can’t go back to the life they once knew.

The Future of Another Timeline

Made some progress in Annalee Newitz’s second sci-fi novel this week. Her interweaving of technology, speculation, and social issues is really engaging. This book really brings life to the concept of “speculative fiction.” I’ve been delighted by the ways in which Newitz has written a definite time-travel book without being cliche or only playing into sci-fi tropes. I’m at the point in The Well of Ascension in which there’s no turning back, so I’ll probably put a temporary pause on this one for a few days.

The Well of Ascension

I’ve been somewhat disengaged with this one. I’ve been wondering if that was due to it being my third time through, but I think it owes mostly to the book itself. It’s got some typical second book foibles. It takes some time for things to pick up. A lot needs to happen before book three which needs to happen…in book two. The love story is also super frustrating and annoying. (But then again…see the quote at the end of this post)

But! Today I crossed the threshold into the pre-Sanderslanche zone. The Sanderslanche is my lazy term for the end of every Brandon Sanderson book (Sanderson + avalanche, get it?). After a haphazard Google search I feel fairly comfortable taking credit for the term.

Brandon really brings it home for the end of each of his novels, and it’s one of those things that keeps readers coming back and makes true commitment out of curiosity.

The Well of Ascension is no different, and now that I feel the ‘slanche coming. There’s no turning back.

Other Various Media: Comics and The Silmarillion

If I’m going to make my lofty reading goals for the year, I need to jump into some comic books and graphic novels. I don’t feel great about counting some of these as a book toward the total. But I also like to see that I’ve read x amount of books and feel that totally unearned sense of accomplishment.

On deck for comics: more Star Wars

Kick-Ass, Book 1 by Mark Millar

Blackbird by Sam Humphries

Sandman, vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Adventure Time, vol. 5 by Ryan North

I have made no progress through the audio of The Silmarillion, and I probably won’t until I finish The Well of Ascension. I’m at that dreaded point in the Tolkien master-work where I wonder if I need to start at the beginning again.

Well, there’s another week in my fantastical adventures. From everything I’m hearing, I’m excited to dive into the newest series of Doctor Who after I’m caught up on The Good Place. Otherwise I’ll be a puddle on the floor from the emotional weight of the Well of Ascension ending.

So what did your week in fandom look like?

I’ll leave you with another selection from The Well of Ascension that points back to last week’s. Last week I looked at what Tindwyl of Terris thinks makes a good king, namely, trust. In the following snippet, Zane comes to make Vin run away with him, and she almost does it. But then she finally chooses Elend. Zane asks her why:

“Tell me what it is!” Zane said, tone rising. “What is it abgout him that draws you? He isn’t a great leader. He’s not a warrior. He’s no Allomancer or general. What is it about him?”

The answer came to her simply and easily. Make your decisions–I’ll support you in them. “He trusts me,” she whispered.

The Well of Ascension, 584.
this week in fandom

This Week in Fandom (1/3/20): Mistborn, Time Travel, and the Magic of That Screen Crawl

Welcome to the first weekly installment of “This Week in Fandom,” in which I’ll briefly explore what I’m currently into and hopefully synthesize my divergent interests into some sort of coherent life. This Week in Fandom is somewhat modeled after Sanderson’s yearly “State of the Sanderson,” in which he outlines his year and the progress he’s made in various projects. However, instead of outlining my own accomplishments, I intend to outline the ways in which I’m enjoying the accomplishments of others.

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson.

The second book in the original Mistborn trilogy picks up about a year after The Final Empire. Last week [link] I started a series on how belief plays out in this series. So on this, my third time through, I’m digging in and exploring the ideas that have captured my attention on previous reads. This reread is also the start of another pass through the whole Cosmere for me, since we officially have a Stormlight 4 release date. More on what’s going on with Vin and Sazed later as I have a few more Mistborn and belief posts in the works.

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

I just cracked into this one, but I’m pretty excited. I read Newitz’s debut novel, Autonomous, last year, and it was great. I veer toward more fantasy than sci-fi, but the approach of Autonomous left me ready to open myself up to the genre. In her first novel, the ramifications of A.I. and bioethics drove the plot forward, so it will be great to see how Newitz takes on geological time travel.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 6: Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon written by Si Spurrier

Doctor Aphra is yet another Star Wars IP that is a dividing line between fans. Aphra is an archaeologist who plays by her own rules and lives by a “play or be played” philosophy. Her early adventures kept her perilously close to Vader, but these last few books have gone deeper into her back story and her absolute brokenness. Aphra is an absolute mess, but we just can’t look away. Sadly, I believe that Aphra is wrapping up with one final book, but I have found her to be a consistently great addition to the SW universe.

See my review of the latest Aphra book here.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Speaking of Star Wars, I was able to catch the final entry of the Skywalker saga again this past weekend. There is so much to say about this film, it’s place in its trilogy, and it’s place in the SW universe, but for now I’ll settle for just how great it was. I loved this movie. No spoilers here, but Kylo Ren’s *moment* atop the Death Star just wrecked me the first time I saw it. I am so satisfied with this film and remain so glad at the Star Wars revival. It’s not that there weren’t aspects of Rise of Skywalker that I didn’t appreciate, but the Star Wars opening screen crawl just has a certain power. It’s magic draws me in and ensures that I am about to generally enjoy whatever happens next. That is my bias that I don’t care to hide at all.

Other Various Media

I don’t think I’ve binge-watched a show since before my two-year-old was born, but I believe that I’m binge-watching The Good Place. I had heard this show was good, but I can now confirm that it is really good. The show pushes the “sitcom” boundaries and manages to ask deep ethical and metaphysical questions while staying in the comedy lane. Considering the other shows that creator Mike Schur has worked on (The OfficeParks and Recreation), it’s unsurprising what absolute gold this show is.

Currently on the back burner is The Silmarillion. I’ve been intending to take the plunge into Tolkien’s Legendarium since I read The Lord of the Rings as a kid, but have never been able to make it work for me. In order to shake things up, I checked out the thirteen (!) disc audio from my local library an have been listening off and on in the car. To be completely honest, I’m four discs in and can only vaguely describe what I have heard so far. That being said, the audio version is having it’s intended effect. The narrator, Martin Shaw, engages the material in a way that is enchanting and enticing. While it’s been a joy discovering the complexity and depth of Tolkien’s world, I think I have been most captured by the sense of beauty that he attempts to convey. The Silmarillion is rife with wonder.

I’ll sign off with a selection from The Well of Ascension. I have always loved Elend’s journey in this book. Elend finds himself as king of the central dominance. Though he believes in the government that he helped create, he does not believe in himself as king. It takes the catalytic tough-love of Tindwyl the Terriswoman, a specialist in the lives of the great leaders of the past, to get him there. From one of their tutoring sessions:

“Is that all it is, then?” Elend asked. “Expressions and costumes? Is that what makes a king?”

“Of course not.” 

Elend stopped by the door, turning back. “Then, what does? What do you think makes a man a good king, Tindwyl of Terris?”

“Trust,” Tindwyl said, looking him in the eyes. “A good king is one who is trusted by his people–and one who deserves that trust.”

The Well of Ascension, 186