Buckle up, readers: This fall, Annalee Newitz is delivering an adventure unlike any other. The Future of Another Timeline follows a time traveler from 2022 who journeys to 1992 to stop a group of men determined to strip women of their rights. This is one of our must-reads of the season, and to celebrate its release we invited Newitz to share some of their favorite novels where women take history into their own hands.
Historical novels often focus on the lives of great men who achieve power and political influence, but neglect stories about women’s contributions. Here are a few of my favorite books about how women changed history, while men took credit for running the world.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
This is one of the most celebrated novels by literary legend Octavia E. Butler, and for good reason. It’s the story of Dana, a black woman in 1970s Los Angeles, who finds herself abruptly yanked backwards in time to a plantation in the South during slavery. Slowly she realizes that she’s there to protect her distant ancestor, a white slave-owner. Even as we revel in this story of a competent heroine who rescues a flailing man, we’re tangled in an ethical conundrum. If Dana succeeds, a loutish slavemaster goes free, and eventually rapes her ancestor–but if she fails, she’ll never be born. Smart, nuanced, and heartbreaking, this is a story of survival that never shies away from difficult truths.
Griffith’s richly imagined story of the early life of St. Hilda is quite simply a feast, and not just because the book is full of people eating the fresh milk, eggs and bread produced on medieval English farms. Long before she became a Christian saint, Hild was the brilliant daughter of an English noble who learned to fight like a man (yes!!) and to write like a scholar. There is so much to love here: the wistful evocations of pagan English life, the amazing battle scenes, Hild’s white-hot sexual awakening with her ladies’ maid, and the internecine politics of English tribalism on the brink of nationhood. Through it all, though, we follow the complex character of Hild as she realizes that the most important weapon she has is her literacy in a world where even kings couldn’t read. Learning about the world in letters, she rises to power and leads her country toward the modern world.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Like Hild, Connie Willis’ Domesday Book is a deeply researched treat for fans of history and finely-drawn characters. Set during the first wave of bubonic plague that swept through England in the late 14th century, it’s about Kivrin, a time traveling historian who just wants to learn more about how ordinary people lived during the 1320s. Instead, she’s accidentally stuck in 1348, during the Black Death that wiped out half the population of England. Taken in by a prosperous village family, Kivrin comes to adore their delightful children and oddball neighbors. Tension mounts as she realizes what awaits them after a sick monk comes to town. Willis is known for her brilliant comedic writing, and she uses her wit here to bring her medieval household to life–only to show us what happens when an inexorable pandemic takes everything away. Sweet and gentle, but also brutal and sad, this is almost certainly one of the greatest time travel novels ever written.
Sometimes the best way to tell a story about history is to retell it as a magical fairy tale set in another world. That’s definitely the case with historian Kuang’s The Poppy War, the first in a trilogy that retells the Sino-Japanese conflicts of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The Poppy War focuses on events that mirror the Rape of Nanjing, as fought by the Nikan and Mugen, two great empires whose warriors train intensively in magic as well as military strategy. We follow our (anti) heroine Rin, a fantastically talented young woman of humble origins, as she fights her way through the hazing and coursework at a military boarding school. When she finally joins the war, we discover she has a spiritual connection with her commander–and a sorcery-soaked bloodlust that will rip the world apart. Intense and harrowing, this novel explains the psychology of genocide.
A swashbuckling alternate history of the late 19th century, Clark’s novella (the first in a series) is about a world where the Haitian revolution spread to the whole Caribbean. In the real world, Haiti was saddled with payments to France for “stealing slaves” during the revolt. But in Clark’s world, Haiti becomes part of a powerful coalition of free nations where science flourishes and freed slaves grow prosperous. Meanwhile, the U.S. is eating itself alive in a Civil War that hasn’t ended. Creeper is a street urchin living in the free port city of New Orleans who yearns to join the pirate airship of her mother’s former lover Ann-Marie. When Creeper overhears some intel about a new weapon that could change the balance of power, she earns a spot on Ann-Marie’s ship and the adventure begins. This book is both a thrilling adventure and a brilliant re-imagining of Atlantic history.
Annalee Newitz is an American journalist, editor, and author of fiction and nonfiction. They are the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from MIT, and have written for Popular Science, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post. They founded the science fiction website io9 and served as Editor-in-Chief from 2008–2015, and then became Editor-in-Chief at Gizmodo and Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica. Their book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction was nominated for the LA Times Book Prize in science. Their first novel, Autonomous, won a Lambda award.