Published by Dutton Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Elan Mastai opens his debut (and, in my view, awkwardly-titled) novel All Our Wrong Todays, with a great hook: the world that we are living in is a mistake, a dystopic alternate timeline that never should have happened. We’re supposed to live in a retro-future paradise of flying cars and instantly-generated clothing. Our should be a world without want or poverty, where no whim or desire goes unfulfilled. Food, clothes, employment, and even sexual partners (provided you don’t mind, say, an artificial construct made from the DNA of your ex) are all available in whatever form a person might choose. This paradise was made possible by the Goettreider Engine, which uses the earth’s motion to generate limitless clean energy. So profoundly has this invention changed the course of human history, that its inventor, Lionel Goettreider has become the most celebrated man of modern history. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Our narrator, Tom Barren, tells us pretty quickly that the world is dangerous and messy and violent because he has somehow messed it up.
I’m a sucker for this kind of alternate-reality novel. I also happen to love witty first person narratives focusing on messed up or underachieving protagonists. Rarely do I get both genres in the same excellent package. Even though this often reads like a breezy, character-driven story, the science is impressively sophisticated yet manages to come across as effortless. All Our Wrong Todays, in other words, has the pace of a comedic social novel, but it is still seriously legit science fiction. That said, the narrative voice is so amusing and engaging that I would have enjoyed this book if it had been about plumbing or accounting.
Mastai is a successful screenwriter, and his novel follows a clearly discernable three-act structure. The first third deals with how, precisely, Tom Barren managed to mess up reality – a spectacularly significant accomplishment considering when we meet him, he has distinguished himself as a slacker in a society that seems to be made up primarily of slackers. Tom’s father, however, is an overbearing titan of a man, a scientific genius who sees himself as second only to the great Goettreider. Seeking to make his mark on scientific history, Tom’s father has set out to invent time travel. In this world of plenty and endless indulgence, he imagines the technology’s most logical use to be tourism — specifically to witness the historic moment when Lionel Goettreider first activated his invention.
Tom, meanwhile, is stumbling through life, comforting himself after his mother’s accidental death – an extremely rare event in his world – by sleeping with a series of ex-girlfriends and alienating himself from his few remaining friends. Taking pity on his useless son, Tom’s father brings him into the time-travel project, training him as a sort of understudy time traveler. We can see where all of this is going, and the build-up to Tom’s ultimate disaster is part of the fun. Much of the narrative tension of the first part of the book is waiting to see just how, precisely, Tom manages to ruin utopia to the point where we end up with our messed up world. Mastai is clever and patient enough to move toward this plot point obliquely, focusing his energy on Tom’s relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. The science is right where we can see it, but the story is never about the science. Mostly it’s about Tom living in the shadow of his remote, self-aggrandizing father and then Tom’s absurd crush on chief time traveler Penelope, a woman he desires as much for her clipped and cold personality as her beauty.
I’ll hold off on any more plot details. The book makes it clear from the beginning what is going to happen, and much of the fun is seeing the how of it. Suffice to say, Tom does, in fact, manage to mess up everything, and he finds himself in our endlessly disappointing reality. Here some people are much like they were in the previous timeline, but others are entirely different – and sometimes significantly kinder and happier than they were in paradise. Mastai’s exploration of how realities line up isn’t necessarily original in this kind of story, but it’s handled with real emotion and insight. I’ll also mention, keeping things deliberately vague, that the plot develops in ways I found genuinely surprising and original. Mastai develops the science behind time travel pretty early on, but he allows the implications of his concepts to unfold in ways that intertwine creatively with plot and character.
All Our Wrong Todays is a thoroughly entertaining novel, though I did have a few problems with it. I enjoyed the first third about as much as any novel I’ve read in recent memory, and the last third was breathless and compelling, but there was some middle lag. For a significant chunk of the story, the narrative energy falls prey to Tom’s touristy gawking at our reality. Having introduced a character and his world, Mastai must do the same thing all over again, and while the comparisons are often interesting and insightful, the overall effect is to slow things down.
I also found Tom’s growth over the course of the novel to be a little too Hollywood for my taste. Maybe I’m projecting because I know Mastai is a screenwriter, but given the cleverness of this book’s prose and its insightful handling of both character and technology, I was disappointed by a central emotional arc that felt like it could have come from an Adam Sandler comedy.
I’d hate for these quibbles to keep anyone from reading this book, though. Too often readers are made to feel like they have to choose between character-driven stories and big-idea science fiction. All Our Wrong Todays manages to be deliver the whole package and do delightfully.