All Our Wrong Todays
Penguin Random House LLC
Release Date: February 7, 2017
Most of us have read stories about future dystopias; for a while it seems like they dominated the speculative fiction landscape. Some of the stories would chronicle our descent from the present to the dilapidated future, but often writers skip the descent and simply place the reader in chaos. But what if the life we now know, the life of 3D printers, cell phones, microwaves, the internet – what if we are the dystopia, a pale shade of what might have been?
This is the premise – or at least the opening premise – of Elan Mastai’s debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays.
In Tom Barren’s 2016, things are pretty hunky dory, despite his being the somewhat lackluster son of a bona fide genius. There are moving sidewalks and flying cars, instantaneously produced clothing that is recycled daily, food packed full of nutrients and flavor, neural communications and entertainments. The air is clean, the water is pure, the world is (more or less) at peace and virtually everyone is content. Heck, Tom’s own father is the world authority on the theory of time travel. All this largess is primarily due to the implementation, on July 11, 1965, of the Goettreider Engine, an amazing device which harnesses the constant rotation of the Earth to generate “boundless, robust and absolutely clean energy.”
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But when the first foray into time travel goes tragically awry, the past is altered and Tom finds himself in a far different reality (our reality). Not only is the world vastly different, from the oily smelling air to the horror of petroleum powered vehicles and combustion engines and clothing actually made from plant and animal fiber (to name just a few) but his family dynamic -which was pretty wretched back in his “other” reality – is also drastically changed. And it’s all Tom’s fault. Now the question is – can he fix it? Or perhaps the better question is – should he?
That’s a very intriguing question, the answer of which is not really clear – which is part of the draw of this book.
I will admit that I was initially put off by the literary styling of All Our Wrong Todays: extremely short chapters written in first person via a very disjointed voice that seemed to ricochet from apologizing to extemporizing and back to apologizing again. Even knowing that the narrative was meant to reflect a journal written by a confused, mundane loser couldn’t keep me from feeling jerked around by choppy self-serving prose that seemed to set up far too many mini-cliffhangers at the end of each micro-chapter.
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But the further I got into the story, and the more I came to know Tom Barren, the more appropriate that styling became and the more it seemed to bolster the character rather than distract from the narrative. And, to be honest, by the time the story progressed to discussions of time travel and alternate realities and humanist conundrums, I needed to be fed in small, simple doses. Even then, there were times that my head was spinning – but that was more due to my often fluttery way of thinking more than a lack of solid explication.
I do appreciate that, while there are obligatory reactions any time a novel centers around time travel, author Elan Mastai comes at it at somewhat unique angles, a bit deeper and yet more humanly than other offerings in the genre. While it is true that the world that Tom originates from is a bit too kum-by-yah to fully embrace at the onset, the dilemmas he faces are not diminished by it – and after all, he’s speaking from his own experience and his own understanding which is, as he himself freely admits, somewhat naive.
Ultimately, All Our Wrong Todays tuned out to be very enjoyable, and thought provoking. One of the main tenets of the novel comes from real life cultural theorist Paul Virilio – the idea that every time you introduce a new technology, you also introduce the accident of that technology, so while you can anticipate the good it will do you must also figure out just how badly it can screw things up. This adds an interesting philosophical angle to the narrative without it getting bogged down into acute theoretical and technological minutia. In fact, All Our Wrong Todays throws in a number of diverse and yet recognizable layers that end up actually enhancing the story rather than distracting from it.
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Still, All Our Wrong Todays adds to my belief that time travel, while imaginative, is best left the heck alone. Thankfully, the novel goes about it in a fun and entertaining way.
~ Sharon Browning