March 07, 2017

All Our Wrong Todays - Elan Mastai

Penguin Random House, February 7, 2017.

Five Stars

Tom Barren lives in 2016 – but not our 2016. He lives in the futuristic world that was imagined in the optimistic 1950s, filled with flying cars, moon bases, and automated food and clothing made specifically for each person’s taste. Due to the invention of the Gottreider Engine, a machine that draws power from the movement of the Earth’s orbit, there is an endless source of clean energy – which means the people of this alternate 2016 have no environmental damages, no greenhouse gasses and no global warming. Everyone’s needs are catered to and everything seems to be perfect, but Tom is still unhappy.

After the death of his homemaker mother, Tom goes to work for his successful scientist father, who is planning to send a team of time-travelling “chrononauts” back to the moment that the Gottreider Engine was first invented in 1965. Tom is training as a backup chrononaut to superstar Penelope – his father has no faith in his abilities and doesn’t trust Tom to actually travel back in time. However, when events take a surprising turn and Penelope is unable to travel, Tom ends up alone in our version of 2016. To him, our world seems like a dystopian wasteland of pollution and suffering.

When Tom wakes up in a hospital, surrounded by a family that seems familiar but is strangely different, he finds out that his name is John Barren and he is a successful architect in Toronto. He tries to explain that he has just travelled from an alternate timeline, but his sister (who did not exist in his former world) insists that his delusions are taken from John’s unpublished novel, which was originally based on his childhood fantasies about another, futuristic world. Tom begins to doubt his own reality, but he holds on to the idea that John and himself have always been connected through the fabric of time.

Uncertain about his grasp on reality, Tom attempts to live as John. However, he holds on to Tom’s dreams by searching for the Penelope of this world – instead of a successful, independent and sometimes cruel chrononaut, the version of her in this 2016 is a quirky, thoughtful bookshop owner named Penny. Against all odds, Penny believes Tom’s story and the two form a powerful bond that may stand the test of alternate timelines. However, when Tom meets Gottreider, the inventor of the engine, he must decide whether his own happiness is worth more than the chance to give our 2016 a source of clean energy that will increase global health and happiness. It is an interesting way of looking at Utilitarian philosophical theory, and forces us to question what we would do in the same situation.

All Our Wrong Todays is written as a memoir of Tom’s travels. I found his voice to be incredibly annoying at first, but the tone changes as he grows as a character, confronting his individual and collective past. Tom’s provocative voice and its development show Mastai’s talent as a writer, especially as someone so unlikeable becomes completely empathetic by the end of the novel. Even Tom writes that he is embarrassed by the earlier, more offensive passages of his memoir, as he develops into a better person. My enjoyment of the book crept up on me as well – I didn’t love it at first, but all of a sudden I couldn’t put it down, and I thought about it when I wasn’t reading. Some parts were repetitious, but it didn’t take away from the overall momentum of the fast-paced plot.

This novel is obviously going to invite comparison to Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, released last year. While the two books have a lot in common – quantum theory, alternate timelines, the effect one person’s actions can have on the lives of many – I found this one to be much more quirky and entertaining. Mastai gives us a lot to think about, and he makes his philosophy very accessible. I especially liked the idea (taken from French philosopher Paul Virilio) that every time a new technology is invented, the “accident” of that technology is also invented – so when the airplane was invented, so was the plane crash. In his memoir, Tom writes that the accident applies to people as well, and “every person you meet introduces the accident of that person to you…[t]here is no intimacy without consequence.” (Loc. 156) Tom experiences these accidents firsthand, and his reactions are always very human and relatable.

There is so much content and so many ideas here, and I think many different kinds of readers could potentially enjoy this novel. As our own world becomes more technologically advanced, fulfilling some of those dreams that Tom talks about from the 1950s, the line between science fiction and literary writing is becoming less obvious. As Tom tells us, “[t]hat’s all science is. A collection of the best answers we have right now. It’s always open to revision.” (Loc. 2343) Authors like Mastai are inspiring that revision in all of us.  

I received this book from Penguin Random House and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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