Imagine the year 2016 as a techno-utopian alternate reality—one where political conflicts and material desires are extinct, and flying cars are indeed a mode of transportation. Sounds particularly good after the real 2016, doesn’t it?
But it doesn’t sound great to Tom Barren, the protagonist in Elan Mastai’s debut novel All Our Wrong Todays. Even though he lacks for little, Tom can’t escape the realities of grief, loss, and heartbreak. In an irrational blur of these feelings, Tom decides to take a spin on his scientist father’s time machine—even though he has told us many times that he is unqualified to do so. He sends himself back to July 11, 1965, the day a different scientist turned on the Goettreider Engine, a machine that “generate[d] unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy” and catapulted the world toward its future utopia.
This brief foray into the past has disastrous results. Tom erases the 2016 he knows and becomes stuck in the 2016 we all know. (A less specific version of it—thankfully, Donald Trump does not pop up for a cameo.) But while humanity gets the short end of the time-travelling stick, Tom does not. In our 2016, Tom has a happier life, with a warm family, supportive girlfriend, and successful career.
Thus the dilemma. Is it Tom’s responsibility to return humanity to a better 2016—even though his life there is worse? Is it even possible for him to do so? And, in a larger sense, is there a future (or, for that matter, a present) that Tom is supposed to have?
To answer those questions, Mastai mainly relies on two storytelling techniques: immersive world-building and Tom Barren’s narration. The former works with dazzling results, while the latter is hit or miss. Mastai creates details that are so distinct and original, it’s easy to envision Tom’s world and understand the physics of it—no small task when it comes to the mechanics of time travel. For instance, in Tom’s 2016, in order to understand time, you first need to understand space. As Tom explains:
If you were to travel back in time to yesterday, the Earth would be in a different place in space. Even if you travel back in time one second, the Earth below your feet can move nearly half a kilometer. In one second.
The reason every movie about time travel is nonsense is that the Earth moves, constantly, always. You travel back one day, you don’t end up in the same location—you end up in the gaping vacuum of outer space.
Mastai takes the predictable stakes of time travel (erasing the future, changing the past) and heightens them. Now Tom doesn’t only need to worry about disrupting the flow of time, he must also concern himself with landing in the middle of the solar system. Mastai does this over and over again—he sets up fascinating puzzles, and we watch his characters reason out of them (or sometimes, crash through them). This clever world-building includes everything from mattresses that “subtly vibrate to keep your muscles loose,” to the fact that punk rock doesn’t exist because it wasn’t needed in Tom’s 2016. Ideas like these are addicting, and they hurtle All Our Wrong Todays forward from one brainteaser to the next.
The only hiccup to this page-turner is Tom himself. While his first-person narration is engaging and snappy, it is also sometimes self-indulgent. He talks about himself a lot—how much of a disappointment he is, how much he messed up the world, how he doesn’t deserve the chances he received. After hearing Tom’s complaints against himself, you can’t help but agree with him. Here Tom is after suffering a massive loss, explaining how he ended up sleeping with an ex-girlfriend:
And I’d cry and say she’s right, I am lost, but I don’t think I can be found. I knew saying it like that, sobbing and jagged, instead of shrugging it off with a self-deprecating joke or a snarky dismissal, would resonate with the woman I was speaking to, because three of [my ex-girlfriends] had ended things with me for the same reason, which is that they got sick of my bullshit.
It’s tough to remain empathetic to a character who knows he is bullshitting, knows his actions have consequences, and continues with his bad behavior. This is the exact same problem when Tom goes back in time. He has explained that he messes things up, but he doesn’t stop himself from entering the time machine. When his trip goes disastrously, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, what did you expect?”
To be fair, in the course of All Our Wrong Todays, Tom changes and sees the results of putting one’s own reality above everyone else’s. Ultimately he steps outside his self-centeredness and becomes a hero. But it was difficult to shake my annoyance that he knew better in the first place and still went ahead mucking up the world. Maybe it’s the timing of the book. I currently have little stomach for self-centered men who decide to destroy the future on a whim.
For this reason All Our Wrong Todays never quite landed an emotional punch for me. As smart, mind-bending and funny as it is, I couldn’t sympathize with Tom’s predicament. Perhaps if All Our Wrong Todays had come out a different year, I’d feel differently. But, as Tom Barren himself knows, the reality of time is one you can’t escape.