I’ve always been partial to time-travel tales—Back to the Future, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, NBC’s Timeless, et cetera. And I can add another one to the list: All Our Wrong Todays, the 2017 debut novel by screenwriter Elan Mastai (The F Word). It takes place in an alternate timeline where the Gottreider Engine, an apparatus that produces an infinite supply of clean energy, is invented by eponymous physicist Lionel Gottreider and activated on July 11, 1965, a date fresh off the Civil Rights Act and smack in the middle of the Vietnam War. The Engine transforms the world into a technological utopia with strong nods to postwar consumerism and 1950s pulp science-fiction anthologies, and everything is pretty much peachy—until the year 2016, when our self-deprecating protagonist, Tom Barren, comes into the picture. He has an inclination for making terrible decisions in his aimless life, e.g. sleeping with three ex-girlfriends and a close high-school friend in the wake of his mother’s funeral, and he’s a complete disappointment to his father, a renowned scientist who is endeavoring to develop time tourism, a marketable form of time travel. However, Tom’s father ends up assigning him as an understudy for Penelope Weschler, who is part of a crew of six “chrononauts”—a crew that will soon embark on a groundbreaking mission to become the world’s first time-travelers. At least, that’s the plan. Suffice to say, disastrous things happen, motivating a devastated Tom to take his father’s time machine back to July 11, 1965, the Gottreider Engine’s birthday. More disastrous things happen (seeing a pattern here?), and when Tom returns to 2016, he finds himself in a parallel timeline that’s “dull, vapid, charmless, barely evolved from the 1965 I just left.” In other words, his trip through time effected such drastic repercussions that he wiped out his own reality and he’s now in our 2016.
Mastai’s novel, which Tom insists is a written memoir, is a hilarious, harrowing, and heartfelt adventure led by a flawed protagonist who is frank about his mistakes, making it easy for us to relate to him. He evolves on profound levels as he realizes that, as dystopian as our world feels to him, he’s arrived at a crossroads where he can try to revive his own utopian timeline and return to his trifling life there, or he can stay in our imperfect 2016 and thrive in the happy life he could have here. The clever plot doesn’t pull its punches when it illustrates just how chaotic and frightening time travel can get. There are several moments where Tom offers his observations on topical issues in our society. It’s especially intriguing when he comments on our abundance and love of books, something that is absent in his world and has been replaced by a technology that hooks your brain up to a system where you can live out self-created stories that are not dissimilar to a lucid dream. Through the madness of time travel Mastai interweaves together the meaning of life, our kaleidoscopic identities, and the untold possibilities that can arise from what we could be—and All Our Wrong Todays is the unforgettable result.
Windup score: 94/100