Fiction Reviews

All Our Wrong Todays

(2017) Elan Mastai, Penguin, £12.99, hrdbk, 375pp, ISBN 978-0-718-18407-0


It is 2016 and 'the future is here says the pioneer, there's room at the top, du-wop, du-wop'.  People wake up to put on clothes automatically fabricated around them, they fly to work with jet packs, kids scoot around on hover boards, there are flying cars and everything that we once – back in the mid-twentieth century – considered to be futuristic really is.  This is the early 21st century near-utopia that we oldies expected as kids, and not the same old, same old reality we got stuck with where everyone is confined to the ground unless you use a plane of all things, and cars are powered by dirty fossil fuels etc. So how come this SFnal 2016 came about? Well the answer is of course with the famous invention of the Goettreider Engine back on that famous day on the 11th July 1965. It tapped into the huge reservoir of the Earth's kinetic energy to provide copious cheap, clean power to the world plus new avenues of physics. The 11th July 1965 was the day Lionel Goettreider invented the future. This is reality.

This is the reality Tom Barren wakes up to, the reality in which research physicist Tom's father, Victor, employs Tom as a back-up for a chrononaut crew who will be the first to go back in time in the time machine Victor invented. And where will they go to? Well, the date on which the future was invented – 11th July 1965 – to witness Lionel Goettreider famously switching on his engine.

Tom is infatuated with the chrononaut Penelope (to whom Tom is a back-up), who is one of the few who seem not to interested in Tom because of his talented, famous father. But when Tom makes Penelope pregnant, Penelope is automatically dropped from the forthcoming first attempt at human time travel. To cut a long story short, devastated Penelope kills herself which in turn drives Tom to use the time machine for his own purposes. The machine works, but Tom ends up at the pre-programmed destination 11th July 1965 disturbing Lionel Goettreider whose engine malfunctions and the future never got to happen.

Tom's machine is pre-programmed to return to the present, but instead wakes up as 'John' in our mundane 2016. However it is 2016 where there is a version (a sister or twin) of Penelope, Penny, alive. So what to do? Should Tom/John return to 1965 and put right what went wrong? Well he can't, the time machine does not exist. Indeed nothing of Tom's life is the same; he is now John, a famous architect of futuristic buildings. But Tom remembers his previous life and knows that the world is not right. Furthermore, John's family, friends and colleagues realise that something is not right…

This is a time travel story. Now, every SF trope from alien first contact through to artificial intelligence or whatever sees a new work that stands tall above others every few years. But with the trope of time travel you know how it is, you wait yonks for something with that extra dazzle and then all of a sudden two come along at once. Last year (2016) we had Robert Dickinson's The Tourist and this year (2017) we have Mastai's All Our wrong Todays. Both books are very different – albeit there's the time travel trope – but both are remarkable treatments of that trope. Both are also very well written and will appeal to those lit-crits into new wave SF as much as those into harder SF. Mastai's protagonist does not explain the finer details of time travel (it is his dad who has the physics knowledge) but knows enough to give us analogous explanations and the gist, and within this framework there is a logical coherence (well, ignoring one brief Ian Watson 'Very Slow Time Machine' part late in the novel – how did he eat (or breathe?)). Having said that, it has to be said that the first third of the book up to the initial, pivotal time jaunt is mainly character building and scene setting. This part will appeal more to new wave SF aficionados. But once the past is changed the book both speeds up as well as make for an interesting exploration of Mastai's take on time travel that meshes very well with the character-building undertaken earlier on.

I will not dwell further on the plot but, in terms of its place within the super-genre of speculative fiction, it would not be unfair to say that Mastai's All Our Wrong Todays is a science fiction counterpart to Niffenegger's fantasy The Time Traveller's Wife.

Though this is Canadian Mastai's debut novel, the man clearly has mastered words, which is not surprising as he has been a script writer for some years. Indeed, apparently Paramount has optioned the novel with Amy Pascal producing, which leaves me wondering how well this will transfer to the big screen within a one-and-a-half hour constraint, such is the detailed characterisation. But that is Paramount's problem, and Mastai's as he is developing the screen story: lucky us we have the novel. As I said with that other remarkable time travel book of the past 12 months, The Tourist, don't be surprised if this is shortlisted for a number of SF awards. Fortunately each of these novels is on different sides of the 2016-7 divide and so this one is eligible for 2018 gongs. But whatever official accolades this novel accrues, if within SF you are especially into time travel stories then this is one book you really will want to get.

Jonathan Cowie

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