I had a to-do list the length of my arm, but All Our Wrong Todays happened. The minute I got home from work I had to pick up this book to finish what I’d started the night before. All Our Wrong Todays, written by screenwriter Elan Mastai, provides a gripping read filled with time travel and some pretty crafty writing.
Serendipitous sidebar: two weeks before we both read All Our Wrong Todays, my fiancee and I watched one of Mastai’s movies. He hasn’t written a ton of films, but he did write a Toronto-set rom-com starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, and Adam Driver. Here in the States, it’s called What If? but Canada and probably the rest of the English speaking world knows it as The F Word. It’s no My Fair Lady, but it’s still enjoyable. The next Mastai film I see, however, will probably be a version of All Our Wrong Todays, whose film rights Paramount just bought.
Anyway, the Toronto setting transfers to All Our Wrong Todays, which features a futuristic Tomorrowland-like 2016 world complete with flying cars and food replicators for the first few chapters. “Few” here is relative, because the book has 135 total, but really it would have been just as coherent if it had been categorized into 70. Many novels don’t really use chapters as tool to tell story, so much as they provide convenient stopping places. Here, however, the chapters pile up as the story twists into a labyrinth. The setting moves from sci-fi 2016, to our 2016, to a postapocalyptic 2016 with the occasional trip back to 1963 as our narrating hero, Tom (also known as both John and Victor) Barren explores the complexities of time travel.
Now, as a time travel novel, All Our Wrong Todays lives in a swamp of tropes already, so it makes itself at home. Despite living in a utopia, Tom Barren has daddy issues in spades, a recently deceased mother, a massive crush on his Amazonian coworker, Penelope, and a tendency to complain and only complain about his otherwise perfect life. Once he time travels and accidentally turns the Tomorrowland he came from into the real 2016, everything changes, but it’s like the novel just decided to switch clichés. In this 2016, Tom (known here as John) has talent and success but no real human connections. He quickly finds a version of Penelope, but she’s not an ice-cold scientist anymore; she goes by Penny, and she’s a geeky bookseller who falls in love with him at first sight. His mom still lives, he has a sassy little sister named Greta, and a loving, befuddled father instead of an abusive one.
For Tom, the trade-off raises nothing but questions. He has to decide between life in a technologically backward society and having loving relationships with his family. Tom agonizes over the fact that he destroyed all the people from the other 2016 that he can’t find in the current one. However, restoring Tomorrowland 2016 would remove his sister from existence. And, of course, the novel pauses to ask if it all might be in Tom’s head.
These questions about the morality of time travel and Tom’s real importance as an individual carry the novel through all the tropes alongside impressive writing. In a first person story, the narrator goes on a journey, which shows in Tom’s voice. He begins the novel scared and without confidence, and by the end of the book, he has changed into a steady, deliberate individual. This wouldn’t be as impressive in a book written in the past tense. In much of the present tense prose I read, it feels like the author only wants to milk a “sense of immediacy” from the words. Not here – the narrative actually feels like a meditation for Tom, as if composing the story helps him mature as a person. Tom channels that internal conflict into a climax that actually does take place all in his head as he makes a final decision about how to fix the history he broke.
For bonus points, this novel runs a fresh look at time travel itself by the reader. Tom doesn’t zip around ambiguously colored dimensions in a rocket car, a phone booth, or a space ship. Instead, it acts more like a teleporting machine the first time he time travels. The second time – that’s right, there’s two time machines – it’s more like the chair in H.G. Wells’s classic The Time Machine.
All Our Wrong Todays upcycles familiar concepts with classic science fiction style. If it dives a little too much into stock characters, the novel makes the reader uncomfortable by asking the tough questions about their presence in this book. However, the prose that displays real character growth provides the most satisfying details about this book.
Four out of five stars
Page count: 373
Pass this around to your friends who like Ernest Cline and Wesley Chu.