Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a sharp, mind-scrambling book which asks us to imagine how one person could change the course of history. On 11 July 1965 in San Francisco, the visionary scientist Lionel Gottreider switches on a generator that utilises the force of the earth’s rotation to produce a limitless supply of clean and cheap energy, and transforms the world forever. Fifty years later, in 2016, Tom Barren bumbles his way through the sleek utopia that has been made possible by Gottreider’s brilliance, never imagining that he will be responsible for destroying the world as he knows it.
Tom’s world is full of possibility. Jobs and romance are found by genetic matching and children are trained from a young age for the careers which best suit their qualities. Space tourism is a growing fashion. Books are obsolete, superseded by immersive entertainment which tailors a story to the individual’s own hopes, dreams and psychology. And teleportation has become the favoured method of travelling long distances. But this super-smart world still has places for the less brilliant examples of humanity, of which Tom knows himself to be one. For as long as he can remember, he’s been undermined and ignored by his brilliant physicist father, who has arranged for Tom’s apartment and pulled strings to get Tom a job, not because he is fond of him, but because he believes that Tom is incapable of doing anything for himself. And Tom, resentful and crushed and still grieving for his mother’s recent death, is all too ready to believe this.
But things might be about to change. The Barren name is on the cusp of becoming as famous as Gottreider. Tom’s father is about to unveil the first time machine, in the middle of a media glare, on 11 July 2016. Everything has been planned with military precision. The chrononauts are highly-trained, brilliant people, all except Tom, who has been given a place as an understudy with the widely understood proviso that he will not be called on. The team leaders are to go back to 1965 to witness the moment the Gottreider Engine was activated for the first time: the founding event of modern life. The chrononauts will be invisible, immaterial, able to see but not to be seen: silent witnesses to the glories of the past. It will be a scientific miracle. And it would have been. Except that messy human nature gets in the way. In a moment of shock and despair, Tom finds himself firing up the time machine for the first time, alone and angry, flinging himself vindictively into the past. And here, to his horror, he disrupts the demonstration of the Gottreider Engine and sets in motion a train of events which completely derail the future that he comes from.
This isn’t the first novel I’ve read about time-travellers disrupting the past, but it’s definitely one of the smartest. I liked the theory of ‘temporal drag’, which means that even if the time-traveller does change everything about the future, he makes it necessary for certain events still to happen, which will ensure that he will still be born. There are points where the science (or cod-science?) all gets a bit too much for me to follow, but that’s probably just my insufficient understanding. And this isn’t really a story about science, so don’t let that put you off: it’s a story about people, and in particular about one underachieving, disappointing young man who realises that, in destroying the world as he knows it, he might just have made a better life for himself. Tom is an engaging character, albeit slightly useless and flailing at the beginning, and I swiftly warmed to some of the other characters – Penny and Greta in particular.
All Our Wrong Todays does feel like an extremely deft first novel and to some extent that’s because Mastai is actually an experienced writer of screenplays already. This side of his work comes into play towards the end of the book, where events speed up into a dizzying mixture of vignettes, cutting from one timeline of possibility to another, in a way that would work brilliantly on screen. He’s obviously a formidably imaginative author and the result feels slightly like J.D. Salinger meeting H.G. Wells – a paean, not to the monoliths of some dazzling future, but to the warm sufficiency of a normal, awkward, imperfect life. It goes without saying that this would make a perfect film and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Mastai – who apparently received a seven-figure advance for this book – had something of a cinematic nature up his sleeve.
In this meantime, this book comes strongly recommended for those who like speculative and slightly mind-bending fiction with a touch of heart.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgallery in exchange for a fair and honest review.