Tom Barren wakes up into his own dream (3).
Tom Barren lives in twenty-first century Toronto: you know, flying cars, robot servants, and unlimited power.
Unfortunately, he becomes history's first time-traveler and bumbles the job thoroughly. He awakes in a dystopia: the twenty-first century that we know. However, the other world wasn't quite as perfect as it seemed, the new world isn't entirely as horrible as he initially thinks.....
At this point, Elan Mastai's light, satiric romp takes several turns, a few of them fairly nasty, before arriving at a conclusion that might be characterized as....
That would be a spoiler, I'm afraid.
The rather glum present we all know appalls Tom, with its looming environmental crises, social problems, and.... a significantly improved personal life for Tom's alternative self. Even if he can undo this world, does he want to? If he tries, can he convince anyone he hasn't just gone crazy? And might his meddling result in a more sinister reality?
Elan Mastai accomplishes much in his stunning debut novel. He critiques past time-travel narratives, tries, Primer-like, to take the implications of time travel seriously while, Vonnegut-like, to find the humor in dark subjects. He uses his SF conceits to examine very resonant human situations and psychological states. Tom, for example. eventually has three different versions of himself battling for control of his psyche. Most readers will relate.
The author also measures his own dreams carefully. Despite his understandable love for that shining googie future we all dreamed of in the post-war era, he understands it flaws, and he knows those flaws derive from its very inspiration.
It also doesn't (initially) feel like a heavy novel. Quite the opposite: the beginning almost seems trite, if fun. Mastai has organized All Our Wrong Todays into short chapters that prove deceptively easy to read. It later takes several turns. Some of these are dark, while a few of them aspire, at least, to be deep.
The novel has its flaws, of course. Save for Tom/John/Victor himself, the characterization isn't particularly strong. All writers use characters as plot devices; here, the tendency becomes problematic.
Firstly, we have the novel's great inventor, Lionel Goettreider. If Mastai avoids (and openly mocks) some of the logical problems that bedevil past time-travel novels, the central figure at his book's jonbar point is a pop-SF cliché. Goettreider is one of those brilliant maverick scientists whose work comes out of nowhere; when he abandons it, in certain time-lines, no one attempts or accomplishes anything even remotely similar. Matai works hard to explain this character's motives (and his complete invisibility in our 2016) but, ultimately, the character exists and acts to serve the demands of the plot. Tom's discussions with them sound wooden when compared with the novel's other conversations.
Secondly, we have the female characters. They aren't entirely puppets, but the manner in which they serve the story will make many readers uncomfortable, and probably should. I don't suggest that writers shouldn't address sexual assault and/or pregnancy as motivating forces for female characters, women sacrificing their lives for their men, and women inspiring men, but these tropes are overused in general and addressed, in this novel, with less sensitivity and complexity than we might hope. "Penny" is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she lives on the same street.
Some of these flaws may be explained because Barren narrates the novel, which he calls a memoir, and his character's considerable flaws naturally influence the narrative.
I also found the description a bit lacking. Mastai manages a few memorable images, such as those found in Tom's excusion to an abandoned town. For a novel so immersed in exotic alternatives, however, it proves remarkably short on description. He often relies upon the reader's understanding of past visions of the future (and the contemporary Toronto skyline).
Nevertheless, this may be one of the most accessible SF works of 2017, and it deserves Hugo and Nebula attention. Even when it falters, Mastai's highly readable novel proves worthwhile, entertaining, and occasionally thoughtful.
Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Author: Elan Mastai
First published on February 7, 2017