Thursday, February 16, 2017

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai

Elan Mastai's debut novel All Our Wrong Todays is a delight to read.  It is thoughtful, speculative, reflective science-fiction.  Mastai wanders down plenty of scientific-sounding rabbit trails, enough to make it sound like sci-fi, but not so much that it gets in the way of a great time-travel story.

The story begins in 2016, but not our 2016.  In this alternative timeline, the world's most famous scientist invented the Goettreider engine, which produces limitless energy spurred seemingly unlimited technological progress.  Tom Barren's father, a protege of the more famous Goettreider, is about to become famous himself, as the inventor of time travel.  Tom, the disappointment of the family, the slacker son who has not distinguished himself in any way, screws up the timeline of history by sneaking into his father's lab and traveling back in time to the moment the Goettreider engine is first activated.

When Tom returns to 2016 after his brief foray in the past, he finds himself in our 2016, in a future that has no Goettreider engine and missing all the technological and sociological advances it made possible.  He's the same guy, only with memories from both timelines.  Somehow he has to figure out who he really is.  Plus, he has to convince his family and his girlfriend, who is the same but different in this new timeline, that he's not absolutely crazy.

Wracked with guilt about potentially having eliminated billions of people who were never born as a result of his tinkering with history, he contemplates trying to fix it.  But as he tries to explain to Goettreider, "time travel is very bad at fixing mistakes.  What it's very good at is creating even worse mistakes."  In this sense, All Our Wrong Todays engages many of the same questions countless movies and books about time travel have raised.  But Mastai does it oh so well!

One of the real-life ideas (in our timeline, and, apparently in the other timeline as well) that Mastai introduces is French philosopher Paul Virilio's idea concept of the integral accident.  As Tom/Mastai describes it, it's "the idea that every time you introduce a new technology, you also introduce the accident of that technology, so you have a responsibility to anticipate not just the good it can do but also the bad it can wreak, not just the glory but also the ruin."  The invention of train travel is also the invention of derailment, for example.

Tom/Mastai has written not a novel, but a memoir.  "And the best thing about a memoir is it doesn't even need to make sense."  But in an entertaining and thoughtful way, All Our Wrong Todays makes perfect sense, and, whether a novel or a memoir, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading it.

Thanks to NetGalley for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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