I read All Our Wrong Todays, a book about the year 2016, in the last month of the year 2016. I am writing this review in the last week of the year, but by the time you read it, it will already be 2017, making this a tiny experiment in time travel. We can all admit that 2016 did not live up to anyone’s expectations, and you may be tempted to read this book to find solace in Mastai’s perfect, made-up 2016. But All Our Wrong Todays does you one better: it teaches you to appreciate the one we have.
Tom Barren comes not from the future, but from an alternate 2016, where all our 1950s dreams of hover cars and food synthesizers have been made possible by the 1965 invention of a machine called the Goettreider Engine. In less scientific terms than presented in the book, this machine was able to harness an unlimited amount of energy in order to fuel the creation of more and more advanced technology. In this different 2016, Tom Barren’s father Victor is a genius almost on par with Lionel Goettreider himself, and plans to launch the first time-travel exploration into the past. His chrononauts will return to Goettreider’s lab in San Francisco, on July 11, 1965, to witness the start of the future, and the moment he turns his engine on.
Tom should not be a chrononaut, should not be a part of this experiment at all; but after his mother’s death, his father pities him and makes him understudy to Penelope Wenschler, a brilliant and dedicated former astronaut. Of course Tom falls for her, and on the night before their mission, they sleep together. By the morning, Penelope is pregnant, her altered DNA enough to compromise her position on the team. She will never go into the past, and refuses to live in a present where that is the case; her suicide drives Tom to fling himself through the time machine and into 1965. His presence in Geottreider’s lab that day causes the sequence of events that everyone memorized in grade school to derail, and create an alternate 2016, where Tom still exists but the world as he knows it does not.
Tom wakes up in the body of John Barren, a successful architect, the child of two living and loving parents, and brother of millionaire app-creator Greta. While trying to figure out his place in this new world, and how to get back to his old one (even if this one is infinitely better to him), he meets Penny Wenschler, the opposite of his Penelope in all but appearance. They fall in love almost immediately, and most importantly, she believes him when he says he comes from another timeline. In order to convince his new family, he must find Lionel Goettreider, who in this world is completely unknown, and goes by the name of Lionel Grey. Tom/John finds him in Hong Kong and discovers that Goettreider has been waiting for him for 51 years. I won’t share another detail, for fear of lessening the deserved suspense of the final chapters, but I will say that I was somewhat neutral on the book until that point. The ending truly changes everything.
My only real criticisms are that the beginning was a bit like running in place (the short chapters make you feel like you’re covering more ground than you are), and the middle section tended to drag (the conflict was more internal), but the last third more than won me over. I breezed through the last hundred pages, because the direction kept changing, with new reveals every few chapters (in a good, not-cheesy way). The end was rewarding, without feeling too wrapped-up, and I came away feeling a little bit different.
I knew I was destined to enjoy this book when one of its first allusions was to Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle; as a devoted Vonnegut fan, I appreciated that literal nod to his work, as well as the stylistic one. The subject matter, voice, and plot were reminiscent of some of his more whimsical pieces. I was also reminded of Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the casual approach to science. I like that Mastai never dumbed down the technical language because he trusts the reader, and in the end, it’s not about the science. What Vonnegut, Adams, and now Mastai do so well is distancing themselves from the genre of sci-fi by focusing not on world-building but character-building. The literary qualities take precedence, and I believe the reader gets more out of it. In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I am giving this book five stars is because I am still thinking about it. And it is endlessly revisitable; I’ll probably reread this soon and find new and varied reasons to appreciate it. Time-travel, science, alternate reality fans: put this one on your list.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dutton. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.