All Our Wrong Todays, screenwriter Elan Mastai’s debut novel, could not have come out at a topical time. The time travel story’s protagonist, Tom Barren, doesn’t have to wonder if he is living in the wrong timeline. He knows he is. After all, he was the one who messed it up.
Tom comes from an alternate utopian timeline where retrofuturist ideas like flying cars actually came to be. It is only through his own irresponsible time travel machinations that our present was formed. I’ll leave you, dear reader, to decide if it is The Darkest Timeline or not.
There’s something slightly comforting, not to mention generically clever, about spending time in a fictional reality where our timeline is the “wrong” one. The conceit casts All Our Wrong Todays’ often unlikable protagonist as our closest confidante. Or, more accurately, we’re his closest confidante. It is unsettling, at times, to be so strapped to such a self-indulgent, thoughtless narrator. As the book progresses, Tom begins to gain some perspective on how his actions affect others, but it literally takes him diverting history for the lesson to sink in. A self-centered privileged man with the power to change history and the perspective of a grasshopper: another topical element of this book.
A self-aware “memoir,” All Our Wrong Todays has an unusual structure for a time travel novel. It has the tenor of an oral story, but the ambitious plot and worldbuilding of a much more traditional science fiction tome. The book has been described in some places as a sci-fi novel for those who don’t necessarily like science fiction. It has a literary bent, and is more akin to something like The Time Traveler’s Wifethan The Time Machine.
Mastai does a good job capturing the inherent tragedy in time travel and the realities of life not even temporal shenanigans can cure: losing your youthful energy, losing your loved ones, losing your life. But it is trying to tell a much larger-scale story than a story like The Time Traveler’s Wife, and it loses something intimate in the proces, despite its memoir-like format.
Like his script for romantic comedy What If, Mastai’s strength is not in characterization or character dynamics so much as big ideas and existential questioning. What makes a successful life? What makes a successful timeline?
Unlike What If‘s main character, Tom has a much better reason for being upset at the world (or, in this case, the multiverse) and the relative lack of depth or detail in the connection between Tom and his lady love Penny comes with a reason that holds weight — though one I cannot elaborate here as it is one of the big twists that fly at you in this book’s roller coaster of a final act.
All Our Wrong Todayssets itself up to say some grand, insightful things about the nature of our reality versus other possible ones, but never fully delivers. However, it does succeed as a fun, fast-paced, thought-provoking ride — the perfect novel for someone looking to indulge in the possibility that this is not the world we were supposed to grow into.