I feel like I shouldn’t even be reviewing this book. While reading All Our Wrong Todays I felt like I was once again in the middle of Andy Weir’s The Martian, desperately dodging scientific jargon and theories while searching for story, character and plot. Both books are brilliant in their own ways, their authors obviously talented and clever, their lovable characters disguising their genius underneath a slathering of meta humour. So, if you enjoyed The Martian, there’s a very good chance you will enjoy All Our Wrong Todays, but if you’re like me, someone who – despite enjoying the occasional sci-fi – is not scientifically minded, you might… well, find it boring.
All Our Wrong Todays is about thirty-two-year-old Tom Barren who comes from the future. But not really. He comes from an alternate 2016, where the world looks like how people from 1965 envisioned the future – hover cars, glass utopias, a world of “retro-futurism” aesthetic.
In this world, humanity possesses the source of unlimited energy, the Goettreider Engine, which was invented by Lionel Goettreider in 1965. Our 1965. From the moment Goettreider turned it on, it never stopped running, making power sources that we know and use like coal, nuclear energy, etc, completely obsolete. In this alternate timeline of our futures, everything is possible because there is no limit on energy, and by the time that 2016 comes along, that 2016 is vastly different from the 2016 that we know. Yet, even though in Tom Barren’s future time travel is slowly becoming a possibility thanks to his distant, genius father, Tom is still plagued by the same issues that we all know: self-doubt, insecurity and sadness. After the suicide of the woman he falls in love with, Penelope, Tom makes the rash decision of being the first to travel back in time, even though he was not really meant to. His father’s time machine brings him to the moment and place when Goettreider turned on his engine, causing a ripple of events which change the world’s future. When he is back in 2016, his friends, family, and the retro-futuristic world that he knew had never existed, and he is a John Barren, with a different family and life.
Ah, when I read the summery of this book I was unbelievably excited. Not exactly for the time travel or Tom’s immanent self-discovery but for the world of retro-futurism.
So maybe it was my own expectations of what the book should be rather than what it is that lead me down the path of disappointment and boredom. The world that I wished to read about wasn’t really brought to life. Sure, there were the hover-cars, shiny buildings, synthesized food, meters that let you know your compatibility with the person you just met, but besides those brief mentions, I got no sense of what it really was. Especially because Tom – the main protagonist who is meant to shows us that world – is so preoccupied with self-pity and his school-boy-like crush on the far superior Penelope that he cares little for anything else. The beginning of the book was not used to set up the setting but the circumstance of the science behind the Engine, time travel and this alternate timeline. There was so much jargon that I did not understand, that I found myself skimming through paragraphs until I came to something that made sense. I’ll admit, it went well over my head, but others might find it enjoying, which is why I say I am not the most appropriate reader to review this book.
So, I really won’t mind if you disregard my opinion and stop reading this right now.
Really, I won’t mind.
Oh good, you’re still here.
Mastai really does try his best to make all of his colossal ideas about time travel, the future and their science accessible to the scientifically uneducated reader like me. Writing in the first person, the story becomes his character, the writing conversational and casual. Especially in the first several chapters, the main character Tom Barren constantly reminds us how stupid he is, how we should not trust what he tells us, because just like us, he is not a genius, but a simple unambitious “Joe” who sort-of-kind-of knows how this Goettreider Engine and time travel thing works – just how we know sort-of-kind-of know how a power dam operates. Which, I suppose, was meant to be helpful but instead I found the extreme casualness annoying. By imitating speech, Mastai often used the world “like”, which we don’t really notice while talking unless it is used in excess. In writing, however, even when he used it sparingly, whenever I came to every single “like”, even in characters’ dialogue, it was extremely jarring. It was like listening to a valley girl. It broke up meaning and the flow of the narration, cheapening it’s meaning, acting like a little annoying fly that I wanted to swat. Practically at the end we understand that the whole novel was really a diary, a memoir, which Tom was writing, but even then, who uses “like” in their personal writing?
This is just one of the stylistic choices that was explained at the end but was annoying at the beginning. For example, there are 137 chapters in this book. With 369 pages, that averages to about 2.5 pages per chapter. Scenes were split into two or three chapters. At one point, at about page 136 (chapter 55) there is a summary of what happened in chapters 44 to 54. There is another summary later on as well, which, really, makes reading the whole thing feel utterly pointless. Since this was Tom’s diary, he explains that he wrote it sporadically, hence the short chapters, and his alter-self, John, wrote the summaries as preparation for the novel that he was planning to write based on his dreams. Dreams that were really memories of Tom’s life in the retro-future. See, all explained, neat and tidy… but right at the end. And I really, really, really struggled to get to the end. Until then, all of these unique elements were annoying and I fought through the urge to put the book down. What I am saying is, knowing why Mastai decided to format his book this way makes sense if you make it to the last quarter of the book, which you wont if they grates on you too much. And that is where I think Mastai went wrong.
Even though Tom does evolve as a character by the end of the novel – almost impressively so – he and his motivations are so unlikeable that I found it hard to care for him or for any of the characters. Tom changes the course of human history because his crush on a girl goes wrong. After eliminating the possibility of his utopian world ever existing, instead of being concerned with trying to bring it back, the first thing does in our 2016 is find the alter-version of Penelope. Instead of trying to settle into the life of John Barren that he took over like a parasite, Tom almost destroys John’s career by secluding himself with this new Penelope, who he is now 100% in love with. When he finally decides to try and “save the world”, or rather, save himself, he comes to the conclusion that it was all for the son that he and Penelope eventually have. He also concludes that maybe after all, our 2016 is better than the utopian 2016. Which is baffling.
That said, Mastai knows where people might question the story’s logic so he tries to explain it. The reason Tom and the alternate Penelope so quickly fall in love is because she is influenced by the memories of the Tom’s original Penelope – so they are sort of like cross-time soul mates. Tom also realizes that the reason that John is such a successful architect is because he has been copying Tom’s memories of the retro-futuristic 2016 without realizing it. Therefore, what we could have been in other timelines of the world influences who we are in our current timeline. Fine. But my question is why wasn’t Tom influenced by John in his original timeline? John is ambitious, obviously successful and more confident that Tom who always felt like he was a failure. How come they never balanced out? Is it because John had no possibility of existing until Tom changed humanity’s future in 1965? Maybe. But if Tom’s world disappeared, why hadn’t Tom?
The reason I give All Our Wrong Todays three stars is because it is smarter than I am. Originally I was going to give it two, but then I thought that it was unfair. Just because I could not understand the complicated theories of time travel doesn’t mean that the book is bad. Just because I was bored doesn’t mean that someone else will be. Still, it lacked a character that one could connect with, a world one could see, a plot that is actually worth 137 chapters and 369 pages, so therefore, I cannot recommend it.
All Our Wrong Todays is on sale today, February 7th.
I received the ARC of All Our Wrong Todays from a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I want to thank Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a copy.