For a concept that has only been successfully realised in fiction (as far as we know; anyone noticed any weird temporal shifts in their timeline lately?), there’s a great deal about time travel that is assumed to be true.
For instance, it’s easy enough to ricochet back and forth usually but you can always guarantee that something will go terribly wrong and only be resolved with seconds to spare, or that you should never ever tamper with the timeline or interact with the past in any way lest the present you knew and loved (or barely tolerated whatever the case may be) end up resembling a dystopian nightmare or a Stepford Wives abomination, notable only for the fact that you have erased yourself from existence.
Or perhaps you’re caught in a time loop or temporal paradox from which there is no escape, or you created another few splinters in the multiverse; however, the tale plays out, whether it’s H. G. Wells’ Time Machine or the Back to the Future trilogy, time travel comes with some well-loved, well-used tropes that everyone pretty much accepts as narrative gospel.
Everyone except Elam Mastai whose first novel, All Our Wrong Todays, plays merry with the idea of time travel in ways that will surprise and delight anyone who has grown weary of the lack of originality in such stories.
“Just because we could holiday on the moon or teleport to a shopping mall or watch a fetus gestate in a celebrity’s uterus or regenerate body parts from a plasmic soup or any of the countless things that sound like science fiction to you but were documentary to me, it doesn’t mean we had everything figured out. We were still just people. Messy, messed-up people who didn’t know how to act when one of our lives came undone.” (P.33)
That’s not to say there aren’t nods to the golden oldies of chronological back-and-forthing – timelines are ruined and consequences felt that kill billions and distort reality in some pretty fundamental ways; these are offset however by an emotional core in the storytelling which doesn’t treat time travel as some lighthearted romp through fate but a deadly earnest exercise in playing God.
In other words, All Our Wrong Todays, is not so much about the astonishing act of travelling through time, and the adventurous Boys’ Own vibe that usually goes hand in hand with it, but about the unforeseen consequences of playing havoc with the established temporal order.
Underpinning this gripping, heartfelt and often wryly funny story is a deep appreciation for the fact that technology never grants us favours without wanting something of real sacrificial substance in return.
Indeed, a central theme throughout is that when you are contemplating releasing a technological marvel on an unsuspecting world, that you can’t simply look at the benefits it might bring, laudable though they might be, but you also have to look at the “accident” that invariably follows any breakthrough; that is the negative fallout.
In the world that Tom Barren hails from, one powered by a limitless source of engine drawn from the Earth’s orbital movements, humanity has arrived in 2016 with advanced architecture, medical marvels, flying cars and peace in abundance; in fact, everything that the charmingly retro 1950s visions of the future promised would be ours, unchallenged, for the taking.
In our timeline, they remain pipe dreams, an unrealised idyll that sustains hope of a world free of crime, poverty and loss, but in Tom Barren’s world they have been brought to fruition in ways that seem fantastical to us but which to the merry citizens of his reality are commonplace and routinely accepted.
That is until Tom decides to travel back in time, unleashing all manner of chronological complications, one of which, and there are many, none easily resolved through convenient narrative sleights of hand , is landing him in our bruisingly imperfect world.
He is quick to dismiss this flawed timeline as barbaric and backward but begins to realise after meeting alternate versions of his family and the far-off object of his lust and affection, that maybe there is something to a less than perfect world after all.
“So. Maybe now you’re thinking – okay, why isn’t this story over? … Despite an edgy sense of loyalty to my timeline and compassion for humanity as a species being stranded on this sad, broken planet, my life is much better.
“Except that it’s not my life.” (P. 202)
Of course, what makes All Our Wrong Todays so addictive is that it doesn’t glibly decide one reality is good and another is bad, with Mastai weaving real complexity and insight into his romping tale, along with a great deal of emotional upheavel which never assumes for one moment that time travel mishaps are smoothly fixed with zero consequences, something most tales of this kind would have you believe.
Rather as Tom grapples with how to fix his time travelling mistakes, his task is complicated immeasurably by guilt, unexpected relationships and love, a great deal of time to think and an innovative approach to the idea that we exist in multiple dimensions at once.
His then is a time travel tale with a considerable difference, one in which very real people endure very real, painful consequences, raising in turn pointy, searing questions about whether technology is the unquestioned utopia we have always assumed it to be.
Far more pressing for Mastai is the idea that rather being the harbinger of all good things that technology carries with it the very real possibility of dooming us as much as it advances us, of taking every bit as much as it gives.
He is not down on technology necessarily but rather cautions us to be discerning and to remember that people don’t stop being people, with all the inherent pluses and minuses that entails, just because they lie in shiny buildings and zip around in flying cars doesn’t cancel out the messy complications of life.
And life is complicated, messy and hard to figure out no matter which timeline you inhabit, and All Our Wrong Todays spins this truism into a gripping, seat-of-the-pants story rife with heart emotion, intelligent questioning of a great many assumptions and a willingness to upend everything we thought we knew about the bright, shiny world of tomorrow.