The premise of screenwriter Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays is almost perversely appropriate for our present moment. The year is 2016. Narrator Tom Barren has grown up as a shiftless underachiever in a Jetsons-inspired techno-utopia of flying cars and food pills, but a time-travel accident erases his world from existence and replaces it with a grungy, dystopian nightmare version of 2016 beset by poverty, ecological disaster, and war. Readers will recognize this latter setting as the world we actually live in.
True to its 1950s and ’60s sci-fi inspiration, All Our Wrong Todays leans heavily on both social nostalgia and techno-determinist optimism. Tom doesn’t just believe science and technology can save humanity: he knows it already has, in another, better iteration of the present. He spends much of the book lamenting the loss of that ideal world, but many of his stories also focus on his less-than-progressive social attitudes. He is a jerk to women, including the most capable character in the book, who becomes pregnant, but loses her job (and her life) when her situation is blamed on her recklessness. Tom’s mother, meanwhile, obviates her own personhood in favour of servitude to her oblivious, genius husband.
Mastai effectively uses Tom’s nostalgia to critique both representations of the world in the novel, especially with regard to gender issues, but he takes a long time getting there, and risks losing readers along the way. Mastai goes to some dark places before finally allowing Tom to achieve real self-awareness, and in both timelines, it is women – especially Penelope/Penny (a tragic hero and object of his lust in one timeline, his down-to-earth partner in the other) – who most often pay the price for Tom’s personal growth.
Mastai’s prose style is loose and open, and especially in the early chapters it feels like he is writing at, rather than to, the reader. Tom frequently apologizes for his clumsy narration; he explains that he’s never written a book before, and probably isn’t doing it right. This refrain is repeated so often it’s hard not to see it as a manifestation of the author’s own anxiety. It also becomes increasingly difficult to disagree with the sentiment.
That said, there are moments in which Mastai offers metaphors or insights significantly more sophisticated than the chatty tone in which the novel is narrated. Those moments occur more and more frequently as the book progresses; it would have been nice to have them appear closer to the beginning, too.
All Our Wrong Todays is a clever book with a lot of potential. Mastai has some interesting things to say about why our world manifests the way it does, and about our responsibilities to it and each other. But his habit of getting in his own way prevents the full realization of that potential.