Engrossing read about the perils of time travel

Canadian writer Elan Mastai (above) marries utopian societies and time travel in his debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays.
Canadian writer Elan Mastai (above) marries utopian societies and time travel in his debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays.PHOTO: DAVID LEYES

The 2016 of Tom Barren's world is a utopia as imagined by the folks in the 1950s - flying cars actually exist, machines create whatever food and clothes you want in your home and Donald Trump is not on his way to becoming president of the United States.

But that world does not exist - not after Tom, the bumbling protagonist of Canadian writer Elan Mastai's debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, went back in time and ruined the source of this utopian paradise, an infinite power source known as the Goettrider Engine which solved the problem of scarcity and ushered in this age of abundance.

Mastai's premise marries two science-fiction themes as old as time - utopian societies and time travel - and produces a novel as dysfunctional as its main character.

Tom finds himself in an alternate timeline - the reader's 2016 in all of its imperfect glory - having erased his own world, along with his parents and his soulmate, Penelope Weschler.



    By Elan Mastai

    Dutton/ Paperback/ 369 pages/ $26.92/ Books Kinokuniya

    3.5/5 stars

"Do you understand? I'm in the same world you're in. The world you think you've always been in. Dull, vapid, charmless, barely evolved from the 1965 I just left," Tom complains, lashing out even as he tries to grapple with the gravity of his actions.

It is not all gone, though. History adapts to catastrophe, so Tom has parents in the new world similar to the ones he erased in the old one and he also meets a girl named Penny Weschler, who has an uncanny resemblance to his now non-existent girlfriend.

His monumental mistake and his subsequent attempts to adjust to the shock of the new world and right this wrong are all told in quick, rapid-fire episodes.

Mastai's background as a screenwriter reveals itself in the book's short, almost scene-by-scene chapters, some only a page long. It is an engrossing, fast-paced read, due in part to the author's wry, laconic characterisation of Tom.

Tom may either be an idiot or a victim of circumstance, but his self-deprecating nature makes him a hard character to empathise with initially.

While he may have trained to be a time traveller, he was able to do so only because his genetic make-up coincidentally fit that of Penelope, his upperstudy who was the real star time traveller in his world.

"It was without a doubt the only criterion at which I excelled, because of course it was the one that didn't require me to try. I simply had to... exist," Tom explains.

But since his very existence caused the end of the world as he knew it, the better part of the novel, where he reins in his self-destructive nature and actually does try to right his wrongs, is his redemption journey that Mastai manages to portray with deft, tight control of both plot and character to a satisfactory conclusion.

The author eschews the deeper philosophical implications of time travel gone wrong in favour of exploring the relationships among family, friends and lovers under strange, fantastical situations.

However, his writing style can sometimes sound too smart and clever by half, and almost risks sounding snarky.

And while there are some genuinely funny moments in the book, other episodes feel shoehorned in or jarringly crass just so Mastai can set this novel apart from the pack.

If you like this, read: The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North (Redhook, Amazon. com, US$12.62 or S$17.60), a tale of a man who is constantly reborn in 1919, but with knowledge of all of his previous lives with each rebirth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Engrossing read about the perils of time travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe