It’s easy, so easy, to forget that our world could be perfect, right now. Utopia is within our technological and sociological grasp. Food and shelter for all, meaningful lives, we can do this. It’s just that we are a bit too busy turning the world into an unlivable hellhole.
Imagine a visitor from that utopia, visiting our world. They’d start at “unlivable hellhole,” but pretty soon the word “dystopia” would be rolling off the top of their tongue as easily and as often as if they were a New York literary agent or a Hollywood movie producer. Obviously, this visitor’s story would make for a great novel. And All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai certainly tells this story – to begin with.
The brilliance of Masti’s first novel is that he gets past this premise pretty quickly. First, he invests in a small cast of well-drawn characters. We meet his father, Victor Barren, and his girl, Penelope Weschler. Lionel Goettreider is the genius who built Tom’s utopia, which is to say, our utopia, but for … Tom. We love these characters, particularly Tom who is no genius. This is problematic for Tom, because he’ll need more than a bit of genius to set things right.
All Our Wrong Todays does so many things effortlessly right that listing them is prohibitive. It will surely make you laugh out loud early and often. Mastai’s prose manages to serve sentiment and snark with equal ease and authenticity. On a sentence level, you’ll find plenty of examples that you’ll want to read aloud for their sheer wit, insight or both. The book is written in short chapters engineered to make you turn the pages relentlessly, and it works. Prepare to lose a day or two, and even better, spendd the following days paging back, re-reading the best bits because they’re just so damn funny and damnably insightful.
When it comes to playing with the time-travel and science fiction utopian premises, Mastai demonstrates a truly sense-of-wonder inducing level of imagination and skill. For me, the idea of a visitor from utopia seeing our world as dystopia would be enough. But even early in the novel you get a riff on waking up that is so inspired technologically and socially that it’ll turn your head around. These moments come often, as Mastai manages the trick of one-upping himself in terms of plot and time travel permutations with a skill you won’t notice because you’re so busy being entertain, immersed and boggled.
None of this skill would matter quite as much if Mastai did not make us care so much about his characters. Tom Barren is wonderful – snarky, sweet, confident (generally when he should not be), and still learning about himself. Penelope, Victor, Lionel, they all bear their humanity both crudely and gracefully, like most of us. And for all that Mastai is capable of science fiction invention to rival anyone, he ultimately keeps his focus on the human element. Yes, you’ll laugh and be amazed. But the gut punch is emotional.
Early on in the novel, Mastai mentions Kurt Vonnegut, and in particular, Cat’s Cradle. When I spoke to him about his book, he was quick to bring both up, and I have to say, the comparison is apt. That’s not something I’d say lightly. And while we managed not to give away any of the novel’s surprises (there are many!) we did get to talk about Mastai’s humor and his take on science fiction, as well as his experiences with it. You can follow this link to download the MP3 or listen below.