Where are our flying cars? We should have had them by now, right? Those of us who grew up watching “The Jetsons” on TV were sure that by the time we were old enough to get our licenses, we’d be zipping around in airborne automobiles instead of boring old Corollas.
The clever premise of All Our Wrong Todays is that the America of 2016 should have had flying cars, as well as “robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases.” (That the book is mostly set in the annus horribilis of 2016 is a masterstroke that Elan Mastai could not have anticipated when he wrote the book, unless he is a time traveler himself.) Unfortunately, one man, Tom Barren, screwed it all up, ensuring that instead of “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” we have… well, those black tubes that you can use to order a pizza or play the latest Drake song. In other words, things we could have accomplished just fine with creaky 20th century technology like a landline phone and a record player.
Tom had the misfortune of being a thoroughly average child of a super-genius father, a man so intelligent that he invented a working time machine. The purpose of the machine would be to send a chrononaut to observe the single greatest moment in human history: the launching of the Goettreider Engine in 1965, the device that enabled all of those futuristic dreams to come true. The Engine generates “unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy,” and was invented by Danish-American inventor Lionel Goettreider, “the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet.” Unfortunately, Goettreider died of radiation poisoning shortly after the Engine was switched on, meaning he never knew how his invention would change the world.
Through a series of wacky misadventures, Tom winds up being propelled back to Goettreider’s lab instead of the chrononaut who should have made the trip, the brilliant Penelope Weschler. Things go wrong, there is no Goettreider Engine thanks to Tom’s interference, and he finds out what would have happened had the Engine never been switched on: he is no longer Tom, sad-sack loser, but John, a successful architect; his dad is a friendly, lovable professor instead of a cold, impossible-to-please genius; and Penelope is Penny, a down-to-earth Toronto bookstore owner. Tom realizes that he needs to try to fix things so that the Earth can return to the techno-utopia it was meant to be, but the problem is that he really likes the way things turned out for himself in the alternative timeline. Still, “it’s monumentally selfish to condemn the rest of the world, reality itself, to this wrong existence just because my little life has been improved. I’m not important, not compared to the billions who have never known how things should be.”
Will Tom figure out a way to fix his massive mistake? Mastai, a screenwriter, tells the story in short, breezy chapters (most of which are only 2-3 pages long, making the book a quick and easy read). If he doesn’t quite stick the landing, at least for readers like me who can’t handle too much science in their science fiction—”I don’t know how much more patience you have for semi-lucid explanations of time-travel physics,” he writes at one point near the end of the book (my answer is not a lot)—it’s still a delightful debut.