Elan Mastai's 'All Our Wrong Todays': Read an excerpt
Back in the post-war boom of the 1950s, visions of our future were full of hovercrafts and other sci-fi level technology. We all know that didn’t quite happen, but in Elan Mastai’s new novel All Our Wrong Todays, Tom Barren lives in the 2016 we were supposed to get. Cars fly and avocados stay ripe forever (can you imagine?) — but in a time travel error, Tom ends up in our 2016. Will he stay in our present dystopia or make his way back to paradise?
EW is excited to exclusively reveal the trailer for All Our Wrong Todays, above. And on top of that, you have a chance to read the first eight chapters of the book in advance of its February 7, 2017 publication.
To read Chapters 1-5, head here.
Then, to continue the story, check out Chapters 6-8, below:
Excerpt from All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Nearly every object of art and entertainment is different in this world. Early on, the variations aren’t that signif icant. But as the late 1960s gave way to the vast technological and social leaps of the 1970s, almost everything changed, generating decades of pop culture that never existed—fifty years of writers and artists and musicians creating an entirely other body of work. Sometimes there are fascinating parallels, a loose story point in one version that’s the climax in another, a line of dialogue in the wrong character’s mouth, a striking visual composition framed in a new context, a familiar chord progression with radically altered lyrics.
July 11, 1965, was the pivot of history even if nobody knew it yet.
Fortunately, Lionel Goettreider’s favorite novel was published in 1963—Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Vonnegut’s writing is different where I come from. Here, despite his wit and insight, you get the impression he felt a novelist could have no real effect on the world. He was compelled to write, but with little faith that writing might change anything.
Because Cat’s Cradle influenced Lionel Goettreider so deeply, in my world Vonnegut was considered among the most signif icant philosophers of the late twentieth century. This was probably great for Vonnegut personally but less so for his novels, which became increasingly homiletic.
I won’t summarize Cat’s Cradle for you. It’s short and much better written than this book, so just go read it. It’s weary, cheeky, and wise,which are my three favorite qualities in people and art.
Tangentially—Weary, Cheeky, and Wise are the three codified reactions I couldn’t remember from the Sixteen Witnesses to the Activation.
Cat’s Cradle is about a lot of things, but a major plot thread involves the invention of ice-nine, a substance that freezes everything it touches, which falls out of its creator’s control and destroys all life on the planet.
Lionel Goettreider read Cat’s Cradle and had a crucial realization, what he called the “Accident”— when you invent a new technology, you also invent the accident of that technology.
When you invent the car, you also invent the car accident. When you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash. When you invent nuclear f ission, you also invent the nuclear meltdown. When you invent ice-nine, you also invent unintentionally freezing the planet solid.
When Lionel Goettreider invented the Goettreider Engine, he knew he couldn’t turn it on until he f igured out its accident—and how to prevent it.
My favorite exhibit at the Goettreider Museum is the simulation of what could’ve happened if the Engine had somehow malfunctioned when Goettreider f irst turned it on. In the worst-case scenario, the unprecedented amounts of energy pulled in by the Engine overwhelm its intake core, triggering an explosion that melts San Francisco into a smoldering crater, poisons the Pacif ic Ocean with tau radiation, corrodes 10,000 square miles of arable land into a stew of pain, and renders an impressive swath of North America uninhabitable for decades. Parents would occasionally complain to the museum’s curatorial staff that the simulation’s nightmarish imagery was too graphic for children and, since the experiment obviously didn’t fail, why draw attention away from Goettreider’s majestic contributions to human civilization with grotesque speculation about imaginary global disasters? The simulation was eventually moved to an out‑of‑the-way corner of the museum, where generations of teenagers on high school f ield trips would huddle in the darkness and watch the world fall apart on a continuous loop. I’m not a genius like Lionel Goettreider or Kurt Vonnegut or my father. But I have a theory too: The Accident doesn’t just apply to technology, it also applies to people. Every person you meet introduces the accident of that person to you. What can go right and what can go wrong. There is no intimacy without consequence.
Which brings me back to Penelope Weschler and the accident of us. Of all of us.
Penelope Weschler was supposed to be an astronaut. In early-age evaluation matrices, she indicated the necessary mental aptitude, physical capability, and unwavering ambition. Even as a child, Penelope immediately knew this was the correct path for her and wanted nothing else. She trained nonstop, both in and out of school. Not to walk on the moon. Anybody could walk on the moon. Anybody could go for a monthlong orbital cruise. Penelope would cross the next frontier—deep-space exploration.
It wasn’t just the studying, the training, the constant testing. It was social. Or, really, antisocial. For long-term space operations, the recruiting agencies want you to grow up with parents and siblings so you have empathy models to apply to fellow astronauts on missions that last years, sometimes decades. They want you capable of caring about other people. But they don’t want you to actually miss anyone back home too much, so you don’t have a breakdown six months into a six-year mission.
It’s a sliding psychological scale—self-assured loners whose parents never divorced are good, shark-eyed sociopaths less so.
From junior high on, Penelope maintained amicable but purposefully limited personal relationships, so she wouldn’t have anybody tethering her to Earth.
And she was utterly kick-ass. Top of her cohort across all categories. Universally recognized as a natural mission leader. She’d be a pioneer. She’d see the storms of Jupiter with her own eyes and surf the rings of Saturn on a space walk. And that was worth not having close friends or romantic relationships or a loyal dog.
Everything was going according to plan. Until the first time she went to space.
The launch was flawless. Penelope performed her functions with such precision they would’ve used it to teach incoming recruits how gloriously capable an astronaut can be. She was prepared. She was ready. She was perfect.
Until she passed through the top layer of Earth’s atmosphere and her mind went completely blank.
There’s a small subset of people whose cognitive functions get scrambled in outer space. Something about how the pressure change of the vacuum affects the bonds between molecules in the neurons of their brains. No one’s even sure why it happens. But Penelope was one of that subset. Somehow this fact eluded the years of rigorous screening. One moment she’s deftly guiding the launch vehicle through the final atmospheric layers, seeing the gaping expanse of space for the first time, her heart beating in measured but ecstatic bursts, the happiest she’s ever felt. And then . . . nothing.
She doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know what to do. Something in her basic constitution keeps her from having a panic attack, as most people would if they suddenly woke up piloting a goddamn spacecraft with the planet receding behind them. But she can’t remember anything. The instrument panel she’d spent years mastering means nothing to her, inscrutable acronyms printed over lights flashing in seemingly random patterns. She stares out the viewing dome at the radiant vapor of stars smeared across the black canvas of space, like the pollen clouds that would rise from the cedar trees in her grandparents’ backyard when the squirrels jumped from branch to branch, although she can’t understand why she’s thinking about something she hasn’t seen since she was eight years old when there are these voices in her earpiece getting loud and insistent.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m not really sure where I am right now.”
Her copilots, just as well trained and keening with tiny flames of envy at how far ahead of them she’d always ranked, relieved Penelope of her duties. They had to abort the mission, at no small expense, because her unpredictable presence endangered everyone. Just like that, Penelope, the best of the best of the best, became a threat.
Strapped into an observation seat for the abrupt return home, she watched the Earth loom below her, lacquered blue and swirled with meteorological haze. Her eyes burned with tears. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen and she would never see it again, even if she didn’t know it yet.
Back on Earth, her mental capacities returned to normal, she understood her career as an astronaut was over. She’d planned to spend decades off planet. Instead, she got to experience less time in space than a tourist who splurged for a Sunday afternoon jaunt through the thermosphere on a discount shuttle. The same brain that made her the perfect astronaut made it impossible for her to do the job.
This would’ve crushed most people. But Penelope wasn’t most people. After a few months swimming deep into a gravity well of spiraling depression, and refusing any pharmaceutical intervention in case it affected medical qualification for another endeavor, she found a new ambition to fuel her talent for punishing rigor.
If she couldn’t be an astronaut, she’d be a chrononaut.
I leave my condo on the 184th floor of a 270-floor tower connected to seven other towers by a lattice of walkways, with a transport hub at the base of the octagonal complex. My father pulled some strings because the building is owned by the same property conglomerate that manages my parents’ housing unit, so at least my place faces away from Toronto’s densest building clusters and I have a decent view of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment biosphere preserve in the distance, the spires of downtown Buffalo glinting morning sunlight along the arced horizon.
A lot of people take their own vehicles to work but, seriously, three-dimensional traffic sucks. Whatever the cool factor of a flying car, it’s mitigated by the gridlock hovering twenty stories above every street.
I prefer to catch a transit capsule on one of the layered tracks that run through the city. Each capsule is a sleek metallic pod that opens like a clamshell, and inside is a padded bench, with screens and speakers to jack in your entertainment interface. The capsule takes you wherever you need to go on the citywide transport system, although each capsule also has a retractable hover engine to travel short distances off grid.
I get to work twelve minutes late, which is typical for me. My boss is too soured on pretty much every aspect of my life to get worked up about chronic tardiness. Because my boss is my father.
The sign outside the building says THE CHRONONAUT INSTITUTE. I find this unbearably cheesy but, since all my father’s employees revere him, I’m clearly in the minority. Nobody else would even consider rolling their eyes at that stupid sign when they come to work at the lab. They’re way too busy rolling their eyes at me.
One thing I should make clear— just because I work at a lab, that doesn’t make me smart. Where I come from, everybody works at a lab.
All the banal functions of daily life are taken care of by technology.
There are no grocery stores or gas stations or fast-food joints. Nobody collects garbage from a bin at the curb or fixes your car with, like, tools in a garage. The menial and manual jobs that dominated the global workforce in past eras are now automated and mechanized, and the international conglomerates that maintain those technologies keep busy tinkering with minor refinements. If your organic waste disposal module malfunctions, you wouldn’t call a plumber, even if plumbers still existed, because your building has repair drones at the ready. A lamplighter with a jug of kerosene and a wick on a pole has as much relevance to contemporary life as tailors and janitors and gardeners and carpenters.
Places like bookstores and caf.s still exist, but they’re specialized niche businesses aimed at nostalgia fetishists. You can go to an actual restaurant and have a chef prepare your meal by hand. But the waiter who serves you is essentially an actor playing a role on a set in which you’re also a performer, an immersive live-action narrative spooling out around you in real time.
In the absence of material want, the world economy transitioned almost exclusively to entertainment— entertainment is both the foundation and the fuel of modern civilization. Most of us now work in labs imagining, designing, and building the next cool innovation in entertainment. It’s the only thing you really need in a world where almost nothing is asked of you. Other than paying for that entertainment. The newer and shinier and wilder it is, the more it costs.
If you’re a scientist driven to crack uncrackable codes and break unbreakable ground, nobody beyond a few chronically underfunded government agencies is all that motivated to finance that code cracking and ground breaking. But if you can somehow frame it as the newest, shiniest, wildest entertainment around— there’s no limit to the financing you can rake in.
Which is why my father, widely considered one of the world’s top-tier geniuses, has devoted his career and reputation to, basically, time-travel tourism.
“Time travel” is not an investment draw. But you add the word tourism to it, the promise of a ceaseless flow of customers lining up to pay to visit whatever era of life on planet Earth they want to see with their own eyes, well, then the money pours in. And so—chrononauts.
Excerpt from ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017 by Elan Mastai.