Since the election and the inauguration, Amazon and other booksellers have reported that there’s been an uptick in the sales of such dystopian novels as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But if you’ve already read those novels and need something both dark and light to read, I’d like to suggest Elan Mastai’s new sci-fi novel All Our Wrong Todays (hardcover, digital, audiobook), a tale of time travel that may resonate if you’re thinking there’s something off about the world today, that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Or you’re just looking for a fun sci-fi novel to read.
Photo (c) David Leyes
I always like to start at the beginning. So, what is All Our Wrong Days about?
Well, the basic concept is: what if our world is a dystopia caused by a time-travel accident?
The story is set in 2016, but it’s the 2016 that people in the 1950s thought we were going to have — a technological utopia of flying cars, robot maids, and teleportation — until the main character, Tom Barren, causes an accident with a prototype time machine that strands him in our 2016, what we think of as the real world, but which to him seems like a terrifying dystopia where everything has gone wrong. So now he’s here, in our version of the world, trying to figure out how to get back to the world he knows. But along the way he discovers these very unexpected versions of the people in his life and that makes things even more challenging.
There’s obviously a sci-fi hook to the novel, with time machines and alternate realities in play, it’s very much a story about family, love, responsibility, and how each of us defines happiness.
Where did you get the original idea for the novel, and how different is the finished book from that initial thought?
When I was growing up, my grandfather had an extensive collection of vintage sci-fi from the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the vivid stories as well as the wild painted covers of mad scientists, robots, rocket ships, and futuristic cityscapes. But even as a kid in the 1980s, I knew there was something off. The future wasn’t turning out the way these authors and artists imagined it would. So I’ve been interested in that notion since childhood: What happened to the future we were supposed to have? It wasn’t until more recently that I came up with an answer that I thought would make for a fun, entertaining, and occasionally provocative novel: Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it up for all of us.
The finished novel is pretty much what I imagined it would be, although of course the big difference is when I had the initial idea, I wasn’t sure who the story would be about. Once I figured out the characters, not just Tom but the supporting cast around him, the book came alive but also staked out its own territory in my imagination. So, the finished book is right in line with how I conceived it, but the characters brought it to life in unexpected ways.
I know writers love the “who are your influences” question, but I want to ask one that’s more specific. In terms of what you wrote in All Our Wrong Days and how you wrote it, what writers and which of their novels do you see as having the biggest impact on the book?
Kurt Vonnegut is a major influence, particularly Cat’s Cradle, which has the same kind of short chapters that I use, and Slaughterhouse-Five, which inspired the casual, funny, but weary narrative voice. The novel is written in the first person, and I was also influenced by Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao and Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? in terms of asserting a strong and distinctive narrator. And David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas inspired me to think about the structural effects of my storytelling and have fun with that as a way to give the reader an unexpected experience.
You kind of touched upon this already, but science fiction has a long history of social commentary. When you started writing All Our Wrong Days, did you set out to write science fiction novel but ended up with some social commentary or did you set out to write social commentary and ended up with a sci-fi novel?
Well, I’d say I set out to do both. The concept of the book naturally led to a lot of social commentary, both in terms of how I framed the initial utopian timeline and how my protagonist observes and critiques our “dystopian” reality. I set out to write a page-turning, propulsive story that also asked some compelling questions along the way.
But do you think All Our Wrong Todays will work for someone who’s just looking for a cool sci-fi novel? And I don’t mean someone who hates social commentary or is tired of politics because of what’s being going on, but rather just someone in the mood for a good fun read.
Yes, absolutely. I always wanted this to be a wildly entertaining page-turner above all else, full of big plot twists and character revelations and futuristic technology and unexpected humor. It’s supposed to be fun, first and foremost. The social commentary is an added bonus, but it’s written to be part of the experience, not a distraction from the momentum of the plot.
Time travel, and the mechanics of it, have been portrayed a lot of different ways over the years. In deciding how it would work in All Our Wrong Todays, did you base it on any specific fictional depiction or did you consult with real scientists?
I had never read or seen a time travel story that factored in astrodynamics; basically, that the Earth moves, constantly and really, really fast, not just spinning on its axis but revolving around the sun, so anytime you travel back in time you’re also traveling vast distances in space and attempting to land on the spinning outer crust of the planet as it hurtles through the cosmos at dizzying speeds. I set out to make time travel work with plausible orbital mechanics. I didn’t consult with any specific scientists, but I did read up on astrodynamics and radiation and various theories of time-travel physics in order to make my model at least reasonably accurate. Not that I included all my research in the book. I only used what I thought would be most interesting to the reader.
In writing All Our Wrong Todays, did you ever consider going the parallel dimension, multiverse route instead of the time travel route?
I don’t know, I guess it just wasn’t the story I was telling. I was interested in a time-travel accident that causes history to play out very differently, replacing a utopian present day with our messier, more complicated version of reality. So it’s more of an alternate history tale, where our world is the wrong one. There’s a recent novel called Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, that has fun with multiverse theory and is worth checking out.
Yeah, that’s a good book. Now, a lot of science fiction books lately are not stand-alone novels, but are instead the first books in a series. Is that the case with All Our Wrong Todays, too?
No, All Our Wrong Todays is a stand-alone story with a beginning, middle, and definitive ending. Because I love endings. To me, the ending is the whole reason to write the book. Everything in my novel is there because it’s necessary to properly set up the conclusion. Anything that didn’t service the ending was edited out. I always saw this novel as a one-shot story where everything that had to be said would be said.
While All Our Wrong Todays is your first novel, you’ve previously written a number of screenplays, including ones for the movies Get Over It and What If. Why did you decide to write All Our Wrong Todays as a novel instead of a movie?
Because of this particular story. As a writer, I believe you figure out the right way to tell each story, and for All Our Wrong Todays it was as a novel. One reason for that is it allowed me to tell the story from the first-person perspective of my main character, Tom. It also let me built the world and the characters with a lot more depth and nuance than I might have been able to do under the strict time-constraints of a movie.
The irony being that All Our Wrong Todays is already being made into a movie, and you’re writing the screenplay. When it came time to sell the rights, why did you think it would work best as a movie, as opposed to a TV series, a video game, or an episode of Futurama?
Oh, it probably would’ve been great as an episode of Futurama, but unfortunately that show’s not on the air anymore, so I was stuck with the novel.
No, the actual answer is scale. With a movie, particularly a studio-level movie with all the resources that suggests, we’ll be able to bring the world of the book to life in the most expansive and visually dynamic way possible. That’s one of the trade-offs of making the transition from page to screen. I lose the first-person point of view and the longer page-count, but I gain a wealthy of visual storytelling options and the emotional directness of the actors’ faces.
Cover (c) Dutton
As the screenwriter, you’ll have no say over casting. But if they asked, who would you want them to get for the All Our Wrong Todays movie and why them?
Well, I’m also a producer on the movie, so I will be involved in casting decisions.
But I’m not going to answer that question, if that’s okay, for two reasons.
The first is that when we do cast the movie, if it’s not my first choice I’d never want them to know that. And, second, one of the wonderful things about a novel is that the reader can imagine the characters look like whoever they want them to. When you move from book to movie you lose the reader’s imaginative power over the characters. Once the movie is cast, everyone will only picture one specific actor’s face for each character and, while of course it would be hugely satisfying to see my book turned into a terrific film, one of the things I’ll inevitably regret is limiting the reader’s imagination that way. So, I’d like to preserve it for as long as I can.
No problemo. Finally, if someone really likes All Our Wrong Todays, what novel would you suggest they read next and why?
Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. And Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. But also, of course, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut so they can see how a true master handled similar themes and tones way back in 1963.