My Recent Reading Backlog 1

I haven’t kept up with my book reviews, which is a shame, as I found they helped me to read a little more seriously and closely, and I enjoyed writing them. However, I haven’t stopped reading, just got bogged down in work and life and all that stuff.

Anyway, I have kept notes on some books, and I mean to catch up on some of them, and post reviews of the ones which have stuck with me. This is the first, of a book I read back in the Autumn.

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai

Middle-of-the-road story addict that I am, I still love to be moved by a book’s prose style. It’s hard to write an extended literary work in graceful prose, which is why most commercial novelists don’t even try. Modern American (or, in this case, Canadian) writers tend to adopt a voice that is accessible and contributes to character and their setting and let the pleasure stem from the storytelling. Many American novelists are, after all, temporarily embarrassed screenwriters, so story is all, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

So, although I objected to Charlie Jane Anders Californinetworking voice at the beginning of All The Birds In The Sky, I came to see that it was appropriate to the story she was telling and the social milieu she was painting. She was writing in the third person though, so it took longer to fit the voice to the world, and by the time she had, I was emotionally attached to her characters and absorbed in her vivid and subtly-hued world. Elan Mastai is writing in the first person, and his voice is all about the immediate grab. His narrative character is a slacker, who starts off whiny and just gets more and more ’90s indie kid clichéd, and he wore on me throughout the book.

I mean, seriously, Dude, I get it. You’ve like, wiped out your whole, like world, to get back at your dad. Jeeze! I mean; just get over yourself.

That sort of thing.

It does its job, but it’s not Trainspotting, in which a vernacular becomes poetic: in All Our Lost Todays, the narrative voice is workaday and a little annoying. It certainly serves to push the story forward, but at the expense of relish. At times it even feels (dare I say it?), like formulaic character construction, as though a checklist of necessary qualities is being slogged through to establish the central conflict (Screenwriting for Beginners; pp 78-102).* It feels, as Tom Barren, the narrative character, would say, phony.

Fortunately, Mastai is telling such a great story that the stylistic caveats cease to matter after a while. The initial conceit is strong enough: it is the idea of a world that conforms to yesterday’s vision of the world of tomorrow. It is the same idea that Umberto Eco explores in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I mentioned in my last reading post, and which I must reread. It is the glimpse of Utopia in the covers of ‘50s SF magazines: the effortless world, in which beauty and technology merge in a seamless, sunlit conformity. There are flying cars, clothes that manufacture themselves at the wearer’s bidding, entirely safe sleep and mood control, and everybody is employed in self-realisation and societal improvement.

There is also an (apparently) evil genius, in the figure of the hero’s father, whose focus is time travel. Barren senior is driven to emulate the achievements of the founding genius of this utopia, Lionel Goettreider, who, in 1965, invented a limitless source of energy: the Goettreider Engine.

All the SF concepts in this book are perfectly described. Mastai’s defining talent is imaginative thoroughness. I was blown away by his rationales of time travel: they appeared, to me, faultless. The main event of the book is the calamitous historical change Tom causes when he activates his father’s time machine in a fit of pique. However, later in the book, he is forced to revert from his altered world back by a different process and comes to understand more about the possible futures that are, effectively, competing to exist. Three potential hims fight to shape the outcome of the crucial historical moment around which their futures pivot and the battle reflects the moral natures of their respective realities.

In two key passages, Mastai sums up this struggle for existence when he defines ideology, first in relation to his original utopia, and then in the context of his depiction of the today of reality.

The existential difference between my world and this world is that where I come from the because is self-evident – just look around. No one needed to ask why. The answer was obvious. We were happy. Our purpose was to keep it going and, if we had some way to contribute, make it incrementally better for those who would follow us, just as those who preceded us had.

Yes, I understand that’s a pretty good working definition of ideology – a belief system so immersive that it renders questions unquestionable.

‘This world’ – the world of ‘today’, may not have flying cars or unlimited energy, but it does have, in Tom Barren’s view, a sense of striving. Towards the end, Barren reflects on ideology again, and on how the perfection of his original world – the apparent utopia – had a blindness:

It was like our collective imagination stopped revising the idea of what civilisation could be, fixed a definitive model in place, and set to work making it happen. It was the world we were supposed to have. And so there was no reason to consider any other world.

This is a pretty clever book, on quite a few levels, not least that it is a satisfying and pacy romp, once you get past the irritating voice, and that quibble may well just be me. In fact, looking at the many ecstatic reviews online, I suspect it is. All the same, I have mixed feelings about it. I am almost tempted to give it a skull emblem on my index of reviews, although that feels mean: this is, clearly, the product of a great deal of work by a creative and conscientious writer whose moral preoccupations seem to overlap my own, but it is also a book which, I think, makes some ethical errors. For instance, there are two nasty rapes, justified because they trail the existence of a plot element that crops up in the novel’s resolution, but which I had trouble integrating into my view of the essential decency of the lead character. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean, as that last sentence almost clangs, because of the extremity of its subject. Ultimately, I think he tried a daring plot device and failed, for me, to pull it off.

At the very end of the book, Tom says, “We need new futures,” and I agree with the sentiment. I just hope they’re not futures shaped exclusively by white North-Amercan hipster screen-writers.

*I made this up.