Excerpt­ed from All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mas­tai’s lat­est sci­ence fic­tion novel.


So, the thing is, I come from the world we were sup­posed to have.

That means noth­ing to you, obvi­ous­ly, because you live here, in the crap­py world we do have. But it nev­er should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault-well, me and to a less­er extent my father and, yeah, I guess a lit­tle bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this sto­ry. But, okay, you know the future that peo­ple in the 1950s imag­ined we’d have? Fly­ing cars, robot maids, food pills, tele­por­ta­tion, jet packs, mov­ing side­walks, ray guns, hov­er boards, space vaca­tions, and moon bases. All that daz­zling, trans­for­ma­tive tech­nol­o­gy our grand­par­ents were cer­tain was right around the cor­ner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp sci­ence-fic­tion mag­a­zines with titles like Fan­tas­tic Future Tales and The Amaz­ing World of Tomor­row. Can you pic­ture it?

Well, it happened.

It all hap­pened, more or less exact­ly as envi­sioned. I’m not talk­ing about the future. I’m talk­ing about the present. Today, in the year 2016, human­i­ty lives in a tech­no-utopi­an par­adise of abun­dance, pur­pose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D print­ers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or what­ev­er. But it hard­ly looks like The Jet­sons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

I’m sor­ry, despite receiv­ing the best edu­ca­tion avail­able to a cit­i­zen of the World of Tomor­row, the gram­mar of this sit­u­a­tion is a bit complicated.

Maybe the first per­son is the wrong way to tell this sto­ry. Maybe if I take refuge in the third per­son I’ll find some sort of dis­tance or insight or at least peace of mind. It’s worth a try.


Tom Bar­ren wakes up into his own dream.

Every night, neur­al scan­ners map his dreams while he sleeps so that both his con­scious and uncon­scious thought pat­terns can be effec­tive­ly mod­eled. Every morn­ing, the neur­al scan­ners trans­mit the cur­rent dream-state data into a pro­gram that gen­er­ates a real-time vir­tu­al pro­jec­tion into which he seam­less­ly rous­es. The dream’s scat­ter­shot plot is made increas­ing­ly lin­ear and lucid until a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly pleas­ing res­o­lu­tion is achieved at the moment of full consciousness…

I’m sorry‑I can’t write like this. It’s fake. It’s safe.

The third per­son is com­fort­ing because it’s in con­trol, which feels real­ly nice when relat­ing events that were often so out of con­trol. It’s like a sci­en­tist describ­ing a bio­log­i­cal sam­ple seen through a micro­scope. But I’m not the micro­scope. I’m the thing on the slide. And I’m not writ­ing this to make myself com­fort­able. If I want­ed com­fort, I’d write fiction.

In fic­tion, you cohere all these evoca­tive, telling details into a por­trait of the world. But in every­day life, you hard­ly notice any of the lit­tle things. You can’t. Your brain swoops past it all, espe­cial­ly when it’s your own home, a place that feels bare­ly sep­a­rate from the inside of your mind or the out­side of your body.

When you wake up from a real dream into a vir­tu­al one, it’s like you’re on a raft dart­ing this way and that accord­ing to the blur­ry, impen­e­tra­ble cur­rents of your uncon­scious, until you find your­self glid­ing onto a wide, calm, shal­low lake, and the slip­pery, fraught weird­ness dis­solves into serene, reas­sur­ing clar­i­ty. The sto­ry wraps up the way it feels like it must, and no mat­ter how unset­tling the con­tent, you wake with the reju­ve­nat­ing solid­i­ty of order restored. And that’s when you real­ize you’re lying in bed, ready to start the day, with none of that sticky sub­con­scious gris­tle caught in the cramped folds of your mind.

It might be what I miss most about where I come from. Because in this world wak­ing up sucks.

Here, it’s like nobody has con­sid­ered using even the most rudi­men­ta­ry tech­nol­o­gy to improve the process. Mat­tress­es don’t sub­tly vibrate to keep your mus­cles loose. Tar­get­ed steam valves don’t clean your body in slum­ber. I mean, blan­kets are made from tufts of plant fiber spun into thread and occa­sion­al­ly stuffed with feath­ers. Feath­ers. Like from actu­al birds. Wak­ing up should be the best moment of your day, your uncon­scious and con­scious minds syn­chro­nized and harmonious.

Get­ting dressed involves an auto­mat­ed device that cuts and stitch­es a new out­fit every morn­ing, indexed to your per­son­al style and body type. The fab­ric is made from laser-hard­ened strands of a light-sen­si­tive liq­uid poly­mer that’s recy­cled night­ly for dai­ly reuse. For break­fast, a sim­i­lar sys­tem out­puts what­ev­er meal you feel like from a nutri­ent gel mixed with col­or, fla­vor, and tex­ture pro­to­cols. And if that sounds gross to you, in prac­tice it’s indis­tin­guish­able from what you think of as real food, except that it’s unique­ly gauged to your tongue’s sen­so­ry recep­tors so it tastes and feels ide­al every time. You know that sink­ing feel­ing you get when you cut into an avo­ca­do, only to find that it’s either hard and under­ripe or brown and bruised under its skin? Well, I didn’t know that could even hap­pen until I came here. Every avo­ca­do I ever ate was perfect.

It’s weird to be nos­tal­gic for expe­ri­ences that both did and didn’t exist. Like wak­ing up every morn­ing com­plete­ly refreshed. Some­thing I didn’t even real­ize I could take for grant­ed because it was sim­ply the way things were. But that’s the point, of course-the way things were … nev­er was.

What I’m not nos­tal­gic for is that every morn­ing when I woke up and got dressed and ate break­fast in this glit­ter­ing tech­no­log­i­cal utopia, I was alone.


On July 11, 1965, Lionel Goet­trei­der invent­ed the future.

Obvi­ous­ly you’ve nev­er heard of him. But where I come from, Lionel Goet­trei­der is the most famous, beloved, and respect­ed human on the plan­et. Every city has dozens of things named after him: streets, build­ings, parks, what­ev­er. Every kid knows how to spell his name using the catchy mnemon­ic tune that goes G‑O-E-T-T-R-E-I-D-E‑R.

You have no idea what I’m talk­ing about. But if you were from where I’m from, it’d be as famil­iar to you as A‑B-C.

Fifty-one years ago, Lionel Goet­trei­der invent­ed a rev­o­lu­tion­ary way to gen­er­ate unlim­it­ed, robust, absolute­ly clean ener­gy. His device came to be called the Goet­trei­der Engine. July 11, 1965, was the day he turned it on for the very first time. It made every­thing possible.

Imag­ine that the last five decades hap­pened with no restric­tions on ener­gy. No need to dig deep­er and deep­er into the ground and make the skies dirt­i­er and dirt­i­er. Nuclear became unnec­es­sar­i­ly tem­pes­tu­ous. Coal and oil point­less­ly murky. Solar and wind and even hydropow­er became quaint low-fideli­ty alter­na­tives that nobody both­ered with unless they were pecu­liar­ly deter­mined to live off the main grid.

So, how did the Goet­trei­der Engine work?

How does elec­tric­i­ty work? How does a microwave oven work? How does your cell phone or tele­vi­sion or remote con­trol work? Do you actu­al­ly under­stand on, like, a con­crete tech­ni­cal lev­el? If those tech­nolo­gies dis­ap­peared, could you recon­ceive, redesign, and rebuild them from scratch? And, if not, why not? You only use these things pret­ty much every sin­gle day.

But of course you don’t know. Because unless your job’s in a relat­ed field you don’t need to know. They just work, effort­less­ly, as they were intend­ed to.

Where I come from, that’s how it is with the Goet­trei­der Engine. It was impor­tant enough to make Goet­trei­der as rec­og­niz­able a name as Ein­stein or New­ton or Dar­win. But how it func­tioned, like, tech­ni­cal­ly? I real­ly couldn’t tell you.

Basi­cal­ly, you know how a dam pro­duces ener­gy? Tur­bines har­ness the nat­ur­al propul­sion of water flow­ing down­ward via grav­i­ty to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty. To be clear, that’s more or less all I under­stand about hydro­elec­tric pow­er. Grav­i­ty pulls water down, so if you stick a tur­bine in its path, the water spins it around and some­how makes energy.

The Goet­trei­der Engine does that with the plan­et. You know that the Earth spins on its axis and also revolves around the Sun, while the Sun itself moves end­less­ly through the solar sys­tem. Like water through a tur­bine, the Goet­trei­der Engine har­ness­es the con­stant rota­tion of the plan­et to cre­ate bound­less ener­gy. It has some­thing to do with mag­net­ism and grav­i­ty and … hon­est­ly, I don’t know-any more than I gen­uine­ly under­stand an alka­line bat­tery or a com­bus­tion engine or an incan­des­cent light bulb. They just work.

So does the Goet­trei­der Engine. It just works.

Or it did. Before, you know, me.


I am not a genius. If you’ve read this far, you’re already aware of that fact.

But my father is a legit­i­mate full-blown genius of the high­est order. After fin­ish­ing his third PhD, Vic­tor Bar­ren spent a few cru­cial years work­ing in long-range tele­por­ta­tion before found­ing his own lab to pur­sue his spe­cif­ic niche field-time travel.

Even where I come from, time trav­el was con­sid­ered more or less impos­si­ble. Not because of time, actu­al­ly, but because of space.

Here’s why every time-trav­el movie you’ve ever seen is total bull­shit: because the Earth moves.

You know this. Plus I men­tioned it last chap­ter. The Earth spins all the way around once a day, revolves around the Sun once a year, while the Sun is on its own cos­mic route through the solar sys­tem, which is itself hurtling through a galaxy that’s wan­der­ing an epic path through the universe.

The ground under you is mov­ing, real­ly fast. Along the equa­tor, the Earth rotates at over 1,000 miles per hour, twen­ty-four hours a day, while orbit­ing the Sun at a lit­tle over 67,000 miles per hour. That’s 1,600,000 miles per day. Mean­while our solar sys­tem is in motion rel­a­tive to the Milky Way galaxy at more than 1,300,000 miles per hour, cov­er­ing just shy of 32,000,000 miles per day. And so on.

If you were to trav­el back in time to yes­ter­day, the Earth would be in a dif­fer­ent place in space. Even if you trav­el back in time one sec­ond, the Earth below your feet can move near­ly half a kilo­me­ter. In one second.

The rea­son every movie about time trav­el is non­sense is that the Earth moves, con­stant­ly, always. You trav­el back one day, you don’t end up in the same loca­tion-you end up in the gap­ing vac­u­um of out­er space.

Mar­ty McFly didn’t appear thir­ty years ear­li­er in his home­town of Hill Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. His tricked-out DeLore­an mate­ri­al­ized in the end­less emp­ty black­ness of the cos­mos with the Earth approx­i­mate­ly 350,000,000,000 miles away. Assum­ing he didn’t imme­di­ate­ly lose con­scious­ness from the lack of oxy­gen, the absence of air pres­sure would cause all the flu­ids in his body to bub­ble, par­tial­ly evap­o­rate, and freeze. He would be dead in less than a minute.

The Ter­mi­na­tor would prob­a­bly sur­vive in space because it’s an unstop­pable robot killing machine, but trav­el­ing from 2029 to 1984 would’ve giv­en Sarah Con­nor a 525,000,000,000-mile head start.

Time trav­el doesn’t just require trav­el­ing back in time. It also requires trav­el­ing back to a pin­point-spe­cif­ic loca­tion in space. Oth­er­wise, just like with reg­u­lar old every­day tele­por­ta­tion, you could end up stuck inside something.

Think about where you’re sit­ting right now. Let’s say on an olive-green couch. A white ceram­ic bowl of fake green pears and real brown pinecones propped next to your feet on the teak cof­fee table. A brushed-steel floor lamp glows over your shoul­der. A coarse rug over reclaimed barn-board elm floors that cost too much but look pret­ty great …

If you were to tele­port even a few inch­es in any direc­tion, your body would be embed­ded in a sol­id object. One inch, you’re wound­ed. Two inch­es, you’re maimed. Three inch­es, you’re dead.

Every sec­ond of the day, we’re all three inch­es from being dead.

Which is why tele­por­ta­tion is safe and effec­tive only if it’s between ded­i­cat­ed sites on an exact­ing­ly cal­i­brat­ed system.

My father’s ear­ly work in tele­por­ta­tion was so impor­tant because it helped him under­stand the mechan­ics of dis­in­cor­po­rat­ing and rein­cor­po­rat­ing a human body between dis­crete loca­tions. It’s what stymied all pre­vi­ous time-trav­el ini­tia­tives. Revers­ing the flow of time isn’t even that com­plex. What’s out­ra­geous­ly com­plex is instan­ta­neous space trav­el with absolute accu­ra­cy across poten­tial­ly bil­lions of miles.

My father’s genius wasn’t just about solv­ing both the the­o­ret­i­cal and logis­tic chal­lenges of time trav­el. It was about rec­og­niz­ing that in this, as in so many oth­er aspects of every­day life, our sav­ior was Lionel Goettreider.


The first Goet­trei­der Engine was turned on once and nev­er turned off-it’s been run­ning with­out inter­rup­tion since 2:03 p.m. on Sun­day, July 111965.

Goettreider’s orig­i­nal device wasn’t designed to har­ness and emit large-scale amounts of ener­gy. It was an exper­i­men­tal pro­to­type that per­formed beyond its inventor’s most grandiose expec­ta­tions. But the whole point of a Goet­trei­der Engine is that it nev­er has to be deac­ti­vat­ed, just as the plan­et nev­er stops mov­ing. So, the pro­to­type was left run­ning in the same spot where it was first switched on, in front of a small crowd of six­teen observers in a base­ment lab­o­ra­to­ry in sec­tion B7 of the San Fran­cis­co State Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Center.

Where I come from, every schoolkid knows the names and faces of the Six­teen Wit­ness­es. Numer­ous books have been writ­ten about every sin­gle one of them, with their pres­ence at this ulti­mate hinge in his­to­ry shoved into the chronol­o­gy of their indi­vid­ual lives as the defin­ing event, whether or not it was fac­tu­al­ly true.

Count­less works of art have depict­ed The Acti­va­tion of the Goet­trei­der Engine. It’s The Last Sup­per of the mod­ern world, those six­teen faces, each with its own cod­i­fied reac­tion. Skep­ti­cal. Awed. Dis­tract­ed. Amused. Jeal­ous. Angry. Thought­ful. Fright­ened. Detached. Con­cerned. Excit­ed. Non­cha­lant. Har­ried. There’s three more. Damn it, I should know this …

When the pro­to­type Engine was first turned on, Goet­trei­der just want­ed to ver­i­fy his cal­cu­la­tions and prove his the­o­ry wasn’t com­plete­ly mis­guid­ed-all it had to do was actu­al­ly work. And it did work, but it had a major defect. It emit­ted a unique radi­a­tion sig­na­ture, what was lat­er called tau radi­a­tion, a nod to how physics uses the Greek cap­i­tal let­ter T to rep­re­sent prop­er time in rel­a­tiv­i­ty equations.

As the Engine’s mirac­u­lous ener­gy-gen­er­at­ing capac­i­ties expand­ed to pow­er the whole world, the tau radi­a­tion sig­na­ture was elim­i­nat­ed from the large-scale indus­tri­al mod­els. But the pro­to­type was left to run, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly for­ev­er, in Goettreider’s lab in San Fran­cis­co-now among the most vis­it­ed muse­ums on the plan­et-out of respect, nos­tal­gia, and a legal­ly rigid clause in Goettreider’s last will and testament.

From the book All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mas­tai. Reprint­ed by arrange­ment with DUT­TON, an imprint of Pen­guin Ran­dom House. Copy­right © Elan Mas­tai, 2017.