I found this to be a thoughtful and entertaining take on the time travel story. Time travel stories have plenty of tropes, and it seems like most of it’s been done before. Mastai’s debut novel takes those tropes, mashes them together, and comes out with something that feels new. I had a few issues with this novel but overall I really enjoyed it.
Narrator Tom Barren is in his mid-twenties in a present day that looks very different from our own. A new, limitless power source has led to scientific developments that have wiped out most poverty, crime, and disease. It has also led to advancements in space travel. And, for the first time, time travel is about to be a reality.
Tom works for his father, a sort of mad scientist and a lousy dad, who is the inventor of time travel. Dr. Barren’s whole career is wrapped up in getting time travel right. Due to a series of mishaps, Tom jumps into the time machine and heads back to the 1960’s, when the limitless power source is about to be invented. But will Tom’s dash into the past have implications for the future? Of course!
There’s a healthy dose of Back to the Future in this book, but then again, the idea that going back in time might endanger your future (and indeed, your very existence) wasn’t new to Back to the Future either. Mastai gives us a clever story that looks at what happens as a result of Tom’s travel to 1965. The twist is this: instead of going back to his idealized high-tech existence, he ends up in the present we know, where everyone has cell phones but the world is still fighting over power. I won’t tell you much more, except that Tom has to wrestle with interesting issues relating to parallel timelines, such as whether he likes his family better in this world or that one, what happens to all the people who exist in one world but are never born in the other one (and why was he born in both times when others are not), and who is he in this timeline? Most importantly, if Tom has the chance to undo what he’s done, should he?
The current state of the world isn’t because we stopped believing in an optimistic spirit of wonder and discovery… the current state of the world is the consequence of that belief. People are despondent about the future because they’re increasingly aware that we, as a species, chased an inspiring dream that led us to ruin. We told ourselves the world is here for us to control, so the better our technology, the better our control, the better our world will be. The fact that for every leap in technology the world gets more sour and chaotic is deeply confusing.
There’s a “meta” aspect to this book which is often very clever (but occasionally a bit self-conscious). For example, as Tom is writing this narrative he often comments on how he’s writing it and occasionally goes back and re-reads it. There’s even a question of whether this is all just someone’s idea for a science fiction novel. Tom also tells us that books don’t even exist in his world, because technology has all become completely interactive. No one ever reads the same story.
I only have two criticisms of this book. The first is this: Tom has a really annoying and unlikable voice in the first part of the book. He’s whiny, sexist, and complains a lot without accomplishing much of anything. He hates his father but seems fine mooching off him for a job. He mourns his dead mother but has no problem using his sadness to get women in bed. Fortunately, we soon see Tom grow as a character and then the book gets really good, but if I wasn’t reading this for NetGalley I might have given up on it early on.
My other criticism comes towards the end, and it’s this: Tom’s adventures in time get to a certain point where I felt the paradoxes just got a little ridiculous. I prefer time travel stories to keep it as simple and linear as possible. For me it becomes too complicated when multiple timelines start wrapping around each other. On the other hand, if you don’t mind a time travel story getting really mind-bending, you will like this one.
In general, this was a story I really enjoyed. Mastai isn’t trying to re-invent the time travel novel; rather it feels like he’s paying homage to the many visions of alternative futures and pasts that have come before him.
Note: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Dutton Books. The book was released February 7, 2016.