by Jess Charlap
“A heartless utopia is a dystopia.”
Protagonist Tom Barren lives in the future of Disney’s Tomorrowland. In this 2016, there is infinite energy, clean air, fantastic science, flying cars, robots, dream machines, and all the trimmings of a 1950’s techno-utopian imagination. Unfortunately for Tom, freedom from want does not mean freedom from the human condition. Part of Tom’s human condition is exposure to jerks, specifically his father, a genius who finds Tom an embarrassment. Dr. Barren is on the brink of the first trial of his time traveling technology. Success will put him in the scientific pantheon of his age along with Lionel Goettreider, inventor of the engine responsible for the aforementioned infinite clean energy and the progress that followed.
Unfortunately for Dr. Barren, he tries to redeem his disappointing, directionless son by tangentially involving him in the grand chrononaut experiment. Tom, grieving for his recently deceased mother, lost in a world divided into the extraordinary and the useless, makes one little mistake that derails the entire experiment, shuts down the project, and proves his father right about what a loser he is. With nowhere else to go, Tom goes into the past.
And he screws that up, too.
Tom views the creation of the Goettreider Engine and is seen by Lionel at a critical moment. The Engine is shut down, Lionel is disgraced, and Tom finds himself back in 2016. Our 2016. Fossil fuels, polluted air, primitive science, land-based cars, practically no robots; to Tom, it might as well be the Middle Ages. And yet, Tom has a life here. He goes by John, and he owns his own company. His mother is still alive. His father is a warm and supportive theoretical physicist. He has a sister. The utopia is gone, but Tom’s life is so much better than it was.
Now Tom has a choice. Does he enjoy his personal victories and let the world continue with war, pollution, and chaos? Or does he sacrifice his new family to bring back the cold paradise he grew up in? Is it even possible for him to change the timestream back?
And the question Tom doesn’t ask, but should: if these are two versions of 2016, how many other versions are possible? If things could be better than our world, could they also be worse?
Tom’s alter ego, John, is a successful architect, inspired by his dreams of Tom’s world. The spirals of Goettreider Engine are the dominant aesthetic of Tom’s 2016, leading to an organic feel to that world and John’s designs. As Tom learns more about John’s life and how he can fit into it, the reader learns a bit about the operations of an architecture firm. At a pivotal scene about halfway through the book, Tom, as John, makes an impassioned speech at an awards dinner about the potential of design to bring out the best in society. The science of Tom’s 2016 is impressive, but what really brings it home to the reader, and what Tom misses the most, is the user experience of that world. What I took away from “All our wrongs today” was the sense that as science and design progress, we need to keep in mind the human element. Not just the user at the center of our designs, but their relationships, their family, and their emotional well-being. A heartless utopia is a dystopia.