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Imagining The Present As The Future Of The 1950s

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Elan Mastai has been writing screenplays for years. He wrote the romantic comedy "What If," starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, among others. Now he's written his first novel. There's some romance, some comedy, of course. But there's also a lot of science fiction. It's about time travel and the guy who messes it up.

ELAN MASTAI: Tom Barren is the main character of my book. And he's from now, from the present, from the year 2016. But it's the 2016 the people in the 1950s thought we were going to have, this techno utopia of flying cars and moving sidewalks and robot maids and teleportation and now time machines, which is where things go a bit awry.

There's an accident with a stolen prototype time machine. And Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world but which, to him, seems like this terrifying dystopia where everything has gone wrong. My grandfather was a chemist. He was born in New York City. And he was a huge science-fiction fan. When I was growing up, you know, this extensive collection of 1940s, '50s and '60s sci-fi - and I loved staring at these kind of garishly painted covers of, you know, square-jawed adventurers and robot maids and scientists in lab coats with complicated machines.

But even as a kid in the '80s, I was aware that the future wasn't turning out the way these artists and writers imagined. You know, I didn't get a jetpack for my 10th birthday. So I was born in Vancouver in Canada. And in 1986, we hosted Expo 86, which was a world's fair. And I feel like the aesthetic of the world's fair really influenced a lot of people's imagination of the future.

It wasn't until recently, when I kind of looked back on Expo 86, that I realized it was actually the last world's fair ever hosted in North America. It's kind of like we stopped thinking of the future that way. But I guess, for me, that kind of utopian, sort of dewy, optimistic view of where we're going never really left me. And I guess I kept wondering, like, what happened to the future we were supposed to have? And, in some ways, I guess this book is my answer, which is that Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it all up for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Elan Mastai. His new book is called "All Our Wrong Todays."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODINGTON BEAR'S "PINEAPPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.