Review: Tom Sweterlitsch’s “The Gone World”

by Miles Raymer

The Gone World

It feels odd to call Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World a ”fun” read, but fun is a whole lot of what I had while reading it. In this riveting and extremely grim science fiction thriller, the classic detective novel gets a time travel twist. Sweterlitsch’s imagination demonstrates impressive nuance and scope, and his prose slices the mind like a brutal blade.

The Gone World begins in 1997, and tells the story of Shannon Moss, an agent working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). In most ways, Moss is a typical hard-boiled detective: highly intelligent, intimate with humanity’s dark side, and sporting a gruff persona that conceals a vulnerable and compassionate heart. The one notable exception is her left leg, which was amputated above the knee after an accident in the field. Moss’s relationship with her own physicality and ambulation through the use of various prosthetics are differentiating factors that make her more interesting and sympathetic than other protagonists in this genre.

Moss’s particular role within NCIS isn’t what you’d expect. In order to solve high-priority crimes for the Naval Space Command (NSC), she engages in time travel through the use of quantum-based technology, exploring “Inadmissable Future Trajectories” (IFTs)––possible futures that stem from “terra firma” (the Present) but are just one of an infinite number of futures that may occur. Here are a few of the clever ways Sweterlitsch conveys this idea:

Only the Present is real, only the Present is terra firma. We were warned that no time passes in terra firma while we lived lives in IFTs––and yet IFTs weren’t real, not “objectively” so. We were told that we affected IFTs even as we observed them––that they would bend around our psyches in subtle ways, but as surely as intense gravity bends light. The effect was called lensing, the sensation bizarre, our instructor saying that IFTs could feel like dreams within dreams. (82)

I held the whisk sideways. Pointed to the tip of the handle. “Beginning of time,” I said. I ran my finger along the handle. “All of history––the observed past.” At the top of the handle, I said, “The Present”…I touched each of the wires on the whisk. “Possible futures, possible timelines––infinitely possible,” I said. “Imagine this whisk with an infinite number of wires.” (169)

Existence was a matter of chance, of probability, as infinite futures became one observed present. Life and death often hung on details. (224)

Quantum gravity is like a zipper, pulling all those possibilities together into one, single, truth. (231)

Sure, this is some seriously hand-wavey stuff, but it’s also based in actual science (i.e. the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), and, like I said before, it’s fun! These passages demonstrate Sweterlitsch’s talent for figurative language and imagery, which operate throughout the novel to help normal readers make sense of these weird and sometimes-counterintuitive concepts. There’s also plenty of jargon in there for folks with PhDs in physics. In this way, The Gone World manages to successfully walk the line between the hard and popular strains of science fiction.

The most important letter in “IFT” is the “I” for “Inadmissable”: “She was prohibited against using evidence gleaned from a future to build a case for prosecution in the present because the future she observed might not ever occur”(19). This conceit is an excellent mechanism for building tension, since Moss’s IFT experiences may or may not turn out to be relevant when she returns to terra firma. Sweterlitsch also throws in a strong dose of apocalypse, with a devastating but possibly-preventable event called “Terminus” looming in humanity’s near future. This feature threatens to make the novel a bit too messy, but overall Sweterlitsch integrates it nicely with his other plot elements.

My favorite part of this book is its gritty, dark tone. In many ways this is the most cliché aspect of The Gone World, taking an obvious cue from a long and celebrated list of crime fiction writers. But Sweterlitsch has a knack for refurbishing harsh observations about the universe and human nature in a way that makes them feel new again:

People talk about what infinity is, and they think of things that are never-ending, but infinity cuts the other way, too. Infinity can be a negation. We grow from dirt, and our cells multiply, and we grow and wear out and rot, and more are taking our place––it’s disgusting, all the bodies and death, billions of us, it’s like the tide, washing in and washing out. (123)

Deep Space and Deep Time are irreality––and beliefs built on irreality are beliefs built on quicksand. NSC sailors who have witnessed Deep Time are often haunted, reacting to events that haven’t yet occurred, may never occur. And many sailors who have seen Deep Space return hollowed, overwhelmed by the immensity of the cosmos. The totality of human endeavor is nothing when set against the stars. (147, emphasis his)

There is no design. The universe isn’t kind or cruel. The universe is vast and indifferent to our desires. (319)

We are all just shadows that come through the woods, shadows that cross the river. (353)

Every time travel narrative runs the risk of either becoming internally incoherent or failing to effectively communicate its coherence to the reader. For The Gone World, the latter risk is relatively high. Although I could give you a serviceable summary of the plot, I know there are a lot of details I missed. I suspect that Sweterlitsch composed a delicate soundscape of plot-lines that harmonize together beautifully, but my puny brain didn’t quite manage to hear the whole symphony. I found book’s final act to be unnecessarily confusing and cluttered, although the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter was truly stirring. I also found the brief epilogue unexpectedly off-putting in both its message and tone, which felt out of step with the rest of the novel.

For science fiction, detective novel, and/or time travel enthusiasts, The Gone World is highly recommended. For everyone else, picking up this book will plunge you into a possible future in which you may or may not be better off.

Rating: 7/10