In his debut novel, author Tom Sweterlitsch constructed a fascinating mystery with Tomorrow and Tomorrow, set in a virtual version of Pittsburg after a terrorist attack leveled the city. In The Gone World, he introduces an even more ambitious investigation: one that jumps back and forth in time, and which could decide the fate of humanity. It’s a complicated, dazzling novel that keeps the reader hooked until the last pages.
The Gone World opens with a 20th-century NCIS agent named Shannon Moss on a training mission in the distant future of 2199. She’s part of the Naval Space Command, which runs a covert space and time-traveling program that sends Navy personnel across the galaxy and across time. On her first mission, she discovers a horrifying scene: a version of herself crucified mid-air in a broken wasteland. She’s witnessed what her agency calls The Terminus, a mysterious phenomenon which signals an apocalypse that appears to be moving closer and closer to the present. After her training, she’s called to investigate a brutal murder in her present — 1997. The apparent culprit appears to be a Navy SEAL named Patrick Mursult, once part of the same time-travel program as Moss — until his starship, the Libra, was lost on a mission.
Some spoilers ahead.
In a recent interview with Syfy, Sweterlitsch says The Gone World was inspired partly by chatting with his brother-in-law, an NCIS agent. His brother-in-law said that it would be interesting to investigate crimes by jumping forward in time to question witnesses after the heat of the moment has passed, then jumping back and applying their testimony to the investigation.
Moss hops between 1997 and 2015 a handful of times, encountering wildly different futures as her immediate investigation progresses. She quickly discovers that there’s more to this murder than meets the eye. The suspected killers are connected to some serious anti-government movements, including several terrorist attacks — and they seem to be the crew of the vanished Libra.
Moss soon learns that the Libra and the world-ending Terminus are connected. The ship’s crew discovered a planet with a terrifying life form that could destroy humanity, and they’re trying to undermine the Naval Space Command to prevent them from ever discovering the planet. In the process, they’ve accidentally created a tear in space-time that helps facilitate their actions from the far future, even as it changes around them.
Sweterlitsch plays with time in a fascinating manner, sprinkling in small details that drive home the real cost of Moss’s job. As she jumps back and forth, Moss ages in real time — she looks the same age as her mother after spending years in the future, but surprises people in the future by apparently aging exceptionally well. One person she encounters changes from a lover to a terrorist in the future as his life shifts, based on how she changes the present, while these futures go from recognizable to incredibly high-tech. The constant time shifts and the impending Terminus put pressure on Moss to not only solve the family’s murder, but figure out how it relates to the Libra’s mission.
These shifting futures let Sweterlitsch play with some big themes. How do our decisions, given enough time, change the future before us? What lengths will people go through to try to preserve the things that they love? Moss is an exceedingly resilient figure, who gives up almost everything for her mission, and it’s easy to sympathize with her as she struggles to handle the alternate versions of the futures that she visits. Sweterlitsch plays with other big consequences that time travel might have: when Moss returns to her present in 1997, she gets the feeling that the information she’s bringing back is helping private sector interests develop new technology, which might be hastening the end of the world.
The Gone World is a heady, complicated story that plays out at a brisk pace that doesn’t let go until the last page. In many ways, it feels like it blends the supernatural and cosmic elements from True Detective, and the alternate universe elements of Fringe. There’s a lot packed into this book, and while I can see why the story appeals so much to Neill Blomkamp, who’s slated to direct an adaptation of it, he certainly has his work cut out for him.