“She had been warned she would see things her mind wouldn’t understand.”
I picked up The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch while browsing new releases at the local library based on nothing more than the title and evocative cover. On my second read through of the jacket cover blurb I gave up on understanding the plot summation and decided to take a risk on the book. I got far enough to see it has something to do with murder and time travel, and if there is one genre that is catnip for me, it’s time travel thrillers. I’m happy to say this blind grab was absolutely worth it. The Gone World is dark, twisty, and inventive, with big ideas and a plot that grabs you from the prologue. More than just an empty thrill machine, the characters are the engine that drives the plot forward keeping the reader engaged as the story gets more and more haywire.
Since the 1970’s the US has been secretly conducting a number of Deep Space and Deep Time travel exploration under the arm of the Naval Space Command (NSC). The only “real” world is the present day, referred to as Terra Firma. In the novel Terra Firma is March 1997. Time travelers can only move forward from Terra Firma by opening a wormhole in space. This future time is referred to as an IFT, or Inadmissible Future Trajectory. Because the future is not set. It doesn’t exist until it can be observed and an infinite number of paths can be taken to get there. These time travelers reach a distant time but it is only one of an infinite number of possibilities. When they leave that timeline ceases to exist.
Still with me?
In their travels through Deep Space and Deep Time, the NSC has found something they are calling the Terminus. It is a vision of the end of the Earth in a bleak never ending winter populated by alien nano machines that eradicate humanity from the inside. Every time the travelers jump forward the various timelines show the Terminus is getting closer to aligning with Terra Firma. But the NSC doesn’t know what it is or how to stop it.
Shannon Moss is a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and a veteran of Deep Time travel. She has seen the Terminus first hand, losing her leg in the process. In March of 1997 she is assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of the wife and children of Patrick Mursult, a Navy SEAL in Pennsylvania. His 17 year old daughter is missing, driving Shannon to find Mursult and the missing girl. As the leads turn to dead ins Shannon time travels to 2015 to investigate the future to solve the crime in the past. All the while the Terminus is moving closer to Terra Firma.
And that’s where things get complicated.
The Gone World uses the framework of a psychological thriller to fully explore a reality in which time travel is real but hidden from the public eye. Tom Sweterlitsch’s premise is fantastical but grounded in reality. The science behind the technology is largely left unexplained but the ramifications are explored in depth. For instance, members of the NSC know what an IFT is. So when a time traveler appears in their time they know that means they are in an IFT and when the traveler leaves they will cease to exist. Shannon has conversations in the future with people grappling with their own existence because of this fact.
Shannon Moss is a fully realized character and has considerable baggage of her own. After witnessing, and barely surviving, the horrors of the Terminus she has been left shaken by the experience. She is haunted by the death of a childhood friend years before, a child that happened to live in the same house as Patrick Mursult. As Shannon investigates 2015 she interacts with future versions of her mother, suspects, and colleagues. While essentially in deep cover Shannon gets to know these people, or a version of what they could be, even though she knows the only reason they exist is because she is in their time. It’s smart and insightful writing and Sweterlitsch never lets the reader forget the stakes or let the action devolve in to mindless carnage.
Philosophical underpinnings aside, The Gone World is a dark, violent, and haunting thriller that is more horror than science fiction. Like all time travel stories it requires the reader to do quite a bit of mental unpacking at the end. I found myself going back and re-reading certain sections to see how they fit in with the whole picture. This is in no way a fault of the author, if anything it establishes his attention to detail that the entire twisting, turning narrative holds together all the way to the bittersweet epilogue.
The Gone World deserves a place on the shelf of any fan of speculative fiction and crime thrillers. This is a truly inventive, great novel with a fully realized heroine at the center. It will likely rank as my favorite of 2018. Don’t let this one pass you by.