With his first book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, appearing only in 2014, Tom Sweterlitsch announced himself as one of those “new voices” that periodically serve to reinvigorate science fiction. Sweterlitsch debut was, like many books that offer a revitalization of SF’s sense of possibility, a hybrid tale — part New Weird, part thriller, part counterfactual — whose composite novelty picked up flavors of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, Jeff VanderMeer and the Strugatsky brothers, filtered through Sweterlitsch ‘s unique sensibility. His sophomore outing is an alternately terrifying and mind-blowing trip that examines whether human nature is fit to withstand the howling cosmological madness that underlies our falsely placid and fragile mundanity.
The Gone World opens with a prologue set in the year 2199, striking in its stomach-wrenching eeriness and initially half unfathomable, in an irresistibly teasing fashion. A young woman, Shannon Moss, agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is on a training mission, via time travel, to the ineffably alien day of the Terminus, a barely comprehensible celestial Armageddon event. But the mission goes kerflooey, and she almost dies — and in the vision of time Sweterlitsch offers, that “maybe” means “actually,” in some multiversal iteration. But in the tale we follow, a grievously injured Moss is rescued and brought back to her home time and base, the year 1997, known as “terra firma.” She loses a leg to gangrene and is thereafter reliant on a computerized prosthesis — which does not slow down her heroic, even superheroic exertions one whit. Stubborn, dedicated, unrelenting and self-sacrificing, Moss battles doubts, fears, and uncertainty to power through crises with her mantra, “Someone else would quit.” Onstage every second of the narrative, Shannon will arouse in the reader every possible emotion, from sympathy to aversion, awe to incredulity, love to fear.
The reader soon learns that Shannon’s 1997 is counterfactual to ours, due to one large discovery. The invention of the Brandt-Lomonaco Quantum-Foam Macro-Field Generator has permitted both unlimited faster-than-light space travel and time travel into the future only. A secret government program, Deep Waters, with departments Deep Space and Deep Time, has been long established. From an orbital station, expeditions go out to far galaxies and far eras.
The Gone World‘s vision of time travel is interestingly problematic. There in no singular assured future but merely a sheaf of possible timelines, “Inadmissible Future Trajectories.” Travel, say, from 1997 to 2015 on one voyage, and you encounter one set of historical events. Travel a second journey, get a different result. Moreover, the presence of a person from 1997, terra firma, has the effect of destabilizing the probable timeline, collapsing it via a kind of Heisenberg observer process so that it evaporates when the traveler departs. In effect, one is visiting not so much the land of tomorrow as a country of ghosts whom one has inescapably doomed.
Ghosts, echoes, multivalent, even contradictory outcomes, overlapping identities — these are the bugaboos and motifs that will bedevil Shannon and her companions. But there is one element consistent among their various shadowy destinations: The Terminus cuts across all futures and, in fact, seems somehow to be inching closer and closer to 1997.
Shannon’s introduction to this crisis is an indirect result of her part in an NCIS murder investigation alongside her fellow investigators, and she begins to apply her deft intelligence to solving the case. She runs down all her leads as far as possible and hits a dead end. There’s only one thing to do: jump to the future and see if the case was ever already solved.
Sweterlitsch’s version of time travel is unique in that the time traveler experiences duration during the trip. Shannon must live for three months in her cloistered spacecraft before reaching 2015 and also subsist thus on the return leg. Once in that far-off year she remains undercover and lives there for six months, falling in love, ferreting out clues, and digging through records. She soon discovers that the first murders — and others yet to come, from her perspective — involve the crew of a vanished interstellar Deep Space ship, the Libra. Much to her horror, Shannon learns that the Libra was responsible for the Terminus and has in effect doomed all humanity. Now it becomes a race to forestall the actions of the Libra‘s crew, who are intent on killing anyone in their way. Shannon’s desperate quest involves more trips to the future and incredible assaults on her life and mental health. The climax is a pull-out-all-the-stops Götterdämmerung.
Sweterlitsch’s story manages to expertly fold and blend a half dozen different streams of science fiction into its telling while never losing its organic shape. First comes the counterfactual aspect. Shannon’s 1997 is palpably different from ours, the outré machinations of the Deep Waters people forming the uncanny substrate for the more familiar cultural touchstones. (Black-humorously and ironically, Shannon is a big fan of The X-Files.) Second come the Phildickian aspects of foreknowledge and predestination. The NCIS is even resonantly equipped to issue “pre-crime warrants.” Along these same lines, William Gibson’s depiction of interlocked and intercommunicating continua seen in The Peripheral is closest to what Sweterlitsch delivers. Third come the intricate time-travel paradoxes so beloved by writers from Heinlein (“ ’—All You Zombies—’ ”) on down to Wesley Chu (Time Salvager). (One associational image that kept coming up for me, pulpish as it is, was that of the DC Comics bad guy the Time Trapper, who once erected an “Iron Curtain” across the future.) Fourth come the thriller-crime novel frissons. Shannon leaps off the page as a diligent and trained investigator, and the crimes she seeks to solve are limned with gruesome fidelity.
But it is the fifth strain of fantastika that is predominant in the book, and that aspect is Cosmic, or Existential, Horror. Like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, like Jeff VanderMeer and the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem, Sweterlitsch is intent on invoking the sense of a universe that is often malign and incomprehensible, and he triumphs at every stage. Consider this account by one of the Libra crew, remembering their encounter with the planet Esperance:
You could actually feel the change in the gravity they produced together — a lightness, a lift, being pulled upward by the moons like a thread in your chest had been tugged. And the oceans responded, receding from the shore, following the moons’ pull, a waning tide. The beach elongated as the ocean retreated, and the ocean floor was covered in lichen, a luminescent carpet that grew in the furrows leading deeper into the ocean. There were glassy rocks in twisting shapes like lava as it curls through water, and farther out still we saw crystals that dazzled like diamonds. The water receded far enough to expose the body of one of the leviathans, the ringing bodies we had seen from above — or rather the crystal shape of the leviathan. It was at a distance but seemed more like a shape than a body, the same shapes the plants had grown into — or maybe it was once a body but was crystal now. I don’t know how to . . . I don’t have the words . . . A crystal shape, like interlocking diamonds or pyramids inside of pyramids. A fractal.
I maintain that Sweterlitsch can channel the Weird Tales crowd with the best of his peers. And his prose is ultimately much more subtle, evocative and poetic than theirs.
We saw the future of mankind dissolve. We saw men running to the seas to drown and saw men hanging in the air. We saw men, their mouths filled with silver. Remarque transitioned into other futures, but the white light shone above every sky, fouling every possibility.
I thought of something like wildfire scorching the skies of infinite Earths. I thought of the White Hole shining like a dead eye.
And he compounds the visual estrangements with deep ontological conundrums as well. One can compare his book to such postmodern SF landmarks as Barry Malzberg’s Galaxies, with its indeterminate and ever-shifting ship of fools, and James Tiptree’s “A Momentary Taste of Being,” with its revelation of humanity’s insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
This novel manages to be both cinematically vivid yet intellectually replete, at once immediately and grippingly hook-filled yet with time-delayed philosophical bombs. To bring it to the screen would require the combined talents of Lynch, del Toro, and Gondry. But it took only one exceptional man, Thomas Sweterlitsch, to render it on the page.