Fiction Reviews

The Gone World

(2018) Tom Sweterlitsch, Headline, £14.99, trdpbk, 389pp, ISBN 978-1472-21498-0


The Gone World is an ambitious crime/time travel story by American writer Tom Sweterlitsch. In it, the end of the world (in the shape of an alien nano-tech emitting blinding light in the sky) is coming ever closer in time, and people who might be connected to its appearance keep disappearing. Special Agent Shannon Moss is investigating these crimes, both in 1997 (described as ‘terra firma’) and in a series of alternate future scenarios where the nanotech nightmare (called ‘The Terminal’) follows the starship Libra back from an exploratory mission. Mostly, Shannon has to travel three months into space before hitting the wormhole which leads to the (possible) future, but there’s a forest in West Virginia with a timeless, leafless tree (the Vardogger), with paths that lead to future and past, plus a link to the Libra, from the time the Terminal followed it back to Earth). Shannon loses a leg (not sure why) and seems immune (or at least doesn’t succumb) to the nanotech causing others to foam silver at the mouth run around like madmen and hang, crucified, upside down from dead trees (not sure how or who does the hanging). And multiple copies of people abound (‘echoes’). Shannon is one of these echoes, which makes her feel less real, because she presumes she’s from an Inadmissible Future Trajectory (an ‘IFT’) which, given the relentless creep of the Terminus through the timeline, probably no longer exists (in this novel, the presumption is that once a time traveller returns to ‘terra firma’ the observed future reality ceases to exist). She encounters multiple different versions of the same people, reacting entirely differently to (presumably) different stimuli, but eventually pieces the mystery together and embarks on a dangerous mission to save the world.

If all that sounds a bit confusing, wait until you read the book. I had problems with the IFTs – why should an entire reality be dependent on one person observing it? – and with some of the concepts (why should there be a ‘soft’ time-warping area in the Virginia forest, and if there is, why does Shannon sometimes spend months in space to time travel? Why would people hang upside down on trees? Why would the Terminus creep back in time?) but I’m probably missing some of the metaphors and trying to take the plot too literally.

The cover blurb suggests this is ‘edge of your seat crime fiction. True Detective meets 12 Monkeys. If only. The plotting is so obtuse that I found it difficult to read for long periods, and it really needs to be read in large chunks because otherwise you’ll never keep up with what’s going on. To be fair, things did pick up towards the end, but then I was only reading it because I was reviewing it. That said, it is tightly plotted, with some nice characterisation and other reviews have been kinder. The book’s been optioned for a film version, and I can see it being very interesting visually, in a medium where, arguably, suspension of disbelief becomes easier.

Mark Bilsborough


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