Wow. Tom Sweterlisch’s second novel, “The Gone World,” is an engrossing literary mashup of crime fiction and mind-blowing science fiction. This is a complicated brew that demands and rewards your attention as it twists and turns through multiple timelines, multiple destinies, and the violent ends of human motivations.
NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss is assigned to find the murderer of Patrick Mursult, a Navy SEAL, and his family at their home on Cricketwood Court. The grisly murders have a macabre feature: the victims had their fingernails removed. And there is one surviving family member: Mursult’s teenage daughter, Marian Mursult, now missing. Shannon’s first priority is to find Marian safely.
Shannon is assigned to the case because Mursult was part a secret black project called the Deep Waters program, which involves travel through Deep Space and Deep Time. Mursult served on the spaceship USS Libra, a ship sent into the deep future and never returned.
Shannon herself was an astronaut in the Deep Waters program, where she suffered a horrific encounter with a future phenomenon, The Terminus. The Terminus is a fabulous narrative invention, a spooky end-of-world event moving closer and closer to our reality, threatening our world with a grisly and barely understandable death. Shannon wonders if Mursult had an encounter of his own with the Terminus that led to the violence at Cricketwood Court.
To further complicate things, the family murders happened in the very house where Shannon’s teenage best friend, Courtney Gimm, also was murdered many years before. Shannon couldn’t save Courtney’s life, and shaken by the memory of her death, realizes now she has a chance to save Marian.
That’s a lot of setup to pack into the first chapter, and Seterlisch does it with sparkling prose and some very tight characterizations. The plot never lets up. Before long, Shannon will have to leap forward into possible futures, where she can research what happened in the past. Time travel does not come without consequences, some mundane and some mind-blowing. Sweterlitsch employs the consequences to advance and complicate his already complicated plot.
To say much more would spoil the fun of the novel, which gets bigger and more complex even as Shannon’s investment in the puzzle grows more personal. Shannon herself is a damaged and resilient protagonist, perfect to investigate the dark visions of this novel. She sacrifices a lot in the name of her career.
There is endless invention in this novel. Sweterlitsch touches upon alternate realities, time travel, advanced technologies, and even Philip K. Dick-inspired notions of pre-crime warrants (which have a high failure rate due to changes in circumstances of the expected future). This is marvellous stuff! Many of the ideas he explored could be the basis for a single science fiction novel.
“The Gone World” is a dark novel, full of moments to make you squeamish, and I find myself mulling over the many implications and trying to put it all together in my head. Highly recommended.