Review by BRYAN YENTZ
THE GONE WORLD
When I first heard of THE GONE WORLD last year, it wasn’t because I had read author Tom Sweterlitsch’s first novel TOMORROW AND TOMORROW, and it wasn’t because it was on my recommended reading options. No, it was because of the news that writer/director Neill Blomkamp would be adapting it as his next feature. Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 was one hell of a gut-punching epic, but his follow-ups (both ELYSIUM and CHAPPIE) were beyond awful and have since smudged his once-promising name. Still hoping for the best (and a potential return to form for ol’ Neill), I sought out THE GONE WORLD.
Oddly enough, it hadn’t even been released. Lo and behold, this was actually a studio marketing tactic (one that’s becoming more popular) as the book was in fact released last month. It’s a chicken and egg quandary, albeit one that benefits the other (Sweterlitsch also thanks Blomkamp for assistance on the book). Promotional stunts aside, THE GONE WORLD stands on its own laurels; worthy of readers en masse.
When critiquing books like THE GONE WORLD, it’s difficult to convey the sheer ingenuity on display without spoiling it for curious readers. And in this case, brevity is key, lest I tarnish the experience for interested parties.
THE GONE WORLD is a ritualistic murder-mystery along the lines of TRUE DETECTIVE; it’s a time-traveling thriller akin to TWELVE MONKEYS; it’s a gritty journey into existential horror equivalent to EVENT HORIZON and it’s even got a dash of MINORITY REPORT. And yet, somehow, amidst the obvious nods, THE GONE WORLD manages to find a monstrously compelling voice all its own.
Set in 1997, THE GONE WORLD follows NCIS agent Shannon Moss as she attempts to uncover a family’s brutally bizarre murder by not only tracking the missing daughter, but the potential culprit still at large – her father. What’s initially believed to be a simple crime scene of cruel violence, gradually proves to be the start of something for more sinister than anyone could have imagined. Fortunately for Shannon Moss, time is on her side.
As a “traveler” for the United States’ naval command, Shannon is able to utilize a very primitive yet tangible form of time travel to see a future wherein this heinous butchering has been cracked – thereby taking that knowledge back to the present and “solving” it. The catch? Time travel takes a physical toll, outcomes aren’t always as predicted and it’s far harder to do your job properly when you know someone else is messing with the fabric of all that is good and holy. Further complicating matters, is an unfathomably destructive force known as “The Terminus” that lies in wait across any and all timelines. Not only must Shannon decipher a series of murders, but she must also learn of their connection to the omnipotent force.
Herein, there’s a rationale placed on the logistics of time travel, deep space and the effects both have on the human body. Facets that are rarely explored in such detail as they are in this tome. With THE GONE WORLD, travel isn’t instantaneous but a mathematical consumption of time that requires its own set of rules to be followed. Societal laws have been established for those that would abuse the privilege of reality exploration – as well as given rights to the alternate versions of oneself or “echoes”, should they be merged into one’s own timeline. It’s in these guidelines that Sweterlitsch creates a narrative that’s more distinguishable than other stories in a similar vein. It’s not glossy or devoid of complication, but grounded in very human terms with very human errors.
Adding all the more to the narrative’s value is that of a supremely likeable lead in detective Shannon Moss. She’s an amputee (with a prosthetic leg) that’s resourceful, dedicated – and thankfully – not a clichéd offended type that decries anyone who tries to assist. Instead we learn of her physical and mental struggles via narration that never feel expository, but genuine. Her physical and mental duel run parallel as she must constantly contend with the limitations of a missing limb, all the while dealing with the emotional degradation that comes with witnessing one’s own repeated demise and the ravages of time—not to mention its entire damnation. Her relationships with others (both in and out of her timeline) are also credible and beautifully rendered. It’s a harrowing story that’s made all the more poignant due to the way in which each timeline alters her encounters with people she knew, loved or feared. Even with all of this period-leaping, Sweterlitsch manages to maintain consistency in each subject’s personality all the while providing sometimes drastic changes in their temperament from era to era.
But a protagonist is only as good as that which they fight and Sweterlitsch provides a pinnacle of monstrous intimidation in a character fearfully referred to as “The Devil” by his many victims (and the incredibly creative means in which he obliges others to his evil bidding). While there are actually several antagonistic forces at work inside these pages it’s this particular foe that garners as much hate as he does empathy. Like all great villains, there’s a rationale to his motives, in this case, a Machiavellian reasoning to his abhorrent actions. There’s a twisted logic to his bloodshed, one that is unfortunately not fully explored. As the plot is thrust into the last act, his presence is breezed over (as well as a few others) so as to seemingly end the book faster. Yes, there are confrontations, but none as impactful as I had initially hoped they would be.
By the time the finale arrives, the shit hits the interstellar fan and the entertainment factor occasionally butts heads with the sheer complicatedness of it all. Alternate realities, converging timelines, crucified bodies suspended in the sky, space travel, nano-machines—it all makes for a wondrously apocalyptic finale, but one that doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it should be, considering how detailed it was otherwise. Where Sweterlitsch previously provided much insight into the inner machinations of science fictional technologies and theories, there are certain elements (“QTNs” and “blinking” for example) that aren’t defined well in terms of their relationship to The Terminus and just WHY they actually affect people/realities the way they do. There are very brief descriptors given but nothing that felt mentally nourishing so as to justify some of the more deliciously macabre visuals described. There’s also one particular brilliant plot-point that is established early on and just as it’s wrapped up, Sweterlitsch averts the expectation—while at the same time conceding to what the reader believed was to happen (which would’ve made more sense—however, that’s also the author’s point of preclusion). All in all, small gripes for an otherwise outlandishly engaging chronicle of time travel.
Regardless of THE GONE WORLD’s origins (or the outcome of Blomkamp’s future reimagining), one thing’s for certain: Sweterlitsch has crafted an incredible story with heart, horror and originality. It’s a dazzling convergence of the old with the new; one that’s sure to leave your mind jellied and your body a bit rattled by the final plunge into sable, time-tearing space.