I’ll come across book recommendations from a variety of sources. Lots of times I’ll have read about them on my own, or found my way to them via other authors that I already like. Sometimes somebody I know will recommend something that I will actually read. Occasionally I’ll wander around one of my local libraries in a familiar section and find something decent that way. Lately I’ve stumbled on a few through YouTubers or podcasters I like, and this was one of those. The Gone World was a recommendation by J.W. Friedman, one of the two people behind the podcast I Don’t Even Own a Television, a podcast about bad books. It’s sometimes hit or miss (the podcast), but I usually enjoy it. Anyway, this book was not the subject of the episode, because that would be more of an anti-recommendation, but is mentioned at the end of the episode where the hosts talk about things they actually liked as opposed to the book they read this week. He described it as a book that has a lot of the creepiness of True Detective before you realized it wasn’t going anywhere in Season One, which I’ll admit kind of hooked me immediately. And also that it had a lot of physics-based sci-fi. He ended by saying that he wasn’t sure that he liked it, but he knew that it was good.
I can say that I definitely liked this book, but I also see what J.W. was getting at. This is not what I would call a particularly easy read — either in its subject matter or in its concepts. It is, at its heart, a murder mystery of sorts, and there are a lot of moving parts. There is time travel, although I don’t have nearly as many complaints for the way it’s handled as a whole in this story as I did in my review of All the Light We Cannot See, where I felt like it was just some artistic frippery that had been tacked on to be interesting. Time travel is the point here, and the subtle way Sweterlitsch keeps track of where we are (chapters in the present are written in third person; chapters in the future are written in first) becomes a small handrail in what can be a disorienting experience.
The Gone World is the story of Shannon Moss, an agent in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, but this isn’t Gibbs’ NCIS. The Navy has a clandestine program called Deep Waters, and within that an even more secret program called Deep Time, where sailors traverse wormholes to the outer reaches of the galaxy and thousands of years into the future. And, as anyone who has ever read any cosmic horror will tell you, sometimes when you stare into the abyss too long, the abyss follows you home and destroys your planet. Humanity is on the clock — something out of Deep Waters is coming, and it keeps moving closer, but nobody quite knows what to do about it. And then a family is murdered and Shannon is called in, because the man who killed them is a Navy SEAL who also sailed Deep Waters, and who is also supposed to already be dead.
Honestly, I didn’t want to put this one down. My stats for it were that I started it on March 5th, finished on March 7th (technically, at 2:30 a.m.), and spent 8-1/2 hours on it having picked it up 7 times. Definitely not my fastest read, but it’s not enormously easy. The science in here concerning the deep space and time travel seemed plausible enough — nothing tripped any alarm bells for me. If anything some of the concepts were maybe a bit too in-depth for somebody of my particular background — this was the first time I felt like maybe I should have paid closer attention to Michael Crichton’s Timeline (probably not, though). The heavy stuff is explained well enough that I didn’t feel like I was missing out on not knowing more, though, and the plot was more interesting than the science.
The plot itself moves at a good clip — you don’t feel terribly bogged down anywhere, even though you’re skipping back and forth through time. There are the consistent and omnipresent timers of the murder case and the Terminus, and Shannon never forgets them for long. There aren’t enough characters that you lose track of them, and there are only a few locations, so even though the book takes place over a long range of years, there isn’t that much as far as people or places to keep track of. If the reader has trouble hanging on to anything, it will be how all the alternate futures and the present change and fit into and reflect each other. But while I was at times slightly disoriented (which I think is part of the experience), I always found my way through.
A content warning on this book: The violence and crime scenes are pretty vividly described throughout. J.W. said in his recommendation not to read it while eating, and while I did not have that problem (I used to watch crime shows and medical documentaries on lunch breaks — I am not normal), that would not be the worst call. It is graphic. Shannon is beaten and attacked several times. She is present at the scenes of several murders and suicides, and the things that happen to humans at the end of the world are also…visceral. So if that is something you feel like you might have difficulty with, go ahead and miss this. There’s plenty of other really good sci-fi out there that won’t bother you like this might. But if you know yourself and what you’re okay with and you think this is something that sounds interesting, I would recommend it.