Q&A with Tom Sweterlitsch, author of The Gone World
The Gone World is a fun read. It’s a murder mystery and a police procedural, while also effectively incorporating horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. The science fiction elements are thrilling as well, showcasing novel approaches to both space and time travel. I spoke with author Tom Sweterlitsch about his approach to writing, his inspirations and how he combines science and science fiction to create a potent story that still feels anchored to technical and scientific realities.
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The Adjacent Possible: As a writer, how do you balance input from experts in the field of science with the need to tell the story at an appropriate pace? You can’t have a character do a three page info dump ending with, “…and that’s how quantum foam works!” How do you determine how much science you need in order to prove you’ve done the homework, but not so much that you risk boring or losing your audience?
Tom Sweterlitsch: I think maybe how you handle things like info dumps and world building depends on the kind of book you’re writing, and the tone of the book — for instance, if you think of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or some of Stanislaw Lem’s work, the info dump is the main attraction! But, you’re absolutely right, a book like The Gone World has to communicate things like the mechanics of time travel and quantum foam without creating too much drag for a reader who wants to race along with the mystery plot. This was definitely on my mind while writing, and the solution, for me, was to strictly adhere to the point of view of the main character.
The Gone World is tightly focused on Shannon Moss, and how she thinks about the world — everything the reader knows about the book comes filtered through her. She’s educated, and experienced in her job as a time traveler and criminal investigator, so I tried to stick to writing only about things that Shannon herself would be thinking about at any given moment, whether details about the science or specifics about homicide investigations. If Shannon contextualizes some piece of information with science, then that’s when the reader learns about it too; If Shannon doesn’t know something, then I don’t write about it. Sticking very close to her point of view helped keep a narrator’s voice from bogging down her story with too much exposition.
If Shannon doesn’t know something, then I don’t write about it. Sticking very close to her point of view helped keep a narrator’s voice from bogging down her story with too much exposition.
The AP: The Gone World introduced me to a lot of scientific concepts & people I wasn’t familiar with: Quantum Foam, Brandt & Lomonaco, Casimir Lines. You also have concepts like Deep Time and Deep Waters and Thin Space. As an author, how do you balance, or mix, the ideas that are based on real, current science, the ones that are extrapolated from real science, and the purely imaginary?
TS: You mention Brandt and Lomonaco, the scientists in the story who are credited with the creation of the time travel engine. Dr. Brandt, in real life, is my father-in-law, a brilliant theoretical physicist who was a pioneer in quantum computing and quantum cryptography for the Department of Defense. His longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Lomonaco, is a mathematician specializing in Knot Theory. I wanted to honor their friendship by putting their names in the book, but at the same time I thought their fields of research would actually have combined nicely to invent a certain type of time travel. Before he passed away, my father-in-law suggested that since I was interested in time travel I should study wormholes, and that conversation was the spark for how time travel works in The Gone World. I did a lot of reading and research to make sure that most of the concepts I write about are at least “extrapolated from” scientific thought — there is already a significant body of academic and popular writing dedicated to the idea of time travel via wormhole, for instance, but it’s all speculative. That’s sort of the sleight of hand of science fiction, that you’re writing about impossible things but want the reader, in the moment, to accept impossible ideas as true.
The AP: Related to those questions, when you’re writing, are you writing for the person with a science background who likes sci-fi and will be able to call bullshit if you don’t get it right, or are you writing for people who are sci-fi fans who are used to hearing phony tech-speak and are ok with a lot of hand waving to explain things?
TS: I had both types of readers in mind, definitely. So, picking up from your previous question, “Casimir Lines” are a good example of this. Once I settled on using wormholes for the time travel mechanism, I had to ask myself: how does a traveler who has gone to the future via wormhole return back to the present? How would a wormhole “stay open”? Reading about wormholes, I read some speculation that massive amounts of negative energy might keep a wormhole open, and that led me to reading about Hendrik Casimir and the “Casimir Effect.” Those ideas are exciting, so I used them to invent “Casimir Lines,” a purely imaginary idea to name the phenomenon that “tethers” a time traveler to their present. I don’t ever specifically describe the Casimir Effect in the book because I didn’t want to spend a reader’s time with that particular kind of summary. Someone following the mystery plotline, or someone who likes to read books as fast as they can, are able to read quickly through the term “Casimir Lines,” and chalk it up to “Handwavium” or phony tech-speak, and not get hung up on it; but if a reader were to google “Casimir Lines” they could read about Casimir, and then he or she would be able to get what I’m gesturing toward as a scientific explanation as to how all this stuff might work.
Once I’d written the book, I got in touch with a physicist at Carnegie Mellon University here in Pittsburgh, and asked if he’d be willing to look over some of the science-heavy passages in the book. I let him know that I wasn’t looking for “accuracy,” per se, but definitely “plausibility.” And he graciously read over the pages, and suggested a couple changes. I wanted to make sure I was using the terms correctly. I’d definitely consider it a mistake, something I’d want to correct, if a physicist called outright “bullshit” on something in the book.
The AP: You had the opportunity to introduce an alien montster, something like the xenomorph from Alien, but you went in another direction. Was that choice based on a personal decision or was it based on scientific likelihood?
TS: The “monster” in the book originally came from personal decision first, rather than scientific likelihood — though I did do research to discover plausible ways that the “monster” as I’d written it could interact with and affect humans. I wanted to present something truly “alien,” where the human characters simply can’t and never will be able to fathom “why” the alien is doing what it’s doing. The Xenomorph is a masterpiece of horror design, but it’s fathomable, you immediately understand that it’s based on a life cycle, or reproductive cycle, just like earth animals — you think of it in terms of spiders, or bugs, or mothers and children. The “monster” in The Gone World is almost like a terrible natural occurrence, something that just happens — it’s more like a disease than a monster, in a way.
The Xenomorph is a masterpiece of horror design, but it’s fathomable, you immediately understand that it’s based on a life cycle, or reproductive cycle, just like earth animals — you think of it in terms of spiders, or bugs, or mothers and children.
The AP: I thought the way you handled time-travel and the idea of multiverses was interesting and fresh. How much of that was based on current scientific thinking and how much of that was you creating rules for your universe based on what you thought was necessary to serve the plot?
TS: Thank you! My brother-in-law is a special agent with NCIS, and several years ago I asked him how time travel might affect his work as a criminal investigator, and his answer got me thinking about time and memory. He told me that homicide investigations were brutal and tragic, with crimes mostly committed by someone who knew the victim personally. Many investigations are concluded when the people close to the crime tell the investigators what happened, and the killer confesses. Every so often, however, people won’t talk — and so he thought it would be interesting if an investigator could go to the future, to talk with the witnesses at a point in time when their relationships had changed and their emotions had cooled, and then return to the present investigation with that information. I thought his answer was the perfect mechanism to use in a novel. And at the same time, I was thinking about The Glass Menagerie’s use of memory and time and identity, and wanted to write a science fiction novel that felt at times like The Glass Menagerie, where the time travel had resonant meaning for the characters.
Writing those early drafts of the novel, though, I was frequently stopped by the question: “now how exactly would time travel work?” And asking that question would send me down the rabbit hole of research until I had plausible answers for the problems and paradoxes I encountered. So, the plot and characters came first, but then the science filled out how the world of the novel works and feels.
The AP: The Gone World is a cross-genre mix of murder mystery, science fiction and an almost Lovecraftian horror. What was your entry point to the story? Were you coming at it as a sci-fi story with the other elements, or did you see it as a mix from the outset?
TS: Definitely as a mix of science fiction and mystery, at first — and this was the case with my first book, too. I taught myself how to write novels by studying the plot mechanics of murder mysteries and thrillers, even though I was writing science fiction. So, I wrote my first novel as a science-fiction thriller and was still in that mindset when I started The Gone World. My first conception of the book was “NCIS plus Battlestar Galactica plus time travel.” The horror elements came a little later, though I think horror is a natural outgrowth of the things I was writing about. And I’ve always been a big fan of horror fiction, so my mind usually goes in that direction when I’m writing.
I want to thank Tom for his time and insights into his writing process. I recommend The Gone World highly. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you like psychological sci-fi like Event Horizon or Sunshine, or are a fan of the procedural genre, this one is for you. Grab it on Amazon.