Greenfield's Sweterlitsch mixes sci-fi, mystery in new novel
Tom Sweterlitsch's new novel, "The Gone World" (Putnam, $26), is ostensibly a science fiction story cloaked in a mystery. But the subtext of the book involves a topic that coincidentally taps into the current zeitgeist.
"It's an essential element of the book, this question about what is truth and is the truth that you experience even truth," Sweterlitsch says. "One of the things that happens in the book is that all of the characters and agencies that are involved provide a definition about the nature of reality. And all the different characters believe a slightly different version of that question."
Release parties for "The Gone World" take place Feb. 6 at Alphabet City on Pittsburgh's North Side, and Feb. 22 at Riverstone Books in McCandless.
Sweterlitsch, a Greenfield resident whose debut novel, "Tomorrow and Tomorrow," also mixed science fiction and mystery, created a unique character for "The Gone World." Shannon Moss is a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigation Service who has lost a leg in a horrific accident.
In order to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL's family, she must travel between the 1990s and various points in the future, where each reality is different. When Moss arrives at future destinations, she's marked as a threat by factions that realize her presence can mean the end of their existence.
The book takes cues from science fiction master Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon's mysteries, notably "Inherent Vice." Less obvious are the influences of Marcel Proust, August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," and "One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of which Sweterlitsch studied before writing the novel.
"Those questions about time and memory that are in Proust and Strindberg and 'The Glass Menagerie,' are important in 'The Gone World,' " he says. "I think that's what both of my books are about, 'The Gone World' especially, this dream-like space of memory that actually fills your waking life. … And 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' was the first book I read that I wondered what it would be like if it was a science fiction-mystery."
"Tomorrow and Tomorrow" was set primarily in Pittsburgh, but Sweterlitsch uses small-town locales for the new book. Canonsburg, Washington County, and Buckhannon in West Virginia especially provide vivid backdrops.
"I'll take long drives through places I want to get a sense of and try to pick up little details," Sweterlitsch says. "Those questions about setting are interesting because they can cut both ways so quickly. The more details that root you to a place, the reader can imagine being there. But if you start including too many, then it starts having an alienating affect for people who don't know the town. But I love the landscape around here, and I like those long drives for sure."
While Sweterlitsch enjoys the challenge of incorporating science into his stories, it's the mystery element that most intrigues him. As a reader he identifies with a "detective going into a strange world," he says, "a personal quest." And he thinks that Shannon Moss is the perfect guide into what he admits is an eerie but intriguing set-up.
"With my first book, I never know what people are going to think when they read it," Sweterlitsch says. "I sometimes get nervous because there's a lot of violence and strong satirical content, and I don't know how it's going to land with people. But with 'The Gone World,' because of Shannon, I hope people will find it and start reading it because they will like her. She'll guide them through this strange world I've written about. I trust her character to a very high degree."
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
A movie in the making
Before he finished the manuscript for "The Gone World," Tom Sweterlitsch had a movie deal. Neil Blomkamp, the acclaimed director of "District 9" and "Elysium," is scheduled to direct the film version for 20th Century Fox.
Blomkamp announced last summer that he would direct the film after getting an early copy of the book from Sweterlitsch.
The film has yet to go into production and no actors have been attached to the project. In the interim Sweterlitsch has been collaborating with the South African director on experimental short films project through Blomkamp's Oats Studios.
"Those are so fun to work on," Sweterlitsch says. "I was in a great position because Neil is so excellent at storytelling and filmmaking. He can take and idea from me even by email and fashion it into this really great movie. Whereas if I was trying to write screenplays for someone else I'd have to be very formal and strict. But in this case, it was very organic. We'd get to the point where the screenplays were done and a few months later he'd send me the footage, and it always hits me that he's making these movies that are awesome."