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Author debuts with a bang, blowing up Pittsburgh in first novel

| Monday, July 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Sonja Sweterlitsch
Tom Sweterlitsch, author of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”
'Tomorrow and Tomorrow' by Tom Sweterlitsch

The debut novel by author Thomas Sweterlitsch, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” is a lot of things: reality-bending science fiction, a hard-boiled detective story and a meditation on love, loss and the tyranny of memory.

Perhaps most surprisingly, it's also a love letter to Sweterlitsch's adopted hometown, Pittsburgh. Surprising, because he starts by blowing the city up.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” actually begins 10 years after Pittsburgh is destroyed in an unexplained terrorist attack. John Dominic Blaxton — a survivor of the blast that incinerated his wife and unborn child — is searching through the Archive, a digital simulation of the city taken from the ubiquitous video cameras embedded in everything — from traffic lights and storefronts to people's own heads.

Blaxton spends every free moment taking drugs and reliving the fleeting moments of his wife's final days. His day job involves trawling the Archive for insurance companies, verifying when and how policyholders died — when he comes across the body of a beautiful college girl in Nine Mile Run, killed before the city is destroyed.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” crosses the streams between dystopian nightmares — enveloping both the invasive total-surveillance state of “Minority Report” and the post-nuclear apocalypse of “The Road.” The dividing line between one profanely over-mediated future, and the end of everything, is somewhere around Pittsburgh, now a cordoned-off landscape of irradiated ash and rubble, tainted with unfinished memories.

It's quite unusual for a first-time writer to have such a command of so many literary styles. It's even more unusual for a bidding war to erupt for the film rights, before the book even comes out July 10. Sony won the rights.

It's true that much of the story seems inherently cinematic, between the grisly tension of “True Detective” and the nocturnal worlds-within-worlds found in the film adaptations of Philip K. Dick, like “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner.”

The idea for the book began with a vacation and a map.

“I met my wife in college (at Carnegie Mellon University),” Sweterlitsch says. “We fell in love with each other as we fell in love with the city. We had our honeymoon in Prague, and noticed some similarities in the ways they look and feel.

“Fast forward a few years, and we were looking at a walking map of Prague, wondering if we'd ever make it back, trying to remember everything. I wrote a short story about someone in Prague who could only revisit his memories of Pittsburgh through this digital archive. That grew into the idea of Pittsburgh being gone, and this person who could only relive these happy moments in his life through this digital map.”

On a whim, he wrote to one of his favorite writers, Stewart O'Nan (“Snow Angels”), who just happened to move back to Pittsburgh after years on the East Coast.

“I was just blown away that this man who's a literary hero of mine, who's living about 10 minutes from my house,” Sweterlitsch says. “I was really intrigued by that. For whatever reason, I did something completely out of character and wrote him a fan letter. I asked him to read a short story of mine.

O'Nan read the story and suggested it should be a novel. It took a year for Sweterlitsch to turn it into a novel.

Sweterlitsch, originally from Canton, Ohio, earned a master's degree in literary and cultural theory at CMU in 2001. He spent 12 years working at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and the Physically Handicapped, which broadened his reading and helped him discover different ways of seeing the world.

“We served all of (Pennsylvania) with this special collection of audiobooks,” Sweterlitsch says. “I was a human catalog, answering questions. A lot of the time, people were new to living without vision. It absolutely influenced my writing. I started to gain a more realistic appreciation of how people react to the real world through technology — describing the functions of audio players, or the Internet, or system technology in a more realistic way than Cyberpunk novels' (concept of) ‘jacking into the Internet.' ”

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is filled with nightmarish visions of the future, but two images, in particular, stand out. One features a character riding on a bus through the Armstrong Tunnels when the bomb goes off. Though shielded from the blast, she has to crawl through broken bodies, cars and the partially collapsed tunnel in total darkness, only to emerge in a city aflame.

The other image involves “Adware” technology, commonplace several decades in the future. It's basically Internet access implanted in one's brain, activated by thoughts. You can translate languages and pull off complicated searches without moving a muscle — but advertisers also have direct access to your brain. So there are pop-up ads going off in your head all the time.

“I didn't even have a cellphone or smartphone while writing this,” says Sweterlitsch, who finally got one six months ago. “Working on the Internet, I had some idea of what it was, and what it could be. Internet plus cable TV — the kinds of images that are celebrated in Internet culture — imagining a worst-case scenario where the lowest common denominator was celebrated, and that's all there was.”

In this particular future, the extreme libertarian ethos of the Internet — where everything is permitted, everything is for sale — is taken to its logical conclusion. The president of the United States is a former Miss Pennsylvania, who has a popular sex tape and presides over broadcasts of live executions. The top-rated show is “Crime Scene Superstar,” which lets the public vote for their favorite murder victims, crime scene photos and their sex tapes.

“That's contrasted with the main character's pure and profound love for his wife, which I thought made it interesting,” Sweterlitsch says.

It's fiction, of course, but just close enough to our reality to be disturbing.

“I don't think we're at a point where it's all amok,” Sweterlitsch says. “When that kind of clickability becomes first and foremost — the content providers are looking for a way to pierce right into the parts of a personality that are attracted to terrible things, which I think every one has.”

The prospect of endless, lifelike digital simulacra and unlimited hyper-stimulation seems like the perfect formula for addiction.

“The main character is addicted to his grief, junk food, his technology,” Sweterlitsch says. “One of the themes in this book was each character's search for a moment of grace, to escape, recover from the past. At the beginning, he's controlled by his past and memories. Part of the book is how he learns to live with that part of his personality.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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