By Khaleel G.
As a genre, science fiction can be daunting to new readers. For some, the size of the books can threaten one’s attention span and bookbag; for others, the density of the language, with strange technical terms and invented rules, can be as repelling as a tractor beam in reverse.
But fear not, gentle reader! Sci-fi is such an incredibly wide field, with myriad sub-genres within it, that there’s a story for any reader. I’d like to highlight two novels, both of which deal in the manipulation of time and space, but with enough flavor, tone, and character writing to carry you all the way to the final page.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch seems initially like a crime thriller. Jason Dessen is on his way home from work, through the streets of Chicago, when he’s abducted by a stranger, who asks him, “Are you happy in your life?” After being knocked unconscious, he awakens, surrounded by strangers, all welcoming him back into a life he never lived.
Any adult has those idle moments, wondering about what might’ve been – if they’d taken that job, or if they’d stayed with that person, or if they’d had the chicken instead of the fish at that one dinner, that one time. For Jason, that train of thought becomes real and absolutely alien. In short order, he realizes that this is a parallel world to his own, where he made a slightly different choice in careers…which resulted in his alternate self creating dimension-hopping technology. No biggie!
Worse yet, in this world, Jason didn’t marry his wife, and they didn’t have their child. Once these stakes are established, the novel fully becomes a thriller, as Jason struggles against the forces of man and physics to get back to his world and family.
The story bounces between worlds upon worlds, Jasons upon Jasons, but we never lose the plot’s thread. The mechanics of parallel worlds are clearly established, and the rules are not confusing. By the end of the book, those rules have been pushed to their limits, but the pace and tension of the plot kept me engaged, absorbing the science-y bits alongside the emotional ones. The intertwining of those two strands – the emotional and the scientific – was so effective, I read this book in two sittings. It is THAT captivating!
On the other end of the space-time continuum, The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch explores time travel, but differently than other related tales like Back to the Future. Back in the 80s, a secret division of the US Navy discovered time travel, using it to explore and discover new futures. The book properly begins, though, in 1997, as Shannon Moss is working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. A Navy SEAL’s family has been murdered in West Virginia, and a girl has gone missing. What seems like a heinous but human crime is revealed to be much more, as Moss investigates ’97 and years, and decades, beyond.
The Navy’s time travel system doesn’t operate by popular rules, like Marty McFly’s “go back to 1950 to make sure your parents meet” sort. Instead, a person is sent only into the future, from that particular and exact moment in time. The future they experience is a sort of bubble, one in which all events played out exactly as they were set up at that moment of the time traveler’s departure. If this sounds confusing, rest assured that Sweterlitsch explains it far better than I. Like Dark Matter, the book lowers you slowly into the science, letting the human drama lead the pace.
In practice, time travel allows Moss to jump decades into West Virginia’s future, when neighbors and witnesses are more amenable to talk about this old, grisly murder. It also means that Moss can see how the world changed in her absence, as her family and friends think she simply disappeared. Astoundingly, the story takes place almost entirely within West Virginia and surrounding areas, as Moss bounces between 1997 and various points in the future; this grounds the story in a gritty reality of detectives, seedy motels, and criminal hideouts, not unlike its genre sibling, True Detective.
Did I mention there’s also this looming apocalypse in the future, called “the Terminus?” And in every possible future the Navy’s travelers go to, it’s still there, destroying Earth – and with each time travel leap, it seems to be arriving sooner? So while the main thrust of the plot has roots in Appalachia and crime fiction, there is still Deep Time, lost Navy starships, bizarre future evolutions of mankind, amid moments of time itself bending and cracking – all under this looming, seemingly inevitable threat.
Sweterlitsch combines snappy character writing, attention to detail, and readable action sequences to make this rather thick book into a page-turner, one that kept me up deep into the night to get to the next twist. It is a mix of grisly murders, police procedural, and cosmic horror – and I haven’t read anything quite like it elsewhere.
The Gone World is smart and complicated, while also a non-stop thrill ride; its finale left me (as all my favorite books do) suddenly returned to my own body, yet my mind refused to stop and leave the story. Over the next few days, I would return to re-read sections, and I’m contemplating another read very soon (perhaps the audiobook from Overdrive?).
And that’s the magic of great sci-fi! The story can be about space armadas, alien princesses, time travel, or dimension-hopping – it doesn’t matter, as long as the author can wholly transport the reader into a world that’s different, but still human. As long as it leaves you in a state of wonder.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch are available in print from HCLS, and in eBook (Dark Matter | The Gone World) and eAudiobook (Dark Matter | The Gone World) from Libby/Overdrive. Dark Matter is also available in CD audiobook from HCLS.
Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.