“The Explorer” by James Smythe – A Review

the explorer by james smythe(Harper Voyager, 400pp, hb £12.99/pb £7.99/eb £8.51)

This review was originally published in issue #246 of science-fiction magazine Interzone. You can buy back issues and subscribe to future issues at their shop.

Space is emptiness. Well, sort of. It’s certainly a fairly lonely place, vast and silent. It’s one of the most captivating features about it, and something which has inspired generations from astrologists to writers to small children looking up at the night’s sky – and more than a few of those reading Interzone, I’d wager.

It is also, incidentally, the fundamental theme of James Smythe’s novel “The Explorer”.

The novel follows Cormac Easton, a journalist who gets the dream opportunity to be part of the crew of astronauts on a boundary-pushing mission to go further into space than any person before. Predictably, it all starts to go wrong from launch onwards.

It’s not a particularly original concept, granted, but reading “The Explorer” it wasn’t something which particularly bothered me. It takes the somewhat bold move of practically opening the story with the rest of the crew already having bought the farm – Is that a spoiler? I’m not convinced something can be a spoiler when it’s written on the dust jacket. The immediate effect is that the whole first section is a first-person recount of the events leading up to that point, and Cormac’s lonely descent into infuriated madness.

And then it really gets interesting.

Smythe turns an effective and haunting novel about isolation into something altogether stranger and more involved. Whilst reading the first part, I doubted where it would go onwards, thinking perhaps it would be more suited as a short story than a novel. But, without wanting to give any real spoilers, the story only really starts following that first part.

It is not a novel without flaws. It was confusing – and confused – in places, preferring vague abstraction to giving the reader little grounding in the actual events taking place. There were also several references to things mere pages earlier with details that hadn’t occurred. The problem is that I was never quite sure if I’d found an error, or if it was a deliberate signifier of Cormac’s ragged mental state.

But the biggest problem I had was with the ending. A secondary plot element crops up right in the last chapter, and feels for all the world like an after-thought, an excuse. It would have been better without it, sticking out like a sore thumb – but the haunting impact of the conclusion was not ruined by it.

“The Explorer” is an odd little novel. Very thoughtful, and very introspective. There are a lot of ideas here buried within the prose at different depths, hiding amongst compelling characters and the slow reveal of their specific flaws and motivations. I would be lying if I said that I thought I’d understood the entirety. But I did enjoy it, and that has to be a mark in its favour.

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