THE EXPLORER by James Smythe

THE EXPLORER - James Smythe THE EXPLORER

James Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Harper Voyager (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/voyager/Pages/Voyager.aspx)

£12.99

Released: 17 January 2013

My name is Cormac Easton. I am a journalist, and, I suppose, an astronaut.

In the middle of the twenty-first century, man strives, once again, to further his knowledge. Turning once more to space, the vessel Ishiguro is launched, its purpose simple: to take man further from Earth than he has ever been, and return him safely home. It is a mission designed to re-kindle humanity’s natural curiosity, and to usher in a new era of space exploration. When they awake from the stasis in which they have spent the first few weeks of their journey, the crew discover that their pilot is dead, his bed somehow malfunctioned. Four of the remaining five crew members die, one by one, over the course of the following few weeks, leaving a single survivor: Cormac Easton. A journalist, his sole purpose was to document the trip, and he has none of the skills that his fellow crew did. All he can do is sit and wait; wait until the Ishiguro reaches its furthest point and turns back towards home.

Regular readers may remember that I read and reviewed James Smythe’s debut novel, The Testimony, last year. So it was with no small amount of trepidation – and a certain amount of excitement – that I sat down to read this, his second offering. The Explorer, on the surface, takes Smythe into a completely different genre, this time into the realms of hard science fiction. What we discover as we read, is that space, the isolation offered by a deep-space vessel, and all the other trappings of the genre, are little more than the backdrop for an intense and often surprising character study.

It’s impossible to talk about too much of the plot without giving everything away, so in the interest of avoiding any spoilers I’ll be as vague as possible, while still hopefully conveying some sense of the gist of the story. At the centre of things stands Cormac Easton, the lone survivor on a weeks-long deep-space flight. As the story opens, Cormac gives us a brief overview of how his crewmates died, and we watch boredom and insecurity set in as he spends most of his days staring at control panels, unable to do anything to change the ship’s course. Luckily for the reader, the boredom never breaks from the confines of the page. From the opening sentence, we’re hooked, drawn into the story in a single, masterful stroke that guarantees we will still be on board at the final page.

One of the first things I did when I realised that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again; let me wallow in it, swim around in missing them as much as I could.

Cormac, it turns out, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. As Smythe expands on the brief overview we are given at the novel’s opening – without ever breaking out of Cormac’s character – we quickly learn that this man is not exactly all that he seems. As we watch his humanity and sanity slowly dissolve in the loneliness of space, and with the help of flashbacks detailing how he secured his place on the mission, Smythe hits us with a number of revelations, each packing more of a punch than the last, and each renewing our suspicion of our narrator, making us question his motives, his sanity, his whole story. There are similarities to, and themes shared with, the likes of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lem’s Solaris, but The Explorer manages to be completely original and Smythe always manages to retain the upper hand with the reader, moving the plot in the opposite direction to the one we expect or dropping a bombshell that changes the very nature of our relationship with Cormac, never letting us get too comfortable with the proceedings, or too close to a working theory about what’s going on.

Smythe’s second novel delivers on every level. It’s an intense and quietly horrific ride that keeps the reader hooked throughout. Literary science fiction that still manages to be cinematic in scope, The Explorer succeeds where The Testimony failed: it carries through on its early promises and presents a satisfying conclusion worthy of what has come before. Beautifully written and cleverly constructed, The Explorer establishes James Smythe as one of Britain’s best young writers. Don’t let the scifi tag deter you: what you’ll find behind that beautiful cover is a must-read for all lovers of great fiction.

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