The Explorer by James Smythe
When journalist Cormac Easton is selected to document the first manned mission into deep space, he dreams of securing his place in history as one of humanity’s great explorers.
But in space, nothing goes according to plan.
The crew wake from hypersleep to discover their captain dead in his allegedly fail-proof safety pod. They mourn, and Cormac sends a beautifully written eulogy back to Earth. The word from ground control is unequivocal: no matter what happens, the mission must continue.
But as the body count begins to rise, Cormac finds himself alone and spiralling towards his own inevitable death … unless he can do something to stop it.
Despite trying and failing to read James Smythe’s previous novel, The Testimony, last year, I still really wanted to read The Explorer as soon as I heard about it. Space has always been a subject that fascinates me so I couldn’t say no to reviewing it, and for the most part, I’m glad I didn’t.
I started off somewhat hesitant, unsure as to whether or not I’d like it considering I didn’t get on so well with The Testimony, but what I remember most about that book is that despite all the reasons that I found for not finishing it, I can still respect James as a writer with some truly intriguing ideas. The Explorer is certainly no exception here. If there’s one thing it excels in, it’s within James’s ideas.
The idea of a space mission gone wrong isn’t exactly original, and you may even read the blurb and expect something of the sort, but nothing could possibly prepare you for the bizarre twists it takes along the way. I can’t say too much for fear of ruining it for potential readers, but it does leave you in slight awe for how even James could get his head around his own ideas, let alone us readers. You know from the blurb that this journalist, Cormac, embarks on a space mission with a crew of astronauts who one by one, begin to die. But James is exceedingly clever here, his twist allows him to explore the circumstances of each death in a way I’ve never seen done before. It’s an unsettling and claustrophobic read but you will get to a point where it becomes so intense that you can’t quite put it down. The feeling of loneliness, and complete and utter hopelessness pervades every scene in the book, and I ended up feeling terrified for this little band of people, and in particular, Cormac, who willingly embark on this journey to realise their dreams, to become nothing short of unforgettable. Sadly, they have little idea as to what awaits them, and the fact that you as a reader know this, is almost unbearable.
But despite all the wonderful ideas and themes explored, it’s not without its flaws. To begin with I started to remember what it was I didn’t like so much about The Testimony. The style of writing often feels very journalistic in a way that becomes a little irritating within a novel. Now obviously the story does revolve around a journalist, so I tried to see past it, but there really is something about his style that doesn’t quite agree with me. Like The Testimony there is also a tremendous amount of repetition that had me skim-reading for a few pages here and there just trying to get to the good stuff. There was an awful lot of flashbacks to Cormac’s past involving his wife, and I grew really, really tired of these, and felt there were far too many of them. I can understand that the story needed fleshing out a little, but I would have liked to have seen a little more space exploration rather than character exploration.
A fellow blogger told me that the ending blew him away, and I suddenly became very excited to see where this bizarre story would end and what Cormac’s fate would ultimately be. Sadly I felt nothing but frustrated by the ending, and wondered what I’d missed. I even re-read the last page just to be sure. There is a definite lack of answers and I couldn’t help but feel slightly short-changed.
Having got over most of the frustration, I am now able to look back on The Explorer and think of it as a gripping read with some great, yet bizarre ideas, that worked for the most part but failed in others. I would have even rated this four out of five if it wasn’t for the really frustrating ending. In a strange sort of way, James excites me as an author and there’s no doubt that his ideas intrigue me. I feel like he could write something really ground-breaking one day, but I have yet to say I’ve read anything of his that I’ve really enjoyed. Almost, but not quite.
The Explorer is out now, published by Harper Voyager. A big thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.
- The Explorer by James Smythe – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Outside Space and Time: The Explorer by James Smythe (tor.com)