Travels with Cormac: In Search of the Universe’s End

A review of James Smythe’s The Explorer by Simeon Ben

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 […] As the body count begins to rise, Cormac finds himself alone and spiraling toward his own inevitable death . . . unless he can do something to stop it.

After reading the blurb (posted above) on the back of James Smythe’s The Explorer, you might be expecting a fairly conventional science fiction thriller/horror — a ship, a crew,  a mission to travel further away from home and deeper into the vastness of space than any human being has gone before, and the inevitability of it all going terribly, terribly wrong — but, while the story certainly borrows themes and plot elements from the many doomed space-missions of SF past, The Explorer is a little different in ways that can be perceived as either delightful or sacrilege depending upon your perspective of what a SF novel should be. How’s it different? Unfortunately, that’s a question not easily answered without spoiling the ride, because much of The Explorer’s charm is derived from the text’s ability to surprise the reader, in spite of the inevitableness of the situation, through an evolving first-person narrative fueled by a cocktail of twists, turns, and reveals potent enough to make even Mr Shyamalan himself blush. But, considering much is revealed from the get-go, I can say this: all the crew have died or will die except for the protagonist, journalist Cormac Easton, who realizes early on in the the story (in the first sentence of the first chapter actually) that he likely won’t be returning home. All of which makes one wonder (I sure did) how can a book, that hangs its hat on the unexpected, surprise the reader when so much has been determined in the early stages?

Considering that I mentioned Shyamalan, you might be thinking: “Cormac was really a ghost the whole time,” or “okay, I got it: it’s not really the future at all, and the whole mission is being played out by a brainwashed, drugged-out cult in a broken-down school bus somewhere in the cornfields of Nebraska,” but both of you hypothetical people would be wrong.  The shape of story is much more quirky, humorous, and subtler than all that; less of a series of heavy-handed Hollywood-twists (though some are abrupt) as if contorting a poodle from a balloon, and more of a progression of unique perspectives of the same, seemingly straight, storyline.

Another element that distances this novel from what one might expect from a SF space mission, an element (among others) that has drawn quite a polarized response from reviewers on both Amazon and Goodreads, is the rather small, sometimes completely absent, role science and technology plays in The Explorer. The book claims to be SF and is marketed as SF, so, as you might expect, a lot of SF aficionados read the book expecting it to be science fiction which The Explorer is, but, at the same time, is not. Before I completely lose you in a mire of long-winded and contradictory statements, let me explain:

The Explorer is set in the future on a spaceship in space.  How much more SF can it get right?  But, because the story is told through the point of view of Cormac, a journalist who is ignorant and illiterate when it comes to the science and technology that surrounds him, and because the ship, whose only controls consist of a big on/off button, is a crude, vaguely described tin-can seemingly guided by an early-model iMac, The Explorer falls short for SF fans expecting the speculative technological elegance of a Starship Enterprise or the sophistication of a Discovery One. Does The Explorer at least explore interesting regions of space? Are there planets, stars, supernovas, ET hitchhikers floating by outside the windows? Well, no, not really, the outer-space that Cormac explores is mostly incredibly dark and infinitely empty.

By now you may be wondering: why even set the story in the future and in outer-space at all if there’s nothing remarkable about the technology of the ship, nothing outside other than “just black with specks and sparks”, and a crew that’s mostly killed off by sentence one? And, if the story’s journey is merely introspective, couldn’t it have just as easily been told by a lonely bloke with a flashlight and cellphone hiding out in a dark closet somewhere, and saved all of us true SF fans the time and trouble?  Those are all valid questions whose answers will vary depending upon who you ask and how they define a good science fiction story. As for myself, though I too appreciate a technologically sexy spaceship, I enjoyed how the story focused on the psychological and philosophical aspects of space travel more heavily than the scientific and technological.  And, though much of what The Explorer actually explored hardly needed a spacecraft to reach, the setting and the situation (the vast emptiness of space, the lack of gravity, and the claustrophobia and loneliness associated with actually being surrounded by absolute nothingness)  added tension and allowed the writer the freedom to create some wonderfully interesting scenes told from intriguing, often times absurdly comical, perspectives. 

The Explorer is what it is: a story about a man and a ship on a collision course with destiny. Did the narration sometimes feel as drawn out and monotone as a flat-lining heart monitor?  Did the structure rely a little too much on gimmick and tricks of literary sleight of hand? Were there moments that were unbelievable or that skirted with breaking the laws of physics?  Yeah, there’s all of that, but following Cormac’s droning, increasingly neurotic narration on his journey from point A to point B, from one dementedly hilarious moment to the next, was simply entertaining and really a whole lot of fun. So yeah, the book’s not perfect, but perfectly likeable anyway, and I’m genuinely interested to see how James Smythe follows up this astral odyssey in his forthcoming sequel, The Echo, when it’s released early next year.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Explorer-James-Smythe/dp/0062229419

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/18/the-explorer-james-smythe-review

http://james-smythe.com/

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