The Explorer by James Smythe (2012) 265 p.

I picked this up because I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying James Smythe’s two-years-and-running project at the Guardian in which he is re-reading every single Stephen King novel. Without that, I doubt I’d even have heard of him, so once again we see how all this extra stuff writers do to pay the rent (and, of course, for their own interest) does contribute towards a wider readership.

The Explorer is set in the near future and follows narrator Cormac Easton and the voyage of the Ishiguro, an exploration vessel heading out into interplanetary space. Cormac is a journalist, selected to join the crew because the entire thing is more or less a PR exercise; a way, as Cormac repeatedly reminds us, to rekindle a passion for space travel in the human race. The Ishiguro actually has no aim beyond just going out there, further than humans have been before, and then coming back. That’s a little sketchy in my opinion, but never mind, because when the novel opens all of the other crew members have died in various accidents and Cormac is the last one left.

The Explorer is not exactly a hard science fiction novel; Cormac’s cluelessness stands in for Smythe’s and for our own, and we don’t get so much as a description of the ship. (There were also far too many “panels” and “crates” full of “spare parts” for my liking – not to mention a ducting system full of convenient, plot-servicing vents.) Neither, however, is it pulp science fiction. It’s what would generally be termed a “literary” novel, with most of it revolving around Cormac’s relationship with his other crewmates, extensive flashbacks, and various neuroses. Cormac’s narrative style (and I’ll call it Cormac’s, because I’m not sure if this is how Smythe normally writes fiction, or if it was a device to serve the tone) is excessively wordy; almost rambling, in fact, and focusing far too much on the minutiae of physical actions. Here’s a totally random example:

I quickly loosen the straps on another crate, behind where I am, and slide under that, watching the shadows made by the light outside the room as Guy approaches. I stay totally silent as I hear the door slide across, Guy heaving it, locking it open. He grabs the box he’s looking for, drags it toward the light from the hallway, peels back the lid and rummages.

There’s pages and pages of this sort of thing. It’s also seriously depressing. I get that this is necessary for the tone, but Cormac spends what felt like half the novel ruminating on his life of regret, even before he got on a doomed spaceship. There is no sense of humour, and any sense of joy or amazement at the cold splendour of space feels hollow. One could easily argue that this is an appropriate tone for a novel about a lone survivor in a claustrophobic environment, but here’s the thing: what the novel says it’s meant to be about and what it actually feels like it’s about are vastly different. Cormac rarely lets a chapter go by without rabbiting on about how important space travel is; how important it is for humans to explore beyond their safe harbour. There is no doubt in my mind that these are Smythe’s own sentiments (and my own, for that matter). He is clearly disappointed by the scaling back of humanity’s ambition in recent decades, and wishes we could see a more fast-paced exploration and colonisation program, like we did in the 1960s; not just that, but he’s also clearly disgruntled by this lack of passion and believes it reflects a paucity of spirit and imagination in modern civilisation. These points are repeated too often throughout the novel for the author’s intent to be mistaken (and, again, I agree with him 100% about all of this).

Why, then, he chose to make The Explorer an examination of just how hostile and unforgiving space can be – physically and mentally – is puzzling. The conclusion of The Explorer almost seems to suggest that we should stay where we are, and be grateful for it; to discourage curiosity and exploration. It’s a very mixed message.

Throughout much of The Explorer I kept comparing it to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Both of them are English science fiction novels with the clash of danger and exploration at their core, but I felt that Beckett’s novel was more successful in balancing and reconciling these conflicting themes; The Explorer, on the other hand, is a less compelling read and fails to achieve a satisfying resolution, and also fails to attain the same desired sense of claustrophobia as Dark Eden. (Another interesting comparison is that both authors got stiffed by their cheapskate publisher on the second imprint, turning vital black covers white just to save on ink.)

This is overall a fairly negative review. But on the other hand, The Explorer received mostly favourable reviews in the press, and my own enjoyment of Smythe’s non-fiction writing at the Guardian means I will not give up on his fiction entirely. I have no desire to read what is apparently planned as a quartet (The Explorer’s sequel, The Echo, was released earlier this year) but I will keep an eye on what he writes in the future.

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