There’s plenty to love about James Smythe's most recent novel, The Explorer, the story of Cormac Easton, a journalist launched into space as part of a team aiming to go further into the unknown than anyone ever has before. Their journey is to be "a voyage to rival Columbus, to rival the stories of Jules Verne" (p. 88). And indeed, the exploration motif is front and center throughout the novel, a rhetoric which is seemingly a direct response to the recent scaling back of manned space travel. The romance of exploration is perhaps hammered in a bit too hard, buffeted by a few too many flowery paragraphs explaining humanity's history of exploration and the idea that exploration is part of human nature (which sounds especially clumsy in dialogue), but it’s a welcome attempt to literalize a sentiment which often gets lost in all the science. Cormac, who is vocationally a writer rather than a scientist, is the perfect character to take on this role. Cormac's presence on the ship is predicated on his ability to tell the story of the expedition, to package it for the eager audience back home, and the novel itself can be read in that manner, too, much like a captain's ledger in the days of exploration by sea travel: a chronicle of exactly what happened, and exactly what was found.
The group of explorers accompanying Cormac are aiming to restore the sense of wonder, originally generated by the astronauts of "books and television and movies" which eventually "became real; but those conceits created with the first image of a man traveling beyond the bounds of Earth, and heading towards the stars, those have stayed. The astronaut is alone. He drifts through space. He explores. He discovers" (p. 101). So, too, does Cormac, even as disaster continues to befall his fellow crew members, each of them dying one by one in vague or mysterious ways, eventually leaving him utterly and irrevocably alone, his mind occupied primarily by regrets about his relationship with his wife, Elena (whom he left behind on Earth), along with suppositions about his legacy following what seems to be his inevitable death. Cormac also continually returns to the imagery of pop culture to describe the purpose of his adventure; his narration is riddled with mentions of "the stuff of sci-fi movies and books" (p. 10) and speculation about how any particular moment might be played out in the movie version of his story. He also spends a great deal of time imagining how the failure of their mission might be received back on Earth if the ship indeed ends up being lost in space:
There are so many possibilities, each of them worthy of a movie. We made first contact, and are in another galaxy, being tortured, or prepping an invasion force. We exploded, and now orbit the Earth as chunks of what we were. Somebody in the crew got Space Madness and killed everyone else. We had a hull breach. We crashed into a moon, an asteroid field, a spatial anomaly that nobody had factored in, or seen before—we made a discovery! We popped a fuel cell, ran out, we're adrift. We never left Earth, and it was all a cover-up, our launch filmed on a sound stage. (p. 17)
These possibilities are trotted out early on so as to divert the reader from the narrative's actual trajectory, which will ultimately go in none of those directions, at least not explicitly. The obsession with popular media, though, also serves to situate The Explorer in a tradition of space travel novels, driving home its originality by reminding us of what other writers have done before, and then proceeding to take a different path. This is one of its great successes: we're left guessing until the end (and a little bit, unfortunately, afterwards) as to what exactly is actually going on, and what kind of story we're reading.
We meet Cormac only after his crew is dead and he's accepted the fact that he'll never go home again, so the narrative momentum is generated solely by his narration, his memories, and his insights into his current circumstances. But he proves to be good company. Smythe is an expert at weaving flashback into the present day narration and ends up painting a vivid picture of each character, intricately spinning a web of detail which deepens further with each chapter. Even as Cormac floats listlessly alone through space, we're given more and more insight into his relationship with each of his crewmates and the individual stories about how they each came to be here in the first place. By the end of the novel, what seemed at first to be an amicable group of colleagues is revealed to be a complex and complicated collection of individuals thrown together in some of the harshest and bleakest of circumstances. This is part of the pleasure of the novel: the slow, calculated reveal of information, the layers of story gradually accumulating. The flashback convention also allows Smythe to reveal the unreliability of Cormac's narration, showing us things which he seems to have forgotten, especially when a sudden plot twist (after he resorts to desperate measures) puts Cormac back once more at the beginning of the voyage, watching everything happen all over again—including watching himself. "This is exactly the way it happened the first time," Cormac tells us from his hiding place as he watches the crew, as well as the alternate version of himself, once again go through the motions of the early days of their expedition, "and yet, isn't anything like I actually remember it" (p. 90). The unreliability of memory itself becomes a subject in The Explorer, this idea—returned to over and over again—that we tend to see what we want to see and are willing to ignore the early warning signs of inevitable tragedy.
And so begins the main action of the novel, which is by turns a time travel story, a horror story, and a deeply science fictional space adventure story, but also a quiet, claustrophobic examination of one man's grief and regret. Left with little else to do, Cormac looks back at his life and recognizes a potent mixture of mistake and heartache, punctuated with bittersweet moments of happiness and fulfillment, and tries to make sense of it all. The deaths of the crew members, dealt with almost incidentally in the first part of the novel, are revealed to be much more complicated than they seemed at first, and Cormac's involvement in each of them—the new Cormac, the Cormac who has already been here before—is complex and artfully wrought. He's trapped in hiding, knowing that to reveal himself would create a panic, but the act of watching his friends die a second time takes its toll on him, both physically—he feels like "an animal, caged and boxed and limited in his scope, and desperate to break free but totally unable" (p. 218)—and mentally—"I'm having trouble with my tenses, sometimes. Is this now or then? It’s so easy to get them confused at times like this" (p. 243). All of this while he contemplates what went wrong with his relationship with Elena back on Earth, missing her and agonizing over her, endlessly writing letters to her that she’ll never see.
While the layering of the internal and external, the then and now, is mostly handled delicately and with an experienced craftsman's tight control, one major reveal—having to do with Elena—comes out of nowhere, calling into question the integrity of the narration: this isn't something Cormac would've kept from us this long, and definitely wouldn't have been able to keep from himself, and the fact that we find out so late diminishes what should be an emotional moment of reflection, creating instead a feeling of falseness, the unfortunate reveal of the man behind the curtain. Still, that doesn't keep the narrative from being any less riveting. While Cormac was clueless the first time around about what was actually going on, why everyone kept dying or why the ship didn't turn around at half-fuel and head back to Earth as expected, his discovery the second time around of the reasons for all of these occurrences is captivating, deftly building upon what came before with an impressive level of care and nuance. This is very much a character arc of innocence to experience, and the innocent, naïve Cormac of the novel's early pages (one which he later observes, shocked at his earlier ignorance of things that seem obvious to him now) is gradually replaced by a hardened, despairing narrator, one for whom the veil of the world has been lifted and all he can see out the window is an endless darkness.
The novel's final section, however, suffers from a lack of incident. Cormac as narrator spins his wheels as he waits to see what the meaning of all of this will be, endlessly regurgitating the novel's main points: the theme of exploration, the false naiveté of its characters, his regret about everything that happened with Elena. "In the movie of this, assuming that anybody's still watching, that anybody has stayed in their seats and dug in for more popcorn, this is the scene where I pace up and down a room, working through ideas, dismissing them or scrawling them on a giant blackboard" (p. 243), he tells us, clearly aware of the lull in a narrative which until now has been tense and expertly paced. As old Cormac watches new Cormac, both of them bored silly, both of them waiting to find out what happens next, we can almost see Smythe writing these pages, wondering how to properly resolve the situation he's created. These are moments in fiction better left off-screen, better reduced to montage, something sports movies understand implicitly: who wants to watch those muscles develop over time? Despite these flaws, The Explorer is ultimately a worthwhile and provocative read, by turns riveting and captivating, insightful and heartbreaking: an essential contribution to a genre not often infused with such originality, and an apt introduction to a writer who is bound to become a great talent.
Publication of this review was made possible by a donation from Meghan McCarron. (Thanks, Meghan!) To find out more about our funding model, or donate to the magazine, see the Support Us page.
Richard Larson's short stories have appeared in Subterranean, ChiZine, Strange Horizons, and many other venues. He also writes film criticism for Slant Magazine, in addition to reviewing books for Strange Horizons. Visit him online at http://www.rlarson.net.