James Smythe’s second novel takes a familiar science-fiction circumstance and gives it an unexpected tweak. It proves to be one of several surprises in THE EXPLORER, a brief (under 300 pages), but often engaging story.
Cormac Easton, the near-future narrator, is a journalist who has been chosen to be part of the first manned mission into deep space. His job is to interview his shipmates, then send the videos and other reportage back to Earth to keep the public informed and interested.
In the novel’s bleak opening pages, however, we learn that Cormac is alone on the ship. The captain and the other crew members have died over the past several days, and the ship’s fuel is running dangerously low. Overcome with loneliness and fear, Cormac makes a desperate move just before the fuel is completely dry.
But his action has an unexpected result that allows Smythe to provide the more detailed backstory of the mission. So throughout the next several chapters, we learn about how Cormac applied for and was eventually selected for the mission, and the damage this caused to the relationship with his fiancée. We also learn more about the doomed captain and other crew members as they interact with Cormac and each other, and express their thoughts both during Cormac’s interviews and more intimately when the camera is off.
Smythe infuses these moments with a subtle, but consistent sense of futility. The crew is a fascinating and diverse lot, and each came to the mission from equally diverse careers and backgrounds. Yet while we learn more about and become involved with them, we are reminded of their sad, inevitable fate.
Running parallel to this is the theme of exploration itself. We learn early on that one of the unspoken goals of this mission was to revive the general public’s interest in and support of space exploration, which has withered over the past years due to failures and decreasing funds. Yet, as some crew members express, exploration has always been part of our history, and might very well be what also makes us human. There are moments, however, when we wonder if this sentiment is genuine or merely part of their mandated script.
So what begins as the final expressions of a lone, marooned survivor becomes a story of shifting relationships, allegiances and related psychological challenges in a forced and dangerous setting. Admittedly, Smythe’s sudden narrative device is a bit hard to swallow at first, especially with its slight supernatural ambience. But this apprehension is quickly forgiven, thanks to the convincing characters and Cormac’s continuing observations of everyone and everything.
This slim novel is likely to get lost among the higher-concept and technologically advanced space operas that crowd the science-fiction shelves these days. Still, there is much to enjoy and be surprised at in THE EXPLORER. This makes exploring a bit more for it worth the effort. —Alan Cranis