The Explorer by James Smythe
This brilliant novel’s beginning happens near the end of the story…
Cormac Easton is the only remaining living astronaut on the spaceship Ishiguro. Cormac is not even a proper astronaut – he’s a journalist; his part in the team is to observe and document the voyage, to blog and film and send the footage back home.
Their mission was to go into deep space, the deepest manned mission ever; then they would turn around and arrive back home heroes. That was the plan, so they thought, but it starts going horribly wrong.
‘They died one by one, falling off like there was a checklist. First to go was Arlen.’ …
‘Second to die was Wanda. We called her the Dogsbody…’
‘Guy was third. He was German, and that wasn’t his real name.’
‘Quinn was next to die; and with him, it became almost funny, …’
‘Emmy died – I use that word, but, really, maybe it’s not that bad, maybe there’s something can be done, I don’t know – only hours after Quinn.’ …
‘All that I’ve got up here is tranquillity now, I suppose.’
… and those lines are all picked out from the first chapter.
As Cormac contemplates his lonely predicament, we learn how the team was selected and how all their different personalities meshed and irritated in equal measure. We find out how the multinational mission came about through corporate sponsorship – it’s the only way to get a ‘proper space programme again‘. Everything was branded, they will eat McBars.
We also discover how much Cormac misses his wife Elena, they had parted on bad terms but he still loves only her. He spends his days grieving for his lost relationships, lulled into passivity and unable to do anything.
We wonder what really happened, and what’s going to happen. We will find out – but I’m not going to tell you!
Although this is a science fiction novel, it’s not about the science, it’s character driven, and that turns it into a first-rate psychothriller. Despite the infinity of space, the atmosphere in the ship is intensely claustrophobic right from the start. Initially we’re in dark about what happened as much as Cormac is, and as we only hear his voice, we have to question him too. It was totally gripping, in the same way that the film Moon was.
As with most works of speculative fiction, you do need to embrace the fantasy elements of the setting. I’m no astrophysicist, but I don’t think all the scientific details worked; however, I didn’t let it bother me for this is a profoundly human story and I loved it. (10/10)
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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Explorer by James Smythe, pub by Harper Voyager, Jan 2013, Hardback 266 pages.
Moon [DVD]  starring Sam Rockwell, dir Duncan Jones.