Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: 'The Explorer' by James Smythe

At last an excellent science-fiction book courtesy of the Amazon Vine programme. Here's my five-star review as posted.


First to die was Arlen, the jovial, paternalistic first pilot of the expedition: a stasis-pod failure, apparently. Then the team dogsbody, Wanda, some impossible suit malfunction while space-walking. The third was Guy, the German scientist - a heart attack, surprising in an astronaut. Next was Quinn, the second pilot - fell over and smashed his skull; so how did that happen? Emma, the team doctor seemed to go mad and is now sedated, back in her pod. So it's just Cormac Easton, the team journalist, wandering the ship and wondering if - as planned - the vessel is actually going to turn round and go home.

And so we reach the end of the first chapter!

James Smythe tells the story first-person, through a journalist with negligible scientific training. This imparts a dreamy, surreal quality to the mission: the location of the ship is unclear - sometimes it feels like it's flying between constellations although it's clear that the mission is actually confined to the solar system; communications with Ground Control are haphazard and plagued by interference - Easton thinks this is just what happens in space; the journalist doesn't really understand what happens when the engines go off - does the spacecraft lose its momentum, start to slow down?

In creative-writing classes they tell you that the problem with first-person narrative is that you don't easily find out what happens in scenes where the narrator is absent. Well, not here: through an ingenious science-fictional device, we get a second chance to review everything which has happened from an extraordinary angle. As we learn more about the characters' back stories and the training and selection process (told in flashback), the rounded, complex and bizarre truth of the expedition is gradually revealed. In the climax Easton is presented at last with a clear choice.

I wondered why the author wrote this book. Was he concerned with deceptive, manipulative institutions? Is he really concerned to analyse the sociological concept of 'exploration'? For me this is a book about the character of the journalist Easton himself. Smythe takes a typical, intellectual, easily-recognisable professional man and then proceeds to flay him bare and watch his reactions. The result is scarily true to life, not very flattering to those of us who can identify with Easton, but ultimately rather heroic.


Warning: the strength of this novel is anchored in the journey of the journalist Cormac Easton as he begins to unravel the many mysteries of the voyage. This is not a story where advance knowledge of the plot helps at all, and I would recommend the reader to avoid any spoilers (which are thus-named for good reason) in other reviews.