Journalist Cormac Easton is entirely and completely alone, and he’s going to die. The spaceship he’s on has malfunctioned, and his crew mates are dead. “They died one by one, falling off like there was a checklist,” Cormac writes. There was the pilot who never woke from stasis. A suit malfunction during a space walk. A heart attack. A fall. Madness. And now the autopilot isn’t turning the ship around when it was supposed to, and Cormac doesn’t know how to change it. So, Cormac realizes,
That was that: I travel forward until I run out of fuel, and then I use the life support—a week, maybe, given that it’s just me, if I breathe in shallow breaths and then rely on the spare O2 tanks in the external suits—until I run out of air, and then I die. In many ways, it’s calming, knowing that it will probably happen: I remember reading something in the papers years ago, an article about a journalist who knew that he had cancer, knew that he was going to die, and said that it eased him. He moved on, and his family moved on as well. There were rumors that his wife started dating before he was even dead, because that’s what he wanted. Not everybody reacts that way, but he did: he found a tranquility in it.
All that I’ve got up here is tranquility now, I suppose.
All of this happens in the first chapter of James Smythe’s The Explorer, the first in a planned quartet of novels. (The second, The Echo, was published earlier this year.) Despite being out in space, the most open space imaginable, this is a claustrophobic book, not just because we’re stuck in the ship but because we’re stuck in Cormac Easton’s mind. He was on the mission to share its story with Earth, and so he shares its story even though, the more time he spends thinking it over, the murkier the story gets.
I don’t want to reveal much about the plot, except to tell you that the book has one. It’s not just a dying man’s musings on life and death. There are flashbacks, for one thing. And Cormac’s own present day is not entirely tranquil. The story never becomes an intergalactic space adventure or anything like that. It’s a guy on a spaceship, but there’s some weird shit going on. I mean, come on, all those deaths? Even if each one is easily explained, there’s gotta be something going on. The action of the book, such as it is, involves learning what brought all this about. But only sort of—there are still three books left.
Cormac, while not necessarily likable, is a suitable guide to what’s happening. He doesn’t know that much more than we readers do about the science; he’s there to chronicle the experience, not explain the science that made it happen. As a person, he’s maybe a little bland, but I think he’s meant to be an everyperson, at least at first. As the book goes on, his character becomes more complex, and his earlier blandness itself comes under scrutiny.
Being in Cormac’s head means we’re limited to his perspective, but events that happen in the book allow us to see more, and we learn that Cormac, of course, isn’t entirely reliable. It’s not always clear when it’s a problem of ignorance or of memory failure. In one case, I found the unreliability entirely implausible, a sign of something that would almost certainly have kept him off the mission, even given what we learn about the nature of the mission. Mostly, though, Smythe handles the revelations well, planting clues that pay off later, or showing scenes from different angles and changing the character entirely.
I have a weird fascination with stories of adventures gone wrong. I think they justify my tendency to be completely chicken-hearted about anything that looks physically risky. I find daily life risky enough, thanks. (I’m not kidding, either. This month, I burned my finger in my own kitchen to the point that I couldn’t bend it for almost two weeks.) I’m also interested in space exploration, so this was a natural fit for me. And it’s a good book—a satisfying mix of psychological drama and mind-bendiness. It feels like realistic fiction, except that realism looks different when you boldly go where no one has gone before. Maybe the world doesn’t work the same way when you step outside its boundaries.