The Explorer

The ExplorerJournalist 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.

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16 Responses to The Explorer

  1. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Teresa – you must carry on and read ‘The Echo’. Although you don’t get the shock of the first book, what happens is even deep and twisted, and moving too… Glad you loved this. I persuaded my book group to read it, and they mostly hated it (even the hardened SF readers)!

    • Teresa says:

      Alas, my library doesn’t have The Echo, but I’ve requested that they order it, so we’ll see. If they don’t get it, I’ll get my own copy.

      I was trying to remember where I heard about this, and I think it must have been from your blog, so thanks! I can see why it wouldn’t be for everyone–it gets pretty slow at times–but I found the situation too interesting to not enjoy.

  2. Oh, I have this and am looking forward to it now! I read his other book The Testament and really enjoyed it.

  3. Naomi says:

    This is making me think of The Martian, which I liked because of the survival aspect of it. Now I am curious to know how they compare.

    • Teresa says:

      I have The Martian on my library hold list! I heard about both of them around the same time, I think., and was interested in both for the same reasons.

  4. From the point you’ve gotten to now with the quartet of books (which seems to be: finished with the first one), do you think that possibly Easton is going to be that much lauded but rarely well-handled literary beast, the unreliable narrator? I mean, what’re the chances that he’s going to have had something (as it turns out “later on”) to do with those deaths, either intentionally or unintentionally, mainly or marginally, straightforwardly or tangentially? It does make me wonder….

    • Teresa says:

      Cormac’s unreliability is pretty well explored in this book, although I don’t want to divulge too much about it. He is definitely unreliable, but he’s not always lying. And the way his unreliability is handled is mostly effective, although it’s pushed too far in one instance, This book does answer your questions about his possible role in the deaths, but there are aspects of why things happened as they did that have yet to be explored. Based on the descriptions of the next book, I suspect the rest of the quartet will be about different people investigating the same place and experiencing phenomena that could throw further light on what happened to Cormac and his crew.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Oh, I’ve not heard of this but you make it sound so very interesting!

  6. I wanted to space out my reading of this and The Martian (which I read this month), so I’m saving The Explorer for a little later in the summer. But I’m excited to read it! I love an author who can lay groundwork well for future plot payoffs.

    And I’m right there with you on risk. I gouged an enormous hole in my hand a while back trying to get open a bottle of tonic water. I swear they are making screw-top bottles harder and harder to open. :p

    • Teresa says:

      I was impressed when I reread the first chapter to find that a twist that annoyed me was hinted at there. It still annoys me, but groundwork for annoying things is better than no groundwork. It reassures me that the author is in control of the story.

  7. I need to read this and the fact that this is part of a series makes it even more appealing to me.

  8. I’ve been sticking close to my huge TBR bookcase lately, so I’ve read very little written after 1995, but I’m starting to feel like I’m missing out. I should go back to adding books mentioned on blogs to my library hold list like I used to do. This one sounds like fun. It also sounds like the movie Moon, I think that’s what it was called, about a lone man running a base on the moon and what happens when things begin to go wrong. It’s an excellent movie if you haven’t seen it. Gauranteed to keep you from wanting to explore the moon. ;-)

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been trying to get at least some of the books I see mentioned on blogs from the library soon after seeing them mentioned, and I’m finding it fun to read them while the conversation is still happening. I just commented on your blog that I’m looking at getting ARCs again for the same reason–to be part of the conversation while it’s happening.

      I’m going to look up Moon on Netflix right now!

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