With Halloween on the way in just a few days I have saved telling you about ‘The Explorer’ by James Smythe in case you are hankering after a book that will chill you and is a little different from you average tale of horror, as it is in space, but will quite possibly horrify you all the same. After all, I don’t think any one of us would like to be left alone floating through space would we? I know I wouldn’t, which is part of the reason I found this book so terrifying though I am jumping the gun a bit.
I’ve thought about killing myself, but something stops me. Just think, it says, you’ll go further than anyone else has ever been. You’ll see deeper into space than anybody else has ever seen. You’ll make history. ‘But nobody will ever know,’ I reply, and the something doesn’t say anything back to me, just sits there in the dark. I take my place in the front of the ship and decided to ride it out.
I don’t normally start my thoughts with a quote but this was on the back of my edition of ‘The Explorer’ and I think it marvellously sums up the feeling of the book and where we are at as it opens. We are in the head of Cormac Easton a journalist who has been selected to join a crew of astronauts as they head into the deepest parts of space as yet to be reached by man and document it. Think Big Brother, only not every night and with the whole world watching, along with a website brimming with interactive blogs and videos and that is what Cormac has really been sent to create, the story. As things pan out, and we know this from the first line, something has gone horribly wrong and Cormac is heading out into the furthest parts of space but everyone else is dead and he has no way of turning back.
Now if everyone is dead, there is no way of getting home and all you have is Cormac sitting alone waiting to die himself, however that might happen, you might think that there isn’t really much story to tell from the off. You would be wrong, like the slight sceptic inside me was. First of all there is the ‘how on earth (well, how in space) did the other members of the crew all die. This of course leads you to pondering just what sort of a person we are in the head of, clever Smythe, clever. As it goes on though any possible working out that we try to do is completely undone as Cormac relives the days leading up to where he finds himself, both on the mission and before it.
Then, secondly, as Part One of the book ends and Part Two begins Mr Smythe does something that will totally mess with your head, quite likely make you shout out ‘what the hell?’ and then gives the book a whole new twist and, erm no pun intended, dimension to it all. What that is I am not telling you as I think you should go and buy the book and find out yourself you cheeky toe rags.
What I can tell you is that I thought ‘The Explorer’ was brilliant and I don’t really do sci-fi novels as a rule. I was thinking about how to explain how Smythe manages to make the book unravel forwards and backwards all at once, as the novel goes on we get more of the back story and some twists and turns in that shocked me in all sorts of ways. It is like when you drop a spot of ink and it slowly spreads on the paper in all ways, you have the central point/premise and as the book goes on it spreads in both directions making a bigger and bigger picture. That is what Smythe does with the book, only it seems linear as you are reading. If you understood what I meant there then well done, you speak Savidge.
The writing is also marvellous. This isn’t just a pulp ‘lost in space’ novel. Cormac is a wonderfully complex character who your opinion will run the whole spectrum of emotions. You will love him; sometimes you might loathe him, which is what makes him fascinating. The same goes for the rest of the crew. They might be dead at the start but as we read on and discover Cormac’s past, and through him theirs, they emerge and are just as complex and flawed as Cormac is, as indeed we all are as humans. I have to say I think that ‘The Machine’, if I am going to compare Smythe’s novels which it seems I am, has a slight edge on this one as it has more of an emotional impact overall, I found ‘The Explorer’ a very wrought book emotionally too along with the thrills, spills and chills. Also who knew anyone could make deep space and nothingness a character?
One of the first things I did when I realized that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again; let me wallow in it, swim around in missing them as much as I could.
Along with the emotional elements Smythe also straddles the fence between literary fiction and genre he did with ‘The Machine’. This is at its heart a sci-fi novel of a space adventure gone awry, but it is also a story about a man alone looking back on his life and the things he has done. I also think it is a ghost story of sorts, why that is I can’t explain for fear of spoilers though. If I am also looking at it ‘deeply’ I wonder if, as ‘The Machine’ made me think Smythe was looking at memory and Alzheimer’s, ‘The Explorer’ is also a book about madness and mental health? Who knows, maybe he will enlighten us; there is that edge to it though.
Once again though James Smythe has brought me, as a reader not personally, a novel which not only tells a gripping, horrifying and tense story but also packs a punch emotionally, blows your mind a bit and makes you think a lot about it, and life, after you have read it. It also made this slightly sci-fi sceptic reader completely lost in outer space, so should you be wary of the genre this might be a good place to start. Lots and lots of reasons to read it really, even if you think it might not be your usual fare, give it a whirl. Highly recommended, could there be two Smythe novels in my books of 2013 later in the year?
If you want to know/hear more about ‘The Explorer’ you can hear myself, Gavin and James himself, talking about it on The Readers here. Be warned – there are some spoilers towards the end when we are joined by Rob and Kate of Adventures with Words.