The Explorer by James Smythe is quiet, dark book which focuses on the dark and quiet of space. There is not much else that can be said about the book before this review starts needing a flashing neon "spoiler alert".
But here are the basics: It takes place on a spaceship, the story's told from the point of view of British journalist Cormac Easton, the "science" is of the hand-wavey variety and everyone is dead by page 44. If you like science fiction that uses the impossible scenarios afforded by non-existent technologies and situations to explore the depths of human psychology –- in this case loneliness, despair, mourning, hubris, helplessness –- then The Explorer is your kind of book.
Minimal spoilers ahead…
The book is in many ways a murder mystery, like one of those Agatha Christie books where the guests at an English country house are knocked off one by one. Except there's no one to call together the survivors in the drawing room and implicate the killer –- there is no drawing room, and no survivors. And while the set-up seems similar to 2001, rest assured there are no evil computers.
The crew of the spaceship Ishiguro, a public/private partnership between DARPA and corporate backers, is set to travel farther than any other humans. It's meant to be a there and back sort of trip to generate excitement, which means the inclusion of the relatively useless journalist, Cormac. He is supposed to be blogging and recording the whole trip, and does so even as things go horribly wrong.
At last he is alone, in a ship he can't pilot and trying to read computer warnings he can't understand. All he can do is wait for his death. The story follows, surprisingly linearly, the story of the crew and Cormac recalling exactly how he and the others were chosen for the mission. Cormac's desire to join the mission puts him at odds with his wife and he faces some serious personal fallout over it. As book goes on, the reader learns more about what actually happened to the crew and the various characters' agendas.
The book is interested, almost solely, in answering the question, "How did we get here?" How did the crew get so far out in space? How did this or that individual die? How did the crew get chosen for the flight? How did Cormac end up so alone? How did Cormac end up in his situation at all? As the book explores these topics, the truth -– sometimes surprising, sometimes obvious –- comes out. The book also wants to explore the topic of explorers. There are numerous considerations of what exploration means or why people want to be explorers, epigraphs from Cook, and a deft comparison between the Antarctic explorers R. F. Scott and Lawrence Oates is presented as one character's motivation. It could easily be the motivation for the whole book.
Because Cormac is a writer and the story is from his point of view, there are quite a few literary moments in the book. Cormac describes how the movie version of their trip would play out. He imagines the lives they would lead if they returned home. Sometimes we see his blog posts, and sometimes he just tells us how ridiculous the blog posts are. The book's own awareness of itself as written word parallels nicely with Cormac's own growing awareness of himself. It does have moments that seem overly precious -– a lovely commentary on the end of printed books seems out of place in world of warp drives, making me wonder just when the whole thing was supposed to take place –- but over all, it added some interesting thematic richness and felt true to the character.
Ultimate Spoiler Alert...
This is only being mentioned because this is somewhat high on many people's "I can't stand when..." list. Cormac learns so much about the other people on the ship and himself by watching them. He's watching himself, because after he dies a second version of Cormac appears on the Ishiguro, living in a time loop. This creates several time paradoxes, which Cormac notes. If you don't like time travel paradoxes or time travel books that are not about time travel itself, this is not the book for you.
The Explorer is being billed as a thriller, which seems not quite right. It certainly has moments of claustrophobic dread and near the end it speeds through its plot admirably. But the beginning is slow and it seems too literarily self-aware, too introspective, too passive, too close to being a meditation to be called a straight-up thriller. It may not be a flashy book (or a scientifically accurate one), but it is a fascinating character study that could only exist in a science-fictional world.