on 10 December 2015
With each of his books, James Smythe finds a new way to delight and to horrify his readers. In The Explorer, the fear - and the tension - and, indeed, the conflict - is rooted in claustrophobia. Without giving too much away, Cormac is a journalist on the jaunt of a lifetime: accompanying a crew into deep space. But, as we learn very, very swiftly something goes horribly wrong - everyone dies except Cormac, and he destroys the ship (and himself with it).
The stage set, the rest of the book is about interrogating the course of events. Cormac is an unreliable narrator - ignorant (thankfully, I can't stand diamond-hard SF, and was delighted to have a character-focused narrative), self-loathing and a bit of a (no pun intended) wreck. But not all the 'wrongness' is in his head - or is it? This is a book where the entire universe seems to align itself in conspiracy against a single man.
Like Smythe's other work, The Explorer isn't your traditional science fiction - it is high concept, and certainly it isn't "real stuff", but the book is less about exploring scientific ideas than the range of human emotions. From moments of desperate triumph to long periods of indescribable loss, Cormac's situation pushes him to every possible limit. Comparisons to Star Trek, The Martian and other space operas are almost criminally misleading. (If you're sticking with SF, aim for Moon or 2001 - but the best comparisons are probably more like Memento or Donald Westlake's gloriously dark Memory.)
This is - by no means - a light book, but it is an excellent one.
on 10 December 2015
VAST SPOILERS FOLLOW
The journey lies at the heart of science fiction, one of the few pieces of connective tissue that transcends medium. Star Trek’s original name was Wagon Train To The Stars, novelists like Iain M Banks and Neal Asher experiment constantly with the ways society can be pushed to evolve as we move out to other worlds, every given SF action movie is either about the journey to understanding or to the final punch up with the bad guy, which usually involves the thing we’ve just understood exploding in the background. You can even apply it to games, where everything from Dead Space 3 to It Came From Outer Space revolves around the Scylla and Charybdis of understanding the universe and not being driven mad by that understanding. The journey is the story and the story is always about the journey. Or to put it as Battlestar Galactica so succinctly, and chillingly did; All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The Explorer, by James Smythe embraces both the journey and the repetition. The journey, here is one of the crew of the Ishiguro, a team of scientists and pilots, as well as a blogger, who have been detailed to go out as far as they possibly can, to plant a flag for humanity at the furthest point of egress out of the solar system and then return home. The trip is a challenge, a symbol, a dare to the rest of history to rise to the Ishiguro’s achievement and surpass it. To boldly go.
The trip is one way. The trip is a sacrifice, a group of astronauts placed on a celestial altar, a new pseudo pantheon to stand next to the poor benighted first cosmonauts, the crew of Apollo 1, the crew of STS-26 and the crew of STS-107. A group of people standing, smiling, around a mission patch. A floating tomb, hurtling along out into the dark.
The reveal of the true nature of the mission comes around the halfway mark in the novel, and it changes the tone of everything you’ve read before and everything you will read after the scene. The idea is so perfect, so simple that just for a second you can see why it was done; a crew of orphans and the lonely, none of them with family ties, all of them dedicated to the cause. Spacesuited martyrs, saints in flight suits. But look closer and you can see the horror of not only keeping it from crew members, but of telling them. Guy and Wanda, the two who know are torn apart by the knowledge, Wanda killing herself and Guy succumbing to a heart attack. Neither of them have family, both are over achievers, Guy even deliberately sabotages the ship so it can’t be returned home and yet both of them break. Why is the journey not its own reward?
Smythe suggests it’s because the journey is defined by the destination. Guy and Wanda know there isn’t one and die as a result, but Cormac, the blogger, does nothing but travel to set destinations throughout the book. The first is the trip itself, something Cormac throws himself towards because it’s something he hasn’t done before, a literal call to adventure, if not a last hurrah then shortly a penultimate one. He works his way through the training with the sort of detached charm that comes from not quite believing you have a chance of winning and finds himself on the crew. It’s only then that the novel gives Cormac’s journey a starting point as well as a destination, and in doing so reveals why he, a married man, is on a crew of single, childless, orphans. His wife killed herself when he got selected and he blocked it out.
Trauma does different things to different people. I’ve been brought completely low by it and I’ve carried myself through months of horror whilst still maintaining good social relations with most people. The strain showed from time to time, but I never let myself see it, and crucially, never let myself see how much stress I was under. This happened several times in my life and, certainly for the first one, the death of my best friend aged 17, I’ve come to realize I wasn’t fully conscious for several months. You simply turn the lights off and lock the doors of rooms in your mind and stick to the areas where the lights are bright and the music is a little too loud. You fall back from the world, you take a step away to guard your own emotional wellbeing. Cormac survives the trip because this is exactly the space good journalists operate in; being a camera, living next to the story rather than in it. The mission becomes a job, and the job, for any creative is so easy to lose yourself in. For Cormac, working with the most important people in this section of human history it’s even easier. They’re doing great work, they’re boldly going. And so is he. That distance evolves to the point where he forgets that his wife is dead, and on his first experience of the plot, is charming, amiable, slightly useless. A camera with a mouth, racing towards the destination of a story filed, a half-way point reached and a journey home to something that stopped existing before he even left. He’s no longer just a journalist writing a story, he’s a journalist who is both part of one and sustained by another, boldly going towards very dark, very personal territory.
Smythe expands this idea, of critical distance from your own life, to its logical conclusion by having Cormac witness his own death and then…wake up back aboard the Ishiguro. The horrific chain of accidents that killed most of the crew are revealed to be his fault, as Cormac, badly injured, emaciated and terrified of being discovered, becomes an audience for the first half of the novel being repeated. Suddenly Cormac is so far out of his own story he’s sitting in the audience, trying to stop things happening all over again and only making sure they do. The journey has come to an end, which is also the start, and suddenly we see the story unfold with everything that Cormac assumed, or overlooked, the first time laid bare. We discover Wanda kills herself, that Guy has sabotaged the ship, that Emmy and Quinn are in a relationship and extremely aware that Cormac, who was also briefly involved with Emmy, is not quite right. What we see, as Cormac witnesses the final events of his life over again is not just the clean, polished for Mission Control narrative of the first half but the warts and all portrayal of a man distanced not just from his story but his life, his emotions and his ability to feel. Cormac continually notes his own odd demeanor, how his voice is either too quiet or too loud, how he obsesses over pictures of Elena. The relationship that develops, even though the two versions of the man never meet , is almost that of an abusive child and parent. The first Cormac is alone, traumatised, almost constantly weeping. The second, who has lived through what is ultimately revealed to be a time loop at least a dozen times, is embittered, angry, unable to wallow any more. Both are united in the belief that something needs to be done, after all, journeys reach their destinations, stories end. The only difference is in the choices they make. The first Cormac decides to kill himself, blowing the ship apart as he does so to die in the vacuum of space. The second Cormac, despite having lived through the terrible events aboard the Isihiguro over and over, wants him to live. The name of the ship, I suspect, is particularly significant in this section. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go comes particularly to mind, on any number of levels. Cormac’s inability to leave his wife truly behind, or his one night stand with Emmy. More tellingly, the novel’s theme of immortality at a price is echoed here, albeit with a time loop rather than cloned organ donation but most tellingly, I keep thinking about the title. Never Let Me Go. Cormac endlessly watching the movies and blogs he’s made about the crew, living in the past, not letting the dead rest. Per ardua ad astra.
As the book finishes, again, we see Cormac watch Cormac decide to kill himself and the ship start to fly apart. We also see the spatial anomaly that the ship has been heading towards all this time, suddenly looming in front of the disintegrating cockpit. Cormac has two choices. He can choose to push the first Cormac into the anomaly, thus dooming both men to experience the Isihiguro’s voyage, from both perspectives, again. Alternately, he can grab Cormac and throw him clear of the anomaly into the depths of space and certain death. A repeated story versus a definitive ending, with the scars of a dozen failed attempts to save his own life making it difficult for Cormac to stand straight. The explorer has come to his destination, the blogger has reached the end of his story, the journalistic distance can be measured, at last, in the feet between the cabin and the anomaly. Forward lies life and repetition. Behind lies death and the unknown. The choice is so absolute it’s no wonder that Cormac takes so many runthroughs to reach it, but, like all good writers, he finally does. He ends his story, stopping himself from entering the anomaly and in doing so, becoming much more than a horribly traumatized man completely unaware of how he’s hurt, or a makeweight journalist on the world’s grisliest publicity stunt. After an entire book of the joy of exploration being curdled, Cormac is given a few seconds of perfect, total silence with himself and the universe. One last saint in one last flight suit. One last explorer.