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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 December 2015
Sci-fi isn't my thing but I'm happy to follow James Smythe anywhere, even into outer space... This is mind-twistingly gripping with the feel of Solaris and similar 'space philosophy' type books/films. I'd actually read the sequel (The Echo) first but that deepens rather than spoils the book. Highly recommended even if space isn't your thing: 4.5 stars.
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on 19 February 2013
This is my second review of this book. When the author contacted me about the review (justifiably, perhaps, because my tone was quite negative, and I'd stopped reading the book at 37%), I removed the review and said I'd write another once I'd finished the book. Here it is.

Just to make clear: I'm also a science fiction author. I rarely write negative reviews (I can only think of two times I've done that, among scores of positive ones) because being a writer is hard enough. However, given that Smythe is published by HarperCollins, given that I'm a paying customer, and given that writers are not in competition, I feel I have the right to review it.

So: My opinion of the book has improved since I wrote my original review. If you're struggling with it too, you should consider pushing on, because much of the good (i.e. insightful/interesting) material comes towards the end of the book.

Things I liked: The book has a nicely claustrophobic air; the major plot element (which I won't reveal) is interesting.

Things I liked less:

- The prose style. In my earlier review, I called this 'first draft', which was probably unfair. I would suggest that you read an extract of the book and see what you think of it; if you don't like the style, it will probably interfere fatally with your enjoyment of the book.

- The science. For reasons I can't quite be sure about, the science (i) as understood by the protagonist and (ii) as described by him is inaccurate. For example, the hull gets hotter as the ship passes through a vacuum, where the heat-induced friction would be minimal; the ship seems to lose forward motion when its engines are stopped; communications with Earth are described sometimes with a lag and sometimes without. I found all this very difficult.

- The plot. For me, this was too tightly focused on the perspective of a single character and I didn't find him interesting enough. Again, if you find him interesting in the extract, maybe you'll like the rest of the book.

- The protagonist. He doesn't do very much, and I found myself trying to work out why he didn't. This was frustrating.

Overall, this isn't a bad book. It has strong overtones of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Duncan Jones's Moon - if you like those movies, you might well enjoy this one, though I found that the comparison wasn't good for The Explorer. It is particularly introspective, so beware of this if the blurb gave you the impression (as it gave me) that the story will be more eventful.
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VINE VOICEon 16 April 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's really difficult to explain what's so great about this book without telling you the entire concept. It's about a spaceship hurtling in to deep space to inspire mankind, and how our storyteller, Cormac, quickly finds himself alone as the last survivor. So, as you can guess, it's not all lightsabers and one-liners - if anything, it has more in common with 'Moon', starring Sam Rockwell. It's meditative, contemplative, and takes you on a journey through Cormac's desperation, acceptance of his fate, even redemption, perhaps. Not for everyone, then, but if you stick with it, it'll definitely get inside your head and stay there.
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on 15 March 2015
James Smythe is a talented author - "The Machine" was one of my favourite books in 2014 so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Firstly the good parts...

It is an interesting story. I enjoyed the quiet dreamy claustrophobic feel to it, and the twists and turns along the way. It made me think about the ending for some time afterwards so it was successful in that respect.


The science in the book was sub-par. If you can manage to watch Hollywood sci-fi films without cringing then maybe you won't notice, but I expect more from sci-fi books where the author has the time to explain and not take short cuts.

Here is a quote talking about the space craft travelling in vacuum, "The engines have smaller engines facing the opposite direction that fire for a single burst to slow the craft down, otherwise the momentum would be tremendous and we’d never get to leave the ship. After they’ve fired, there’s a fifteen-minute wait for the ship’s hull to cool". I won't pick through that as I don't want to turn this review into a physics lecture, but if that kind of thing bothers you, then there is a lot of it in this book.

I'm going to read the next in the quartet "The Echo" with some trepidation; I'm really hoping James Smythe has had a science advisor look over the text.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Explorer is all about an internal journey, despite the fact that's its presented as a good old fashioned sci-fi yarn and employs one of the genre's most familiar and pleasingly paradoxical plot devices. James Smythe sneakily casts his protagonist away on a space capsule, and uses deep space exploration as a method to explore themes of isolation, claustrophobia, self-examination and the nature of human relationships. In olden days writers used to maroon their heroes on desert islands to get much the same effect...
The result is an extremely well written, multi-layered narrative, which snags the reader's attention immediately when the entire crew (bar one) of earth's most ambitious space mission drop dead in the first couple of weeks. However, it's then perhaps a little too successful in creating a tense atmosphere of nameless dread and stultifying ennui... I really struggled to care much during the middle section of the tale. It picks up again with a superb twist and a splendid series of revelations in the second half, but stumbled at the last with an ambiguous ending which generated something of a so what?' sensation (in me, at any rate).

So it's hard to rate The Explorer. In some segments it's a no-holds-barred five star story, beautifully rendered, poignant, subtle and stark. But the cumulative impression was rather less successful, and the finale left me feeling somewhat marooned myself.
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VINE VOICEon 26 March 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The author's first book, The Testimony was a thoroughly enjoyable and different debut and I had high hopes for this, his second book; I wasn't disappointed. The Explorer intrigues from the start. Having dealt with everything alluded to in the blurb within the first few pages I was left wondering where the story could possibly go. I won't spoil it by telling anything but suffice to say what unfurls is a highly imaginative and totally engrossing story, dealing with loss, despair, existentialism and good old fashioned scary sci fi.
There are no grand operatic sweeps, but they're not needed. Indeed, I particularly like the intimacy of this story, putting me in mind of films such as Solaris, and in places I was reminded of Ray Bradbury's wonderful book The Martian Chronicles (Flamingo Modern Classic)- not that this is obviously over influenced by anything- it's a very original plot, executed perfectly.
I am overjoyed to have got in "on the ground floor" with James Smythe's work and have already ordered his next, The Machine. Fingers crossed for a hat trick!
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VINE VOICEon 20 December 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a strange one.

It is a mix of SciFi (a ship launched to explore space, funded by private corporations, and the slowly revealed political tale behind this)


the love story as Cormac describes how his female partner reacted to his steady move from rank outsider on the voyage to actually going.

An engaging tale of a man's obsession which sees him become the reporter on this amazing voyage, and its effects on the partner, yes. But also, somehow it does not quite work.

Intriguing but also a bit frustrating, perhaps a few pages too long.

But not one to regret reading, rather a slightly flawed attempt at a complex and clever tale.
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The Explorer is the second James Smythe novel I have read. The first, The Testimony, was an unusually structured 'End of Days' novel, that opens with a mysterious voice being heard across the globe. Overall the novel is a slow-burning, thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith. It is utterly compelling. The Explorer is very different yet equally captivating.

The premise is simple. Set in the near future, a manned spaceship is heading away from Earth and beyond the moon. It's boldly going to a galaxy far far... No it's not really, but it is heading deeper into the Solar system than humankind has ever been before. It is on the ultimate voyage of discovery.

From the outset this book confounded my expectations. I knew bad things would happen to the crew, but I had envisaged Smythe would treat us to a science fiction 'And Then There Were None'. So it was a great surprised when by page 11 all the crew, bar one, we're dead. How was Smythe going to fill another 250 pages with only one character? Well that, of course, would be telling.

Smythe has woven a taut psychological thriller, that draws on fear of the unknown and the debilitating effects of isolation. Once again, the author has opted for a quiet thoughtful approach rather than create the bombastic explosive story that lesser authors may have chosen. Smythe's control of the tension is, by and large, spot on. 'The Explorer' is reminiscent of Stephen King's early short fiction.

In the latter half of the book, the pace ebbs slightly, and as with 'The Testimony', I couldn't see how proceedings could be brought to a satisfactory end. I need not have worried. The novel's conclusion is expertly constructed, and the denouement jaw-dropping. It's the closest thing I have seen in literature to a 'Sixth Sense' type reveal, that will have you thumbing back through the book, to check all the pieces were there. I can assure you they are, and you won't quite believe you missed them. Things are even left open for a sequel, and such is the open nature of the tale, it could be taken in any number of directions. I can't wait to see which one the author chooses.

If The Testimony marked James Smythe as an author to watch, then the Explorer demands that he is one to follow. An excellent novel.
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on 10 December 2015

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.
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on 10 December 2015
The Explorer is a book that stays with you.

It starts with the disaster having occurred; the crew of an exploration mission to space are dead, apart from our protagonist, and he's not much of an astronaut. It slowly adds in the background to the mission as he journals how the rest of the doomed mission continues, to the inevitable end. This sometimes goes a little slowly, and Cormac, the survivor (and The Explorer) is not always the easiest person to get along with. As the novel continues, though, he certainly gets hold of you and you'll feel all manner of emotions towards him, whether they be anger, frustration, sympathy or, ultimately, pity.

Just as the start of the book was the middle of the crisis, the end of it all is only the middle of the book, and in some ways the beginning of everything. In this latter half, Smythe shows us how the mission went wrong, why, and more and more of the psyche of our unreliable narrator (who, to be fair to him, is not always unreliable on purpose!). It also gets a bit weird, but in a good way.

There were points in this book where I wondered whether or not I was actually enjoying it, but it's a book that really stays with you. The reveals that come at you throughout the latter half are fascinating and a a well-performed take on a sometimes popular SF trope. Yet even when it seems like you're on familiar ground, there is always a way that the rug can be, if not pulled out from under you, then at least slightly twisted.

I was torn between 4 and 5 stars, and had I reviewed it right after finishing the book, it would possibly have been 4. It's thinking back on it now that I appreciate it a little more, and it does really well to capture the loneliness of a sole survivor an impossible distance away from anyone else, and the decisions he ultimately has to make. That longevity just gets it over the line.

As an aside, there's a fantastic second book called 'The Echo', which I would also recommend, but this works perfectly well as a stand alone novel, and would be just as excellent without any follow-up.
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