One of the outstanding book memories of my 2012 is James Smythe’s The Testimony – a technothriller built upon an extraordinarily intriguing and exciting concept and executed in the most original manner. Hot on its flaming heels is The Explorer, a science fiction novel that is set worlds away from The Testimony but is still packed with the same atmospheric oomph. This time, though, we are in space and it is at its most claustrophobic and dark.
Cormac Easton is a journalist who happens to be an astronaut. Put into space without knowing much about the science, Cormac’s task is to record the voyage for audiences at home during these days when space exploration has to have a financial or PR purpose. And, as everything begins to go horrifyingly wrong, we the reader also benefit from Cormac’s skills as an observer. He is our eyes and ears, his fears become ours, and the fact that he is talking to us, or to himself, intensifies the smothering sense of isolation.
In parallel with Cormac’s description of his experiences in space, we are made witness to flashbacks from Earth, revealing clues to the nature of his relationship with his wife Elena as well as background to the voyage and to the other members of the crew of the Ishiguro. No characters are static, perceptions of some change completely, and few situations are limited to one interpretation. It’s not just Cormac Easton who is the explorer here.
The Explorer is not a long novel, making its number of twists, turns and puzzles all the more astonishing for their abundance. To describe any of it would do a disservice to the novel and reader. Suffice to say that it will keep you reading into the night. The mix of the mundane – as mundane or normal as life can be aboard a vessel in space – and the unexpected is thrilling. There are few places where horror is as horrifying as it is in space. James Smythe conveys that perfectly. He has also created a very clever narrative, mixing senses, playing with our perspective and upsetting our preconceptions. I’m glad to report that there is also room for heart – some of the developments gave me such a jolt.
The Explorer is more polished than The Testimony but I couldn’t help wishing it were longer. Fortunately, there is a sequel to come although not before another original title to get excited about – The Machine. James Smythe is one of the most thrilling and original young authors around these days. We’re lucky to have him.
Incidentally, what a fantastic cover. I think it’s my favourite of the year although, as the kindle release is in 2012 and the hardback release is in 2013, the year is debatable.