The moment. And after. That tingle, and fade. The presence of wonder, but later, its pale shadow... Turning the last page of James Smythe’s 2012 The Explorer, ideas flashed through my mind of the positive things I would say, where the novel succeeded, the reasons for the strong impression. But by the time I sat down to the keyboard to write, the impression had shifted. What I thought was full, breathing content had transitioned. Mesmerized by fine, literary style, what had glittered subtly became a little spotty. A fine structure exists, an ambitious work that took talent and time to create, a swathe of suspense is built, but what was actually created? Is it essential? Is it significant? Is there something that transcends the text?
Like Stephen Donaldson’s Gap into Conflict:The Real Story, Smythe sets a major challenge to himself at the outset of The Explorer: to tell the tale in a chapter or two, beginning to end, then settle in to really tell the tale. A journalist, Cormac Easton, is selected to document the voyage of the Ishiguro. A joint corporate effort to renew mankind’s interest in space by sending some of us further into the black void than we have ever gone, Easton awakens from cryosleep to discover the captain is dead in his capsule. In the days that follow, the other crew members also start dying, leaving the journalist alone on a ship hurtling through the bleak emptiness of space. Power supply, life support, mental stamina—everything drawing to a critical head as the limits are tested, Easton awakens to find himself… on the journey, again.
The devil, they say, is in the details, and in the case of The Explorer, the repeat journey is true—in more than one way. The intricacies of the relationships of the crew members, getting behind the scenes to see what went bump in the night, and truly digging into the skull of Easton—laying bare his guilt, ambition, and self-doubt—seen the second time around show the undertow causing the waves. Everything gained for it, Smythe pulls off the ‘retelling’ with flying colors.
And the biggest influence is the prose. The Explorer shines like a fresh matte photo. Its style, one engaging and equivocal sentence at a time, builds narrative momentum, and just doesn’t stop. A little human quotidian realia missing to truly flesh out the characters, they nevertheless exist as independent entities, with their own fears and slights under Smythe’s guidance. Completely, at times compellingly, readable, the plot closes on a subtly transitive note that takes everything that has come before in a direction that will surprise most readers, but not be such a head-spinner that will stupefy with disbelief. Looking back through the story, the reader wil say, oh yes, it was all there.
Presentation-wise, The Explorer transitions from Stanislaw Lem to J.G. Ballard to Stephen King. The setup is philosophical, the character outlay which follows paranoidly psychological, and the fate of it all subtle horror. That Smythe links this horror to the psychological state of Easton is the novel’s saving grace—not in redemptive terms, rather ideologically. A very dark conclusion, the mood and atmosphere built to that point fully manifest themselves in a fashion the master of horror, Mr. King himself, probably could not help but approve of and makes for fine symbolism—nihilistic, but artistically proper.
And it’s precisely this devolution into nihilism that caused The Explorer’s to pale so quickly in my mind. The novel’s sense of style, its word by word intrigue, its underlying sense of urgency—to keep reading, to get to the bottom of Easton’s situation—flash greedily. But the after image quickly fades from the mind’s eye upon learning that the ideal was for naught. This is not to say all texts should have redemptive value, rather that abandoning the philosophical outlay prevents the text from transcending its own bounds. A more specific way of putting this is, the novel’s foundation appears ideological, but upon its conclusion is more egotistical.
In the end, The Explorer is a work of—get ready—literary science fiction horror. Not an oxymoron per se, for the strength of its prose, the creative character study, the daringness of structure, and the keen sense of mood cannot overcome the relative cheapness of the climactic reveal—symbolically apposite, certainly, but irrelevant to anyone save the fictional Cormac. A very dark book that in fine style dissects the mind of man trying to escape drowning in guilt, and oh so readable, I remain on the fence about the overall import, but do not regret reading it in the least.