PrintE-mail Written by P.M. Buchan

Review: The Explorer / Author: James Smythe / Publisher: Harper Voyager / Release Date: January 17th 2013

My crew died one by one. My name is Cormac Easton. I am a journalist, and, I suppose, an astronaut.” A dark meditation on the fragility of the human psyche in the face of the unknown, this is the story of how mankind reignites the space programme, funded by a conglomerate of corporate sponsors, and of the consequences for the crew. Narrated by a technically unsavvy journalist named Cormac Easton, it's a tale that prioritises the human elements over the science, and succeeds spectacularly for doing so.

The entire premise of the book is revealed in the first sentence, which initially gave me the impression that the author had overplayed his hand and couldn’t possibly entertain me for the subsequent 263 pages, but the truth is that this was one of the most gripping novels that I've read in 2012. Reveal after reveal challenged what I thought I knew about the cast and their fates, and I found myself compelled to read on, completely gripped by Cormac’s cruel situation, which includes some tooth-spitting body horror, a la David Cronenberg.

Something about The Explorer reminded me of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Too few authors take the time to really examine the consequences for their protagonists of the hell that we put them through, but Pohl and Smythe both do so brilliantly.

The characters are utterly believable, occasionally likeable, and their interwoven lives feel tangible and real. The premise of the exploratory space mission is a great one and captures that near-future feeling that this is less speculative fiction and more a glimpse into next year’s news. The paradox that drives the plot is neat yet enigmatic, and although a lot of questions are left unanswered at the novel’s end I didn’t care one bit, because Cormac Easton’s story was resolved with style.

Dread, claustrophobia and unease permeate this imaginative, bleak masterpiece. The Explorer was easily my favourite sci-fi novel of the past year, possibly my favourite of all time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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