We’re reading THE EXPLORER by James Smythe

12 Apr

Leigh Alexander drifts free of her comfort zone:

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The Explorer
James Smythe

Harper Voyager, HB £12.99

Among the most interesting things about James Smythe’s The Explorer, a novel that on the grand scale is about the naivety of the human love affair with space exploration, is that it reveals its ending in its very jacket summary: its crew will not survive.

The lone survivor, journalist Cormac Easton (the name transparently a nod to other existential road-trippers), is the sole documentarian of the ill-fated grand adventure. Even though his decision to undertake the long journey came at the expense of his marriage, he’s ultimately one of just six crew members plucked from a rigorous selection program to journey outside the solar system aboard the Ishiguro – the first trip of its kind.

Its purpose is familiar to any space-program romantic: a lavish tribute to the pioneering bravery of humankind, an act done in worship of our fascination with the black unknown. The Ishiguro’s job is simply to go further out into space than any manned exploration has ever travelled, then turn around.

The Ishiguro never does turn back. Easton is the only one left, alone with a diminishing fuel gauge, an inexplicable, anomalous error message, and the bodies of his fellow travellers, running out the end of his life as hope slips further and further away. He whittles down his time reflecting, remembering, and engaging in the bleak ritual of survival in a confined space.

Smythe renders bleakness and claustrophobia brilliantly, and communicates with delicate restraint the tragedy of man confronting the impossible, law-defying and mind-bending expanse of outer space. The unknowns of the universe are so terrifying that many people turn to earthly religion to deal with the fear; The Explorer is glutted with that quiet terror as its protagonist has nothing to do but think about it.

We do more with the novel than to wait for Easton to die, though. No spoiling here, but the mysteries of the universe do come to enact a slow, terrible revenge on the Ishiguro. Reading the novel is a slow and often unpleasant slog through the dread of the inevitable and the futility of hope, but it’s also an interesting reflection on human nature and our relationship to the unknown. Ultimately it’s tedious to read, but in a way that may be intentional, and is certainly thought-provoking.

Buy Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins to read Leigh Alexander’s essay on platform-agnostic gaming, “Three Ways to Play the “Future””.

And look out for James Smythe’s essay “Rise of the Engines” in the new edition of Arc, coming soon.

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