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The Explorer by James Smythe

Stephen King in space?
I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I can't tell you. 

Instead, by way of a quick and, hopefully, tasteful introduction, what we have is a narrator aboard a spaceship, a herald of the vanguard of a new era of space exploration. He's a journalist, Cormac Easton, and was chosen from thousands to document the first true deep space mission, years after the last failed attempt to get to the moon again. His crew members are all handsome, diverse, TV friendly types, also hand-picked and seemingly perfect for the job. All goes well until they wake from stasis into which they're put to survive the G-forces of take-off.... 

Starting out, I had an inkling where this was going. Deep space missions, exploration; it's been a while since the first episode of Star Trek back in 1966 where the ship went off on a five year mission, from which they returned safely, eventually. Things have changed, audiences are less enamoured with the closed narrative loop (heh heh! a joke for those who've read this already!) and by the 90s, even The Next Generation crew were stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy rather than bombing about locally, galactically speaking. Now, when people head off into space you expect them not to come back, to blow up - Gravity notwithstanding* - or get detached from the ship, suits rupturing, heads-a-popping**, and spinning out into the blackness, all alone. Still not a spoiler, I promise!

What James Smythe does is set you up for a fall. He shows a monster early, in full colour, and you think, shit, is that it, is that what the horror is? He's played his hand too soon. How is he going to fill up the other 80% of this book and keep me interested? What I appreciate in an author is when he can slide up behind you and yank up the waistband of your underwear over your head and you're none the wiser until you're hanging from the gatepost by your tighty whiteys. It's all hinted at, throughout, very simply but in such a fashion that you think, nah, the tech guys are just dumbing down for the cameras, for the journo fellow, the one who's along for the ride and frankly couldn't understand what they meant if they told him anyway. I will say it is a tiny weeny bit of a sci-fi cop-out, but that really doesn't matter. Given the amount of reading he's probably done it was all but inevitable. There usually has to be an explanation - a sentient telekinetic ocean planet for example, or an ancient race of long-dead explorers and builders, or naughty alien oblongs. If it worked for Kubrick then what's not to love? In conclusion, then, I really rather liked this book, and the progression from his first, The Testimony, shows that he is developing significantly as a writer; he just may be a British*** sci-fi novelist to watch!


*Although they did kill off quite a few of the crew before - wait! I'm not here to spoil that film for you either!
**People don't actually decompress violently in the vacuum - that's a space-myth so I'm told.
***Welsh!

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