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The Explorer by James Smythe
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[Spoilers.]

The Ishiguro is humanity's first manned voyage into the outer solar system, meant to inspire the human race into a new era of discovery and adventure after decades of political, economic, and environmental turmoil. "Adventure," the great polar explorer and overall killjoy Vilhjalmur Stefanson once said, "is a sign of incompetence." Or even, perhaps, malice. By page 14 of The Explorer, all but one of the Ishiguro's crew are dead. The lone survivor, journalist Cormac Easton, isn't looking too good himself.

The Explorer certainly seems brilliant, and I suspect many reviews and upcoming awards ballots will tell you so. I found it to be trapped in a loop of its own cleverness, unable to escape into a satisfying resolution or sense of higher narrative purpose. I won't say you shouldn't read it, because I think you'll find it provocative and hard to put down, which is all most of us want from a book. Whether you find it ultimately satisfying is debatable. If you do plan to read it, stop reading this review now, because I'm going to discuss my frustrations with it, and that will require revealing some plot points that, were I writing a rave, I'd leave for you to discover.

I've been irked by a number of books in which a compelling premise, executed with consummate storytelling skill, rooted in relatable characters and nearly unbearable suspense, all goes to pieces with an ending that seems either to miss the point, negate it entirely, or reveal that there never really was much of one. The Explorer is guilty of the last of those. Had it also not arrived in the wake of at least two Hollywood movies — Duncan Jones' Moon and Rian Johnson's Looper — that follow a similar premise, it might have had more in the way of originality going for it.

I'll lead with the platitudes. Londoner James Smythe's second novel is immediately gripping and reveals him to be a born talespinner who can evoke powerful emotions. He knows how people work on the inside, and how they choose which of those inner workings to hide, or reveal, on the outside. There's a propulsive readability to The Explorer that many spacefaring tales of its type lack, because Smythe doesn't come from that egghead hard SF tradition that requires the prose to be slathered in shop talk and technical minutiae. (Though Smythe does acknowledge a debt to Alfred Bester, among others, and The Explorer indicates we do have a The Stars My Destination fan here.) Its most compelling passages include those in which Cormac, confronted with the immensity of the universe before him, comes to the decidedly unromantic realization that space is a vast, lonely void...and not much else.

When death inevitably comes for Cormac, it ...doesn't. He finds himself back aboard the vessel, right at the moment the crew of six were to awaken from cold sleep. Hiding in trusty maintenance passages, Cormac watches himself, days younger, interacting with the rest of the crew. He relives the incidents that led to each and every death. At the time, what caused these were fairly mysterious. Seeing everything unfold again from a different perspective, he now knows what's happened, and why. The private space agency sponsoring this epoch-making mission has a hidden agenda that seems senseless at best, and psychotically criminal at worst, and I don't see how it could be anything but counterproductive to their stated goal of inspiring humanity to explore space. It could even be devastating to it.

A sense of profound injustice also propels the plots of both Moon and Looper. But in those films, you come away with the impression that the choices the protagonist is forced to make do successfully address, if not redress, those injustices. Where The Explorer disappoints is that it leaves you with no sense that Cormac finds anything other than a way to close his own loop, so to speak. And he does so without much of a character arc. There's not really a whole lot of inner growth for him to do. There's also no sense of justice for the rest of Ishiguro's crew, either.

Perhaps, in the end, that's the point. Life's not fair. The universe is a harsh mistress, cold and indifferent. But this is a crew victimized, not by their own hubris in thinking they could master nature, but by premeditated human malfeasance. And the deep space "anomaly" towards which the ship is heading, which hovers in the background of the story practically waving a sign proclaiming "Hello, I'm a plot device!" turns out to be precisely that. I suppose, in the end, what draws us to stories about characters facing their looming mortality head-on is that we want to be offered meaningful insights, whether about our place in the universe, or about those indefinable qualities that extremity forces us to find within ourselves. All that you really take away from The Explorer is the handy tip that if you plan to audition for a deep space voyage, you might first want to make sure the agency sponsoring it aren't planning to troll you.