Fresh Meat: The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer by James Smythe is a science fiction thriller set in deep space (available January 2, 2013).

When journalist Cormac Easton is selected to document the first manned mission into deep space, he dreams of securing his place in history as one of humanity’s great explorers.

But in space, nothing goes according to plan.

The crew wake from hypersleep to discover their captain dead in his allegedly fail-proof safety pod. They mourn, and Cormac sends a beautifully written eulogy back to Earth. The word from ground control is unequivocal: no matter what happens, the mission must continue.

But as the body count begins to rise, Cormac finds himself alone and spiraling toward his own inevitable death . . . unless he can do something to stop it.

To start: the crew of the Ishiguro all die. Arlen—the first pilot—dies when his stasis bed malfunctions. Tech Wanda “Dogsbody” gets a tear and she doesn’t make it back from a walk outside the ship. Guy has a heart attack. Quinn’s head breaks against machinery in a freak accident. Emmy, the doctor, is sedated and never wakes again. Cormac sits alone with a computer he doesn’t understand. And that’s just the first chapter.

James Smythe’s science fiction thriller The Explorer doesn’t pull any punches. Smythe presents the lonely vastness of space by introducing us to a dead crew. The ship feels haunted. Something has gone amazingly, incredibly wrong.

The Ishiguro is the shuttle designed to take humans farther into space than they’ve ever gone before. It is launched with all the fanfare and accolades that such an expedition can be expected to receive. The plan is that the shuttle will reach a prearranged point in space, and then turn around.

Journalist Cormac Easton is prepared to document the entire journey for those on Earth. Then everything goes belly-up and the journalist is the last person alive on a ship that is not turning around like it’s supposed to. The Ishiguro is rocketing along its original trajectory, with no sign of slowing down. The last person on the crew is a writer—so he has no clue what to do:

I imagined the computer’s AI as being like a late student, realizing that the alarm hasn’t gone off, and then running to compensate. It wasn’t, and when I rebooted all I got was more forward movement. I spent 2% of the fuel wondering if we had already turned, and were heading in the right direction, heading home, but we hadn’t and we weren’t.

After staring out at the black emptiness, after contemplating his wife Elena, with the ship blinking a meaningless warning at him (250480), he has a hard time getting his thoughts straight:

Being in space gives you a sense of philosophy, a sense of something other than yourself. You look out at the sky—because we’re used to that thing above us being sky—but when you’re part of it, what is it then? It’s nothing, or it’s everything. It’s just where you are. Here, in the middle of space, or at the end, or the start, I have no idea—here is just where I currently am.

Tired of being alone, tired of not having any control over anything, Cormac figures out a self-destruct mechanism and blows the ship apart.

That’s when things split—and time is not what it used to be. A scarred and battered Cormac is blasted into the Ishiguro right before everyone started dying. From there, we see the crew and all of their motives, their twisty-turning calculations. As the battered Cormac watches everyone—including himself—from the lining of the ship, he realizes that out here, so far away from home, some things are inevitable. But some things can be changed.

The story centers on Cormac’s decisions. Should he leave Earth and his wife for the glory of space travel? Should he sleep with this woman? Should he save this crew member, or kill him? Should he live, or should he die?:

I loved endings, when they were done well: I loved knowing that it was finished, because that was how it was meant to be. An ending is a completion: it’s a satisfaction all in itself.

While Smythe’s Explorer could have turned into that paradoxical mishmash that happens in many time travel stories, it is instead an intricate meditation on what you can control in life and what you cannot. Smythe weaves Cormac’s past, present, and future in a straightforward way which seems deceptively simple. Pulling back and looking at the story as a whole, which we get to do as readers (and Cormac sort of gets to do as well—a rare case for novel characters), it is easy to see that, while Cormac might be stuck in this one small loop of time, the other parts of his life—with his wife, during training, out in space, his job—were always leading to one unchangeable moment.

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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


  1. reader

    is it really necessary to reveal so much of the plot in the review?

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