A Book A Week: The Explorer

I spent this week taking in the horrors that James Smythe imposed upon his characters in The Explorer. It’s a lot of fun but not for the reasons you would probably expect.

What the author had to say on where the book came from was instructive: On the Apollo 11 mission while Aldrin and Armstrong were bouncing around collecting moon rocks, astronaut Michael Collins was alone in the command module, absolutely cut off from human contact for nearly an hour. Collins reported it as a liberating feeling, but then astronauts are supposed to be made of sterner stuff. What would some guy do in his place?

Well, in this case, some guy is Cormac Easton. And he handles it badly.

Cormac is a journalist turned astronaut, assigned to cover the story of the century: the first manned space mission to the reaches beyond the Moon. The idea is to head out as far as possible, with a crew that’s been trained to handle the daily rigors of running the ship as well as the media aspects of selling it to the public. All the funding is provided by corporate sponsors, and the result is a ship filled with brands and logos: the food bars, the uniforms, the equipment, the hardware. The news networks will be watching everything they do. The point is to make space exploration awesome again to a world that has  lost the bug for manned space missions.

The optimistic crew climbs into their sleep pods, the ship blasts off. All is well. Then the crew awakens to find that Arlen, the ship’s pilot, is floating outside of his pod, dead. They call it an accident, Ground Control insists that they push onwards, and life goes on.

Things keep going wrong. The ship’s systems malfunction and shut down. The crew die, one by one, and while each death is tragic, the communications from Ground Control are consistent: deal with it, forge ahead, the mission comes first. Eventually, the radio goes and that’s the end of that.

Finally, Cormac is left alone after having to sedate the ship’s doctor and stuff her into her sleep pod, comatose. He mopes, writes, broods, eats, drinks, breathes, writes, laments, writes , sleeps, all in total isolation. The crew is gone, Ground Control is gone, his family on Earth is gone. Finally, the ship itself proves damaged beyond his ability to repair or even comprehend. He grasps one thing: the ship’s fuel supply will run out in a few days and with it, his air. There is no hope of going home; the ship’s autopilot is also gone, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, anyway.

Cormac finally decides that enough enough. Destroying the ship is the only way out. He heads to the pilot’s chair, brings the engines to full power, says his goodbyes to the universe, pushes the button–

–and then wakes up in complete darkness, freezing, oxygen starved, and freaking out. His hands find what he recognizes as a sleep pod, pulls it open, displaces the body inside with his own, and sleeps. He wakes, opens the pod, sees the now dead body of Arlen, the ship’s pilot, and realizes that not only has he somehow gone back to the beginning, but he’s becom(ing) the cause of his ship’s problem.

Then things get really strange.

This is a difficult book to read, primarily because it brings up the question that all nifty time-travel stories have: where does agency fit in to a world that is looped in on itself ? In Cormac Easton’s case, he finds out the hard way. Once he realizes what he’s done and where he is, he retreats from his crew mates, choosing to live in the ship’s storeroom and later literally crawls into the lining of the hull, watching the others go about their lives through the grill work. I found the choice of the lining fascinating, like a weird kind of ascension even as he devolves into an insect.

This strategy lets the reader take a look at the story and the metastory at the same time. It makes for an always fascinating, frequently infuriating, and occasional aggravating read. Cormac finds out exactly what happens by being able to observe everyone, very much in a fly-on-the-wall point of view. He discovers that the ship’s mission was a hoax: they were never meant to come home. Their deaths were meant to inspire a new wave of space exploration.He discovers that the accident that killed one crewman was no accident, but a suicide, and that the ship’s engineer was actually paid to sabotage the ship.

My trouble was the question of agency.  It’s there, but as Cormac watches himself and his coworkers go through the motions and we find out what really happened to each crew member in turn, his own detachment from them and from his first self compounds. Finally, you just want to reach into the page and shake the poor guy, slap him across the face a few times, and scream DON’T JUST TELL YOURSELF IT’S HOPELESS, YOU IDIOT! DOOOOOO SOMETHING!

Yeah. Maybe it’s just me expecting a book other than the one that Smythe wrote, but that really bugged me. It’d be one thing if he tried to change things and was thwarted by whatever, but to tell yourself that something can’t be changed because it can’t be changed sounds like giving up.

And yet, it made sense. Cormac is a reporter, an observer. Watching everything and paying almost voyeuristic attention to people and how they interact is what he does. And in fairness to the author, that’s how he shows us just how screwed up everything in this story is. It worked.

So if you’re into giant space battles, you might want to pass this one up. If, on the other hand, you enjoy tortured explorations into the human soul, then this book is just your speed.

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