What if you were doomed and found yourself in a situation from which there was no rescue, no escape. There are no secret panels to look behind, no levers to pull, no button to push or secret skill that can save you. You are completely isolated and without the knowledge that might, MIGHT, be able to save you. That you will die is a certainty. How would you face it? Could you face it? Is it possible to stare directly into the face of our mortality with dignity? Or would we inevitably devolve to our baser instincts? These are just some of the questions examined in James Smythe’s The Explorer.
Cormac Easton is a journalist who wants to participate in an historic mission to take a crew farther into space than humans have ever gone before, and then return to Earth. After months of testing, training, and narrowing the number of applicants, Cormac has been chosen, along with five other professionals and scientists, to participate in this expedition. His responsibility is to document the voyage for posterity, as well as the millions of people on Earth who are watching breathlessly as events unfold. But the moment the crew awakes from hypersleep things begin to go wrong. The mission’s captain died in stasis. While they were warned of this possibility, they were also told that the chances of it actually happening were practically zero. The crew immediately contacts Ground Control for instructions and are told the mission must go on. The world is watching and it is too important to turn back. But soon, circumstances have spiraled out of control: The rest of the crew is dead or in stasis, and Cormac, the writer, is alone on a spaceship hurtling into the unknown depths of space. The ship has moved beyond communication limits with Ground Control, so he cannot ask for help. There is no possibility of rescue. He doesn’t have the skills or the knowledge to pilot the ship or alter its course. Cormac will die alone in space.
In The Explorer, James Smythe takes a well-trodden idea/trope from science fiction literature--the marooned astronaut beyond rescue--and gives it a contemporary spin. While it would seem like a story better suited to a short story or novella, Smythe throws in some truly unexpected plot developments, and fully explores the characters' motivation for participating in a potentially deadly endeavor. He also provides multiple perspectives for single events, illustrating again how integral is a specific point of view to our interpretation of the world around us (even if that world has been reduced to five other people and the interior of a small spacecraft). The Explorer has a “Twilight Zone”-like quality, using the situation both to comment on our world and to explore the characters’ humanity. The ending, while not necessarily a surprise, is thoughtful and thought-provoking.