The Explorer, James Smythe

When I was a kid, I remember reading a lot of straight up science fiction. Our local library was small, and it had one book shelf of YA books, one of those spinnable book displays with paperback fantasy novels, and a few shelves tucked away in a corner near the audio cassettes with hardback science fiction novels. No one ever  disturbed when I sat on the floor and pulled those unfamiliar titles out. My mother would leave me alone for half an hour or more looking for her own books, and I would slowly accumulate a pile of unfamiliar authors beside me.

Even now, years later, the only writers I remember clearly from those days are Heinlein and Brin, although I read just about every novel in the section eventually. Science fiction was, for me, an insight into a more masculine mind. The library made no special effort to purchase female authors in the genre, and I didn’t have the internet to search out a wider variety than what was presented. As a result, I drifted further from science fiction as I got older and craved books that reflected a perspective more similar to my own. It’s a shame, really, because when I read books like Smythe’s The Explorer, I feel as though a part of me that I lost long ago has been returned. It’s stunning to discover it still exists – that the part of me that secretly wanted to go to Space Camp in Florida, that still believes it might be possible to travel into space as a civilian someday soon, that is desperate for a world beyond the ordinary one we know.

Smythe’s narrative voice is just as alien to me as I remember from those authors years ago. I always struggle to explain what I mean when I say that a particular writer is more masculine than another, regardless of gender. It’s an argument I’ve had before when talking about The Lord of the Rings – different genre, but same…feel. Tolkien has a quality I find incredibly difficult to break into, and it can be a problem with sci-fi as well. I have to work harder to open myself to writers who fall into this category.

This is why I found it strange on Friday when I started this book and was immediately drawn to that very quality in Smythe’s writing. It had a sharp, cold edge to it, but given that in his opening pages I found myself in a tiny spaceship filled with corpses floating in the blackness of space, it worked for me. In fact, everything about this book worked for me. After having a frustrating, sad week, The Explorer was exactly what I needed. It was tough, and inevitable, and painfully remote.

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Testimony, which had twenty-six different narrators, presented almost as talking heads. They were from all over world, telling a very big story about god and lies and terrorism, and it took a lot to write. Post-it notes on the walls, headaches, long walks to clear said headaches before returning to sort out the post-its, all that crazy stuff. When I was done, I decided that I had to write something completely different. Something that was, by necessity, a lot smaller. Self-contained. One narrator. Only a handful of characters, in fact, in the whole thing. And, I thought, lets start the book when they’re all dead, or most of them. Let’s start with my narrator, alone and horrifically lonely, and beginning to lose the plot. He can piece together the story – and himself – from there. (Smythe, writing for John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea”)

This was the only thing that appealed me to when I was looking through my new books this week. I wanted angst without romance, I wanted agony on a personal level, and I wanted it to take place as far from me as possible.

Can’t get much farther than space.


I highly recommend heading over to Harper Voyager’s page and reading the first chapter for free. That was all I needed to convince me I wanted to know more about The Explorer and James Smythe.

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