He speaks about things he knows nothing about, inserting the names of galaxies and nebulae and words of description that mean nothing to him, flowery language to somehow offer the punctuation of meaning, to imply knowledge that he doesn’t have. If Emmy were awake she would tell me that I was being narcissistic.

It is the future. For the first time since the era of brave adventurers like Cook and Columbus, Armstrong and Aldrin, humanity once again hungers to explore the vast unknown. A daring mission to boldly go where no one has gone before—into the heart of deepest, darkest space—is a dream made real. Funded entirely by private corporations (not the government interest groups of generations past), the most advanced ship in the history of space travel, named the Ishiguro, is built; a crew of five of the brightest minds are chosen from the most competitive applicant pool in scientific history, plus one other.

Cormac Easton is the last of the team to be selected and the only nonscientific member of Ishiguro’s capable crew. A journalist, Cormac is charged with the task of documenting the ship’s unprecedented journey, filming, interviewing and writing as the Ishiguro makes its way ever further into the dark of uncharted space.

But almost from the very outset of their mission, everything goes wrong. Their captain never makes it out of initial stasis due to a malfunctioning bed. Shortly after, a crew member dies in the cruel vacuum of space, thanks to an undetected tear in her suit. One by one, each member of the crew is picked off by unpredictable accidents until only Cormac remains, rapidly running out of fuel and power, speeding through the void to his solitary death.

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But something waits for Cormac in the quiet dark—an anomaly that will impossibly change his fate, and bring him back to the beginning once more.

Smythe’s The Explorer is an odd sort of science-fiction novel. It’s surprisingly sparse when it comes to plot and particulars, which are usually mainstays in the genre—we never really know where the ship is going, or what exactly the ship looks like or what our crew hopes to find.[1] But this is cosmetic stuff—having bad science in science fiction isn’t uncommon, after all. The real oddness of The Explorer lies with the plot—because the mission into deep space, with the crew’s mysterious deaths? That’s not really the story.[2]

The Explorer is in actuality a weirdly passive and poorly conceived outer space version of Groundhog Day.

That’s right. Groundhog Day.

Cormac is the last man standing, and after passing through the anomaly, he finds himself reliving the Ishiguro’s doomed maiden voyage all over again. Unlike Phil Connors, however, Cormac does not wake up inhabiting the same body—in this mission part deux, the battered, broken survivor Cormac (let’s call him Cormac 1) is transported back to the beginning of the timeline, where he has to hide in the walls of the ship from the rest of the crew (including the Other him, let’s call him Cormac 2). And while this sounds cool in theory, this is the main problem with The Explorer: Cormac 1 is so frustratingly passive. Instead of trying to change the fate of the doomed mission, he skulks about the small space shuttle–sized ship undetected (let’s just forget the ludicrousness of this, yes?), narcissistically obsessing about himself, the ladies of his life, his loneliness and his mistakes.[3]

But that’s ok, right? This is a book about ennui and mistakes and regret, and the fear and smallness of one average man confronting the gaping maw of darkness. In that sense, The Explorer succeeds. It is not a bad book; Smythe’s prose is evocative, chock-full of doom and moroseness and impotence. And if you are into a protracted character study of one normal man held captive by fear and fate, then The Explorer just might do it for you.

For me? Not so much.

 In Book Smugglerish, an unimpressed 5 spacemen out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are the maniacal duo behind The Book Smugglers, a speculative fiction and YA book blog. Follow them on Twitter.


[1] The science is similarly nebulous and misinformed, i.e., the ship "stops" when the acceleration stops, because apparently floating in space is JUST LIKE driving down the street on Earth. It’s not.

[2] In fact, all of this calamity is explained in the book’s first chapter. Seriously.

[3] Because the treatment of female characters in The Explorer? Not my favorite.