Back in May I was sent a copy of a book called The Testimony after hearing much buzz about it through some Twitter friends. It lay there on the bookcase for a few days and when I finally picked it up I didn’t want to put it down. It’s a book that I’ve been recommending to everyone who will listen and James is an author I have a lot of faith in to hold the attention of a reader. It was with excitement then that his second book arrived and after holding off as long as I could, I dived in with gusto.
The Explorer is a very different book to Testimony. Where the first novel was sprawling with characters and themes, Explorer is concise and closed in. In a sense it is very claustrophobic both in theme and feeling as the novel focuses on Cormac a journalist who is part of a crew sent into deep space. The pivotal point is that the crew around him are all dead and he is left echoing through the infinity. It’s no spoiler that the crew dies, it’s right there in the blurb but James is crafty in his revealing of how and why the crew come to an end.
On the surface, The Explorer seems to be a slim Sci-Fi adventure but within thirty or so pages the story becomes one about humans – how fragile we are and how our minds cope within our own existence. Without spoiling the twists, it’s fair to say that Cormac is a troubled soul. As he narrates his own story and we are given glimpses into his mind we’re shown a terrifying experience. It’s not a psychological horror, but if you walk away without feeling a little disquieted I’d be surprised.
James explores the concept of space beautifully and in various aspects. Cormac is often in awe of the inky darkness that surrounds him and often expresses his thoughts on looking back at Earth and how small it is. There’s a beauty there, but it doesn’t come without the fear of human insignificance. Not just in the scope and size of universe but in how constricted we are as a species now that much of our world has been explored. It’s an almost philosophical novel without being smacked in the face by ponderous thoughts. The reader is left feeling the same constrictions as Cormac and the crew.
For me, the title is reflected in many ways, not just in the exploration of space but of ourselves. During flashbacks we see Cormac and the crew exploring many facets of their new life and when isolated on the ship – The Ishiguro – there is constant exploration of what might have been. In essence it’s a novel about everyday issues set to a Sci-Fi backdrop but rather than the science sit in the background it helps elevate the story. The idea of the Piezoelectric energy that powers the ship is intriguing. The idea is that as the ship moves and vibrates it creates and stores energy, so if you sit still you’ll die as the life support depletes. This sort of mirrors the feelings within Cormac as all he wants to do is sit still and adjust his life but he can’t do anything except move forward and push on.
Even if you don’t want to look into the novel as a piece about how we live and think, the story is not only entertaining but captivating. In the later stages of the book the plot twists and turns – sometimes back on itself – and through its complexities there actually is a romping good space travel yarn.
Personally I felt a little lost when it ended, not just because of the connection to the writing, but because that is how James wants you to feel. Like Cormac, you’re lost – you’re drifting.
Published by Harper Voyager. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.