The Big Idea: James Smythe
Space is vast, and dark, and deep. How does that make you feel? Because, as you are about to find out, it makes author James Smythe feel a very specific way, a way that he examines, at depth in his new novel The Explorer.
To my mind, the best moments in SF are the quietest ones. They’re the ones before the chaos starts: before the astronauts land wherever they are going to land, or meet the aliens that they’re going to meet or discover the MacGuffin at the heart of their journey. They’re the moments where the characters look out at space and they revel in it: in how lonely it is, and how isolating, and how empty.
My favorite true story about space exploration concerns Michael Collins, one of the crew members on Apollo 11. When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon and made their own history, Collins did something even stranger: he was in space by himself. For 48 minutes, he was out of contact with the Earth. He was totally alone, on the far side of the moon. In interviews, he says that he wasn’t lonely or scared: that he was excited, enjoying the mission. But he’s an astronaut. They’re made of sterner stuff. In his position, I would have been terrified: at being able to look out and see the nothingness, the void going on and on and on, into the infinite. Every time I have loved a work of space-set SF, truly loved it, it’s dealt with that emptiness as well. The Stars My Destination, Solaris, Alien, Moon: they all busy themselves with how it feels to be alone. In space, there’s nothing scarier.
So, my big idea, and the big idea that runs through my novel The Explorer: that space is a) empty, b) isolating and c) really very lonely indeed. I know, right? Crazy. Nobody’s ever thought that before.
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.
So I began with the freshly-named Cormac talking about how the people that he had been with had died; and how he was the only one left alive. It wasn’t until the third paragraph that I called them his crew; and it wasn’t until a few paragraphs after that that I realised he was talking from a spaceship. The isolation came first, and then the logical leap that it had to be set in the most horrifyingly isolated place I can conceive of: deep space. It was freeing, to write only the void of nothingness as the setting; to just write the character and let the story come from him. With The Testimony, I had worried over every little detail from the very start, trying to knot all of these narratives and sub-plots together. Now, writing what would later become called The Explorer, I only had to write loneliness. As soon as I realised I was writing an SF novel set on a tiny spaceship in the near future, everything else started slotting into place. The story had to be about what happened to the crew; how five people could die when there was nothing there to kill them. It had to be about Cormac, and how he had become stranded. And it had to be about space itself: the emptiness, the isolation, the incomprehensibility.
As I wrote myself further and further into the novel, I wanted Cormac’s sense of personal isolation to grow. As he looks back on what happened, and he is no longer alone – at least, in his memories – and as the various twists of the narrative reveal themselves, I wanted him to feel as if what he lusted for (normality, his old life, some sort of stability) was far enough out of his reach that he needed to find a new solution. I think about Michael Collins, and he must have wondered, even if he claims that he didn’t. He must have thought, What if I something goes wrong? What if I’m round here, on the far side of the moon, and I’m by myself; in the dark, out of contact, drifting. I try and imagine it now, and it terrifies me.
I love it when a novel imparts some of the emotional impact to the reader itself. With The Explorer, as Cormac discovers exactly what happened, and where he is, and makes a discovery about the nature of the mission that he and his crew were undertaking that changes his entire perception of what it is to be truly alone, I hope that the reader feels somewhat as he does, and that it reflects that initial inspirational concept for the novel: that space is lonely, isolating, and so very, very empty.