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.


The Explorer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

26 Comments on “The Big Idea: James Smythe”

  1. Poor Michael Collins. Everybody knows Neil, most people know Buzz. Pretty few know him. Flew to the Moon but never landed. He’s like the Moses of the Apollo program.

  2. @John: I think it is about six months since i stumbled over your presence in G+ and (in logic consequence) about this blog. I now have a first statistic. About half of the “The Big Idea” postings correlate perfectly with a purchase of me at Amazon. Causation is not impossible, Until yet i, none of the purchases has disappointed me. Several have delivered a lot of joy, Jim C. Hines currently leading that score list.

    I think it is safe to say, the format gives one an excellent view on what to expect of the book.

    Thank you, Martin

  3. pandorasdadca:

    “I hope you’re happy Mr. Scalzi.”

    I am happy. The point of the Big Idea is to let authors make the case for their own works. Looks like it’s working in this case.

  4. Collins could have landed, on Apollo 17, if he had accepted the invitation that seems to have been extended by Deke Slayton, crewselectionsmeister. It fits a pattern: the command module pilots of Apollos 8, 9, 10 and 12 were all assigned commands, ie Apollos 13, 15, 16 and 18; though 13 (Lovell; explosion) and 18 (Gordon, cancellation) didn’t in fact land.

    Collins’ 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire, is very well worth reading. After The Explorer, obviously – it would be rude to say otherwise in this thread.

  5. “To my mind, the best moments in SF are the quietest ones. They’re the ones before the chaos starts:”

    Much as I appreciate the perspective of scale and isolation he describes, I agree with the above point for a broader set of reasons. Lately I have noticed how much more I appreciate the first and second acts of the Syd Field narrative template that Hollywood follows. The ideas and world-building are so much more interesting than the big action set pieces.

    Fellowship of the Ring is by far my favorite of the LOTR movies. The first half of the first season of your own Stargate Universe is my favorite slice of the entire franchise (though it was still so strong at the end that I wish it had continued.) The first half of Contact… the first half of The Matrix, the first two acts of Iron Man.., I even really liked the first half of the movie Sunshine, which became so disappointing in the last half.

    They all are so interesting in the setup that the last act just seems like the fireworks show that marks the closing of the amusement park at the end of the day.

    It does seem like a Hollywood phenomenon. Written fiction rarely loses me like that.

  6. Reading this I was reminded of something I learned watching the excellent documentary, “When We Left the Earth.” The film was talking about the first U.S. space walk. James McDivitt, who stayed in the capsule while Ed White went out, said that as the hatch opened he thought about his friend about to step out of the hatch into all that nothingness. I was stunned to hear McDivitt say he had this strange moment when he thought that he could just push his friend out or cut the tether and his friend would die out there, forever lost. Not that he wanted to, but just that he could.

  7. @Jim Saul. Concur. It’s in the setup that filmmakers seem to have the most freedom to do something different. It’s in the follow-through where many of these films fail, usually by falling back on the usual tropes. IMO, the reason it happens in film and not in written fiction as much is that studios are big business and films are seen as potentially big losses. Eventually they fall back on what they know because they think it’s safe. AFAIK, publishing houses aren’t usually telling authors to reproduce that same work over and over again (James Patterson, Nora Roberts, et. al. notwithstanding).

  8. John W – how about poor James Lovell? Flew to the moon twice & never got to touch the planet!

    Scalzi – the problem is I am going to buy this book and read it but that just means something else is getting bumped. If I lived another 61 years & never added another book I MIGHT reach the bottom of the pile as it is – you are not helping! ;)

  9. yes, I know the moon is not a planet – I goofed! Didn’t think about it until AFter I hit submit. We need an edit button!

  10. One of the Soviet lunar landing plans had one person going down to the surface alone. If he fell down and was injured, nobody was going to be able to help him get up.

  11. It was on my “should read it at some point” list. Now it’s the first on on the list after I finish the Locus top 10 of the 21st century (of which I had not read Accelerando and Spin)…

  12. @ Jim Saul

    They all are so interesting in the setup that the last act just seems like the fireworks show that marks the closing of the amusement park at the end of the day.

    Crescendo and climax are interdependent. Crescendo without a well-written climax is just an encyclopedia entry and climax without a well-written crescendo to give it added layers of meaning is just special effects (or, in the case of Transformers, an hour-long toy commercial). The only inherent value of special effects is their novelty value, and that lasts for about three minutes even if they aren’t hackneyed, which is why we all wanted to wring Robert Wise’s neck by the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. You can’t really get away with that in a novel because who would read a fight-sequence that dragged on for a hundred pages? Movie goers are a more captive audience, so you can take fewer risks and keep their attention.

    Also, crescendo and exposition should be done in tandem, not one after the other. This story sounds like it interwove them completely and utterly, which is no small accomplishment. IMO, the Achilles heel of speculative fiction as a genre is breaks for data-dumps. The author mentions Bester’s The Stars My Destination as examples of the sense of isolation he was striving for, but it’s also an exemplar of building a rich setting and characters through the actions and their rationals rather than through paragraphs of exposition. The world unreels on screen as the character is motivated by events to go from a simpleton to survivor to hero by an extreme interpretation of the old saying that there’s nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus the mind.

  13. Sounds like an interesting concept…..but. The excerpt has several places where the rules of gravity and propulsion just don’t quite make sense, unless I’m totally misreading something. (The guy fell and hit his head because the gravity returned when the engines were OFF? They can’t leave the engines off because when they do the ship just stops, or “drifts,” rather than moving? “Microgravity” returns after the engines come back ON?) I’m a little up in the air here, because that sort of thing would just drive me absolutely bat-nuts. However, if anyone who has read the work wants to convince me that I’m misinterpreting things and that there is not in fact an abundance of physical misconceptions in the book, I’m certainly willing to be swayed–like I said, it sounds like an interesting idea.

  14. @canyon42 No, you’re actually right. (Hope it’s okay for me to chip in – I was reading the comments, and this is something that’s cropped up a couple of times when people have been talking about the book.) It’s actually very much intentional. There’s a few reasons: the biggest being Cormac, the narrator. He doesn’t understand the science, because he’s a layperson, and he reports it as he sees it. Everything is actually explained, but he can’t see the explanations. I wanted, crude as it is, his surroundings to both affect and be affected by his state of mind. A friend of mine (who is an astrophysicist, and a very good one, so is in no way to blame for the intentionally fuzzy physics in the novel) was talking to me about piezoelectric energy as a potentially viable way of powering a spacecraft’s life support systems, and I fell in love with the idea. I loved the thought that a person could have to keep going in order to stay alive; and that to feel normal (or what they saw as normal) would be the very thing that would be killing them. So, where being still was slowly killing you, that’s when there needed to be gravity on the ship. There is an artificial microgravity generator that kicks in, powered by a centrifuge – Cormac actually comments on it later on in the book, even though he doesn’t understand what it is, that there is a spinning something inside the walls of the ship – when the ship is still. But that’s obviously a fudge that doesn’t exist.

    Bluntly, it was important for the story that there wasn’t gravity all the time (despite them riding momentum for the majority of the trip), and that Cormac could say when he wanted it: when he wanted to feel like there was something beneath his feet, and a sensation of being human.

    I looked at the SF novels I loved when I was a kid, and they were mostly pre-1969: all writing their own rules for how space travel worked etc, how physics worked, what happened with engines in space (the notion of a craft that can stop and start on a pinhead), and, like them, I made the decision to write what I needed for the story rather than what was needed to make this intrinsically realistic. Everything that doesn’t strictly make sense – being able to control gravity, being able to do what amounts to braking, consistent burning of fuel even though momentum is responsible for the lion’s share of their movement, the outside the ship being total abject darkness – they’re are explained, as I say, albeit through Cormac’s filter. It’s the same reason I use the words Warp and Stasis in there. They don’t mean what they do in Star Trek or other SF: they’re something that, in this fictionalised version of the future, the scientists on this project call the period of heavy acceleration when leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, because of Star Trek. (It’s mentioned that a lot of the scientists on the project were SF fans, and cribbed terms and ideas from it.) It’s a media-friendly word that means nothing but explains everything to the layman (and that notion of media-driven science is actually something that crops up a few times during the novel).

    Part of the schtick of the book is that Cormac is a journalist, not a scientist. He doesn’t understand what’s happening: how the ship runs; how the computers work; where he is. He understands the meaningless jargon that he’s been told, and how to do his own job, but even then he’s so psychologically tormented, maybe it doesn’t make as much sense to him as it should. He’s truly, utterly lost. He doesn’t reference what’s outside, where they are, how the ship works. He doesn’t understand the artificial gravity.

    But I know that not everybody will like that. Does it help at all knowing that it’s intentional and that I’ve not just gotten it wrong?

  15. @ James Smythe
    FWIW, my outlook is that if you’re writing anywhere near the science fantasy end of the spectrum (where Star Trek resides), then you should have a clear idea of whichever aspects of the technomagic pertain to the story, those should be the only one’s it references per Chekhov’s gun (or phaser, I suppose), and they should be self-consistent. If you’re writing hard science fiction, you should do that while trying not to violate any known laws of physics. If you’re writing diamond-hard SF, you should do that while avoiding far-fetched ideas allowed by the known laws of physics, such as wormholes. My own SF lies somewhere between hard and diamond-hard, but is closer to hard and occasionally dabbles in science fantasy. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing science fantasy. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of SF literature, television and movies are science fantasy, and by extension so are most properties that garner popular and/or critical acclaim. It’s nothing to apologize for, but it’s also helpful to remember that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and trying to please everyone is the surest way to wind up pleasing no one.

    BTW, radical cover art.

  16. @Gulliver
    Couldn’t agree more. Basically, if a work of any genre is consistent with the world that it plays within and the rules that it establishes, I’m fine with it. I’m not writing hard-SF, as you say, and it is closer to science-fantasy, so all I have really concerned myself with is making sure that if I establish a set of logics, I stick to them and support them throughout.

    And yes, I was very lucky with the cover art. The designer/artist did an amazing job. The spacemen on the US and UK covers are actually slightly different: in the UK, it’s almost a fine-art pencil drawing, where the US one is shinier and more painted. I love them both though.

  17. James Smythe,

    Yes, I understand what you’re saying then. Thanks for the explanations. It was fairly clear from just the excerpt that the narrator is not remotely a technical or scientific expert, so if it is all “filtered” through his point of view it makes sense that some of the details would be garbled. I’ll take your word for it that those details are made clear and straightened out in some way, even if the narrator isn’t aware of them. :^)

    Good luck. I’ll probably check it out when I get a chance. Hard to pass up a chance to contemplate that level of emptiness and loneliness!

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