Last year my top pick for adult fiction was The Explorer by James Smythe. It’s not a very long book, but it’s a doozy. It’s about a manned mission into deep space—on paper the object of the mission is to study the “anomaly,” something in space that is puzzling scientists on Earth. However, the other reason for the trip is simply to make space exploration exciting again. The crew of the Ishiguro seems to have been picked as much for their camera appeal as their abilities. It’s also why the crew includes Cormac Easton, a journalist, who narrates the book.
Within the first dozen pages, you find out that the entire crew except Cormac is dead, and he’s basically narrating what he sees as his own inevitable death. But things take a surprising turn—I won’t spoil the story for you, except to say that it’s disturbing and fascinating.
Now comes the second book: The Echo. (I notice that Amazon has it listed as part of “The Anomaly Quartet”—does that mean I have two more books to look forward to? Excellent!) It is 23 years after the Ishiguro mission—the disastrous results shut down space exploration for a long time. But now, twin brothers Mira and Tomas Hyvonen are launching a new mission. They have worked hard to make everything perfect, foolproof, guaranteed. They’ve corrected for all of the mistakes that happened on the Ishiguro, and they’re proud of what they have achieved. This time, they’ll get to the anomaly, see what it actually is, and come back home triumphant.
Of course, things don’t go as planned.
Again, I don’t want to give too many spoilers here, but here’s what you should know about the book. I’m always fascinated by the sort of stuck-on-a-spaceship stories, because they explore how people respond to limited space, limited interactions, limited resources. As Mira, the twin who is on the ship, narrates the story, he interweaves the background information about the development of the mission with what’s going on now—preparing for launch, taking off, traveling toward the anomaly. Messages from Tomas on Earth have longer and longer lag time.
Even having read The Explorer and gotten a small glimpse of what the anomaly might mean, the twists and turns of The Echo took me by surprise. But it’s not just a one-time reveal: oh, so that’s what the anomaly is. It’s what Smythe does after the reveal, the way that he draws out the implications.
I won’t lie to you: reading The Echo is stressful. Mira isn’t a very sympathetic character and he doesn’t realize what a jerk he is because he’s so concerned about what Tomas is doing and thinking. His lifelong competition with his brother influences and overshadows all of his actions. The hardships that occur aboard the ship are varied and tragic—you wonder how many could have been prevented, but the problem with making plans is that human error gets in the way—even before the crew has to face the questions raised by the anomaly itself. Once you get past the slower build-up, the book is intense and gripping. There are some parts where you start figuring out what’s going to happen next before the characters do—but even then you have this growing sense of tension.
If you’re looking for a good sci-fi read, take a look at The Explorer and The Echo. While the you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy the second, I think it’s more satisfying and there’s at least one bit that makes more sense when you’ve read them in order—and then you’ll want to go back and start over again once you’re finished. I can’t wait to see what Smythe comes up with next.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of these books.