Friday 6 June 2014

Book Review | No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

How far would you go to save your family from an invisible threat? A terrifyingly original thriller from the author of The Machine.

ClearVista is used by everyone and can predict anything.

It’s a daily lifesaver, predicting weather to traffic to who you should befriend.

Laurence Walker wants to be the next President of the United States. ClearVista will predict his chances.

It will predict whether he's the right man for the job.

It will predict that his son can only survive for 102 seconds underwater.

It will predict that Laurence's life is about to collapse in the most unimaginable way.


Pay attention, people of America, for today is a day unlike any other.

Today, I want to talk to you about tomorrow; I want to talk to you not about what the world was, but about what the world will be. Today, it is my tremendous pleasure to introduce you to your next president, so put your hands together, please, for a father, a son and a husband—for a family man who can. For a soldier, a senator, a standard bearer of vibrant views and vital values. Ladies and gentlemen... Laurence Walker!

A word to the wise: he's the kind of guy who'll look you in the eye whilst telling you what he's going to do for you. And unlike the other lot, he'll follow through, too:
That's been one of his major arguments the last few years: politics has become about empty words and even emptier eyes, promises made that are for self-aggrandising reasons rather than because somebody believes that they are the right thing to do. This is how he's become popular, a man of the people. (p.24)
But politics is power, and power, of course, corrupts, so how can a man of the people—a good man, goddamn—hold the highest office? According to ClearVista, the simple fact of the matter is... he can't.

At the outset of No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, Laurence has hit the highest point of his inexorably dark character arc. He's as good as guaranteed to be the democratic nominee, and almost certain, after that, to be the next president. Least, that's what the people believe. And the pundits. And the pollsters. But ClearVista disagrees.

Before you ask, it's an app. An algorithm:
It began development in 2015, created by a team of technology experts who had, between them, worked for some of the world's most powerful politicians and Fortune 500 companies. They had all banded together to research the future of predictability and what they found wasn't infallible, but close. Technology now allows for the statistics to speak for themselves; for your percentages of success to be broken down into exacting detail. We can, the video says, answer any and all of your questions to within a percentage probability margin—and, at higher payment tiers, even visually predict the outcomes of a given situation, using state of the art audiovisual technologies. (p.113)
Most people use ClearVista to determine which highway they should take to avoid getting trapped in tailbacks. They ask the app questions about health and welfare; they wonder which football team will win a given game; they seek its impersonal predictions to help make important business decisions. ClearVista doesn't make any guarantees, but those who've experienced it believe in it. It's become indispensable in a sense, such that Laurence's campaign can go no further without a nod from the software. To wit, our man's manager asks it what kind of president he'll be.

The answer takes them both aback. The algorithm concludes that he can't be president—he can't even be the nominee. Quite reasonably, Amit insists that ClearVista redoes its sums. In response, the company sends a second report that says the same inexplicable thing in addition to a new and apparently improved promotional video. But this computer generated clip doesn't depict the typical baby-kissing silliness. This clip is chilling. It shows Laurence in a dark room with his family. They're terrified, evidently, of the gun he has in his hands—and quite rightly, for the sound of a shot rings out just before the video finishes.

When the video inevitably leaks to the press, reporters round on the potential president. Overnight, his chances of standing are in absolute tatters. Worse than that: his family struggles to trust him as they always have. Laurence, they know, is a good man. But sometimes good men go bad. Sometimes they snap. Sometimes it really is as simple as that.

James Smythe has had a stunning run in the several years since making his presence in fiction felt. From The Explorer to The Echo and The Testament to The Machine he has demonstrated an unerring ability to wring what I want to call wrongness from all corners; from the more mundane moments of his standalones through the spectacular scenes and set-pieces of The Anomaly Quartet, Smythe's unsettling mode of storytelling has gone from strength to strength. His central characters, which felt somewhat stiff to begin with—mechanical, if I may—have gotten better and better; more and more like humans, to be sure. In a very real sense, he is a man in the process of mastering his art... not that there was a lack of art at the start.

All this positivity is, in the first, fact, or at the least feeling, but it's also in service of balancing out what is, I admit, a pretty shitty admission, because for a while now, I've been waiting, almost certainly perversely, for the other shoe to drop. It's not that I want Smythe to write something rubbish—far from it—but I struggle to see how a new author has gone so long without putting a foot wrong... and in truth, I thought this might be the book.

It isn't. It's brilliant. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is dramatically different from all the narratives Smythe has tried his hand at in the past—it's set in the States instead of in space or the UK; it revolves around a functional family rather than the unhinged individuals he's explored before; and the concept of ClearVista is its only measurably speculative element—but it's an extraordinary novel nonetheless which continues to chart the remarkable rise of one of genre fiction's best and brightest.

Maybe it doesn't have the singular focus of The Machine, or the unimaginable horror that made The Echo so incredibly memorable, but No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is not at all a disappointment—nor am I for my part disappointed to find Smythe on such fine form.

That isn't to say it's a particularly pleasant text. Some stories get under your skin, sure. This one isn't content to call it a day there. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man will rifle through your rubbish, break into your private property and plant incriminating evidence for your family to find. It'll steal your social media and tell all your friends your deepest secrets. To wit, I wouldn't recommend it to readers prone to paranoia or anxiety attacks. The tension it engenders is almost intolerable, at times; at no point did I stop dreading what was ahead.

But brave the rain, as the senator says, because beyond it? Fully formed, fundamentally affecting, forward-thinking fiction. The sort of story that reminds us why we read, and what we, the people, need.


No Harm Can Come to a Good Man
by James Smythe

UK Publication: May 2014, The Borough Press

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