no-harm-can-come-to-a-good-man-by-james-smythe NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN

James Smythe (james-smythe.com)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£16.99

Laurence Walker is a good man whose dream of running for President of the United States looks set to come true. Laurence has some skeletons in his closet – the death of his son and a period of torture in captivity whilst serving his country in the Middle East – but the party elders like Laurence, and they are convinced he is the man to take the party forward into a bright new future as the next leader of the country. When Amit Suri, the man in charge of Laurence’s campaign, and the man who will become his chief of staff, asks ClearVista – a revolutionary technology that can "predict" the future through a complex algorithm and an infinite number of variable values gleaned from the Internet – to calculate Laurence’s chances of success, the answer he receives is completely unexpected. It is the final straw for Laurence, pushing him over the edge, and as his carefully-managed life begins to fall apart around him, it begins to look like Laurence Walker’s career and life might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Like last year’s excellent The Machine, James Smythe’s latest novel – with the somewhat unwieldy title No Harm Can Come to a Good Man – takes us to a very near-future setting where humankind’s increasing dependence on technology has been taken to one very believable extreme. ClearVista, the technology at the centre of No Harm…, is everywhere, and we use it to help us with every single decision we need to make: Which hotel is best for me? Is this plane I’m about to board likely to reach its destination? And if so, what type of car should I hire when I arrive? In the case of Laurence Walker, and his presidential campaign, ClearVista is used to determine an answer to the much more complex question of whether Laurence will ever reach his goal.

Laurence Walker is strangely likable for a politician. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he is just beginning his campaign to gain the party nomination for the next election. He’s a family man living in small-town America, trying to find the right balance between what’s right for his career and what’s right for his family. When Laurence’s son drowns outside their home, Laurence appears to fall apart, but is back on the campaign trail before his wife believes he is ready. The ClearVista results, when they arrive, have an immediate and devastating effect on Laurence. His friend and campaign manager, Amit, is convinced that someone has tampered with the results, and spends his time trying to track down someone to speak to. When news of the results leak, as well as ClearVista’s vision of the ultimate outcome – an outcome that puts Laurence Walker’s family in grave danger – the Walkers find themselves prisoners in their own homes, reporters and news crews camped at the front of their house, waiting for the inevitable.

In Laurence Walker’s downfall, Smythe presents us with the very public disintegration of a well-liked person. Laurence Walker’s life becomes a sort of slow-motion car crash, and it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the page once the downward trend begins. But there are warnings aplenty here, too. Laurence’s problems begin in earnest when the press begins labelling him as a criminal, despite the fact that he has done nothing wrong, and they are basing their claims on the leaked ClearVista results. Good man or not, it is how we are painted that defines who we are, and suddenly Laurence finds himself facing questions about his son’s death, something that the reader knows is an accident, since we were there to watch it happen. Most horrific is the distance that begins to grow between Laurence and his wife and daughters, a distance caused by his wife’s sudden distrust, her belief – like that of everyone else – that ClearVista’s predictions must have some basis in fact. It is at this point that the reader realises, even if the characters themselves don’t, that Laurence is lost and alone.

While this very public breakdown is happening, Amit is trying to come to terms with how quickly his own career has crumbled around him, and his need to understand why ClearVista predicted the things it did add an element of investigation into the mix. With enough information to allow the reader to make guesses of their own, Amit’s journey takes him to California and the technology company’s almost-empty headquarters. The explanation, when it comes, is simple, believable and extremely satisfying (especially for this software engineer, who can relate completely), and shines a whole new light on Laurence Walker’s breakdown.

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

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