James Smythe’s books are strongly about identity and what defines us as humans. Is it our thoughts or actions? With his latest book he takes things a step further, asking whether we could be defined by actions that have yet to happen.
Smythe’s previous books have to a greater or lesser degree been science fiction, a moniker that will inevitably put some people off. This book is set in a future so close it’s practically contemporary, with science slight and plausible enough to make the fiction seem like fact that hasn’t got around to happening yet. The plot centres around a computer app, ClearVista, that predicts the future by trawling through and processing information found on the internet. The technology is 100% plausible and feels eerily close to becoming reality.
This is not a science fiction novel, and is Smythe’s most accessible yet. He’s recreated Stephen King’s small-town America and thrust it onto the stage of the presidential thriller. It’s like a reverse Dead Zone, where everybody can see the future except the person it’s happening to. Smythe delivers an excellent political thriller, where the sanity of the main contender is at stake. The story is compelling and exciting on its own, and that’s what gives it its position in the centre of the mainstream. But this is a James Smythe novel and they are always layered like the finest French mille feuille.
You don’t have to have read Smythe’s previous novel The Machine (a dystopian Clarke award nominee) to enjoy No Harm… but they dovetail seamlessly to make a fascinating portrait of what defines us as humans. They complement each other beautifully. The Machine is about memories. Are we the sum of our memories? Without them, are we the same person? Take away memory of a terrible experience, what do we become, stronger or weaker?
In No Harm… the questions are external. They are based on society’s over-reliance on the internet as a source of information. We have have reached a watershed where an opinion or thought, correct or not, can gain a huge global following. The very existence of this following gives the original ‘fact’ credence, and its provenance becomes warped or forgotten. There are countless numbers of such truths doing the rounds on social media every day.
The ClearVista software at the heart of the novel can predict the future based on your activity on the internet and the activity of everything that is pertinent to the question you ask. In its simplest form, it can answer should I bet in this horse? Will I like this car? What job should I apply for? All simple discrete questions, with fairly straightforward answers.
Laurence Walker wants to be President, most of the Democratic Party want him to be President, most of the country wants him to be President. He’s a shoe-in, until a family tragedy strikes. After he re-enters the race Laurence fills in his ClearVista questionnaire, and when the results are returned they are disastrous. Despite Laurence being overwhelmingly popular, ClearVista does not rate his chances. Images being infinitely powerful than words – the software makes a composite video of what the future might hold. When this hits the media all hell breaks loose. A world used to believing everything it sees, reacts badly to Walker’s montage. He is assumed guilty of what it shows. ClearVista is everywhere, it is trusted, it is believed. Laurence Walker’s career stands on a knife edge.
The thriller elements are all there. Where did these results come from? Is Laurence being set up? Who gains from his downfall? Is the software as trustworthy as it seems? ClearVista is as ubiquitous as Google and Smythe poses interesting questions about taking it too much for granted. We accept more and more of this tailored technology into our lives with little thought of the consequences. As Laurence becomes more and more frantic trying to prove his results are anomalous, the more they look like becoming the truth.
Can he overcome his destiny? This is the nub of the novel. This sort of technology could be here within a decade. If everyone can can ask the possibility of success for absolutely everything, surely this will have massive effect on how we live our lives. Could you affect the answer to your question, merely by asking it? Would our predicted future shape our actions? Laurence Walker spirals out of control as he becomes caught in a whirlwind of self-appointed prophecy.
As ever, Smythe’s prose is economical. This is a lighter read than his previous books; a true page-turner. The novel’s final chapters are classic Stephen King; with the community of an american small town consuming itself. It’s Smythe’s trademark; not ending a novel quite how you expect it to, often with great ambiguity. Those who like their thrillers tied up neatly with a bow are probably going to howl at the end of this one, but I think it’s inspired. Smythe is an author unafraid to give the reader what they need, rather than what they think they want. I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, James Smythe is carving himself out a fine, thought-provoking career. All of his books are good and No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is no exception. As it’s his most accessible to date, it might just be the perfect place to start.
Thanks to Jaime and the team for sending me a copy of the book. James can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe.