Dark Matters ‘Way Down Dark’ by James Smythe


This review appeared as part of a larger piece published on Geekdad on 12.7.2015

“There’s One Truth on Australia. You Fight or You Die”

If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.

Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.

Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.

The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.

This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.

Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.

Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.

Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.

Over the years I have received review copies of all the books mentioned here. JP Smythe’s Way Down Dark was sent to me by its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. James can be found on Twitter as @Jpsmythe and excellent literary-geek fun can be had @hodderscape and also www.hodderscape.co.uk. 

You are What you Tweet – No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

noharmJames 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. 


Not Fade Away – The Echo by James Smythe

echoThe Echo is sequel to 2013’s The Explorer and book two in the Anomaly Quartet. If you haven’t read The Explorer, stop reading now… 

Twenty or more years have passed since Earth lost contact with the Ishiguro, and now we’re heading out again.  Twins Mira and Tomas head of up team of international astronauts heading towards ‘the anomaly’. What could possibly go wrong?

Mira and Tomas are the innovators and driving force behind UNSA spaceship the Lära. They once did research for Dr Singer, one of the astronauts on board the Ishiguro and it is their desire to continue his work. The anomaly has now been formally identified on Earth and the twins want to investigate further.  Mira is on board the Lära, whilst Tomas sits at mission control. For this mission nothing has been left to chance.  Mira is clear, The Ishiguro’s pandering to money and publicity meant its mission was flawed. Scientific rigour has replaced celebrity. This time all bases are covered.

A number of reviews of The Explorer complained about a couple of specific ‘flaws’ in the novel: Smythe’s (mis)use of gravity and the preposterous idea that a comparatively untrained journalist would be allowed a spot on such an important mission. In the opening pages Smythe acknowledges the criticisms thrown at his first book before smashing them over the stands into the car park. In an age where the barrier between author and reader has never been thinner, Smythe has used his customer feedback to enhance both novels in his quartet. It’s neat trick and one that made me laugh.

The opening chapters of The Echo are a masterclass in suspense storytelling. The sense of menace builds to almost unbearable levels. In a more famous franchise, characters would have been looking at each other and saying ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ The opening third of the novel is my favourite section of the Anomaly books so far. What follows is another examination on the terror of isolation, and the nature of faith. Once again, the wheels start to fall off the cart (or wings off the spaceship) and no amount of faith in scientific method can save the crew from a nerve-shredding implosion.

If I have a complaint about the book it’s that it didn’t move the overreaching story along quick enough. The echoes of the previous story made a nice touch, but by the end of this book, I’m not sure we’re much further on than after the big reveal in The Explorer. Space Odysseys are not my usual fictional fare, so I think I was hoping we might grapple with the anomaly itself. There are some teasing hints as to what this entity might be, but it was all a bit too ethereal for me.

Having said that, once again Smythe excels at depicting the unravelling sanity of his characters. The use of twins separated across miles of space heightens the sense of isolation. The distance and the tough calls drive a wedge between these two closest of brothers and the rupturing of the twin-twin bond adds another dimension to the novel.

As with The Explorer, Smythe delivers a sparse psychological horror. The Echo is a book that expands on what has come before and teases as to what happens next. I said I’m not a huge fan of Space Odyssey but I’m hooked on the myriad folds and turns of this one. Roll on book three…

Many Thanks to Jaime and the team at Harper Voyager. James can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe and his other recent novel The Machine is out now in paperback. It is also one of the best novels published during 2013

Back to Human – ‘The Machine’ by James Smythe

the machineThe Machine. Where to start? Author James Smythe is causing something of a stir in the world of books, or at least he is in the bit I frequent. His previous two novels (The Testimony and The Explorer have been understated, strongly thematic literary science fiction (whatever that is?). I loved them both.

The Machine is probably the least accessible novel of his I’ve read, but it’s also the best. It’s packed with themes and ideas, and delightfully, the story is nested inside itself, turning the reader’s understanding of the novel on its head.

Set in the near future, in a decaying Britain, Beth is taking delivery of three large parcels. There is something clandestine about this. The parcels are marked ‘exercise equipment’ but this is not what’s inside. On the black market Beth has bought The Machine. We learn that these machines were miracle cures for dementia patients and traumatic stress sufferers. The Machine can manipulate memories; it can take them away, it can put them back.

The machines were heralded as medical marvels, but something went horribly wrong. Now they are outlawed. Victor, Beth’s husband fell victim. An ex soldier, he suffered traumatic stress after being injured in the field. They tried to replace his memories. Instead they wiped his brain. Now Beth hopes to put those memories back.

Smythe’s first two books were not without their detractors. I’ve seen reviews pooh-poohing his involvement in creative writing courses (Smythe teaches the subject), effectively accusing him of putting style over substance. This is not an opinion I subscribe to, but The Machine is unlikely to bring any of these people back into the fold. This is a highly stylised piece of writing. There are no speech marks to delineate dialogue, often there isn’t even a line break. This gives the novel a stream of consciousness feel, which takes some time to acclimatise to. It’s a very deliberate decision on the author’s part and initially it’s hard to see its justification. All I can say is that by the novel’s close the choice is fully justified.

The opening half of the novel, is slow, almost bumbling. Beth is preparing the machine, her flat, her life for the arrival of her husband. It’s like watching somebody fiddle with the place settings before an important dinner party. Of itself, not terribly interesting, but it’s hugely telling. Smythe uses this time to set his scene. By the time Vic has returned home, we understand Beth’s world, her loneliness, her isolation.

This book will inevitably be compared to Frankenstein (indeed the back cover of my copy does so). There are undoubted parallels, and it is from here, thematically, that the story bursts into life. There is an amazing scene where Beth is using the machine to refurnish Vic’s memories and the electricity is cut off. This inversion of Frankenstein’s Monster’s animation, is inspired, particularly when combined with the raging storm outside. These two pages alone make The Machine worth reading; they stopped me in my tracks. The written word at its most powerful.

But the author is not merely content with reworking a classic, he has plenty of themes of his own to explore. Though completely different in style to one other, The Machine unifies Smythe previous two novels under a thematic umbrella. All three novels explore isolation, faith and belief. The use of the machines, is considered (by some) as ungodly; messing with the soul. Which links into the novel’s main questions, What makes us human? Are we an aggregate of our experiences? Are we defined by our memories?

Part of the novel’s appeal, is that anybody reading it can relate to its central premise. Who hasn’t wished they could remove a terrible memory, who wouldn’t like to repaint a fading reminiscence of a happy event? Needless to say, Beth’s plan to regain the man she loves does not go well. Again this provokes questions. Does she love the man, or her memories of the man? With different memories, is he the same man?

As things deteriorate, it’s impossible not to read on in grim fascination. By this time novel’s style is irrelevant, the story is utterly compelling. Much like The Explorer, as The Machine hurtles towards its conclusion Smythe pans his lens out to reveal the bigger picture. Once we can see everything, we realise nothing has been left to chance. Every choice Smythe made was deliberate, the structure of his novel meticulously planned. The finale is as breathtaking as it was unexpected.

I thought Explorer was good, but The Machine is staggering. Buy it, read it, then buy copies of it for your friends, because you are going to want to talk about it.

Thanks to James for sending me a copy of the book. He can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe

Major Tom to Ground Control – The Explorer by James Smythe

‘The Explorer is the second James Smythe novel I have read.  The first, The Testimony, was an unusually structured ‘End of Days’ novel, that opens with a mysterious voice being heard across the globe.  Overall the novel is a slow-burning, thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith.  It is utterly compelling.  The Explorer is very different yet equally captivating.

The premise is simple. Set in the near future, a manned spaceship is heading away from Earth and beyond the moon.  It’s boldly going to a galaxy far far… No it’s not really, but it is heading deeper into the Solar system than humankind has ever been before.  It is on the ultimate voyage of discovery.

From the outset this book confounded my expectations. I knew bad things would happen to the crew, but I had envisaged Smythe would treat us to a science fiction ‘And Then There Were None’. So it was a great surprise when by page 11 all the crew, bar one, we’re dead.  How was Smythe going to fill another 250 pages with only one character?  Well that, of course, would be telling.

Smythe has woven a taut psychological thriller, that draws on fear of the unknown and the debilitating effects of isolation.  Once again, the author has opted for a quiet thoughtful approach rather than create the bombastic explosive story that lesser authors may have chosen.  Smythe’s control of the tension is, by and large, spot on. ‘The Explorer’ is reminiscent of Stephen King’s early short fiction.

In the latter half of the book, the pace ebbs slightly, and as with ‘The Testimony’, I couldn’t see how proceedings could be brought to a satisfactory end. I need not have worried. The novel’s conclusion is expertly constructed, and the denouement jaw-dropping.  It’s the closest thing I have seen in literature to a ‘Sixth Sense’ type reveal, that will have you thumbing back through the book, to check all the pieces were there.  I can assure you they are, and you won’t quite believe you missed them. Things are even left open for a sequel, and such is the open nature of the tale, it could be taken in any number of directions.  I can’t wait to see which one the author chooses.

If The Testimony marked James Smythe as an author to watch, then the Explorer demands that he is one to follow. An excellent novel.

Many Thanks to James and his publisher Harper Voyager for providing me with an advanced copy of this book.  James can be found on Twitter @jpsmythe where he ruminates on books, games and chocolate.  Explorer is available as an ebook from 20th December 2012 and as a hardback from 17th Jan 2013