No Harm Can Come to A Good Man (book, James Smythe, 2014)

A book review from SFX #249.



James Smythe/ Borough Press/376pp

Intimate techno-thriller

No Harm is an example of “big idea” SF, where one technology changes the world. In this case, it’s ClearVista, a predictive data-mining algorithm fast becoming an online soothsayer.

Laurence Walker is on track to become the next president of the US, until ClearVista predicts he has no chance, despite all indications to the contrary. Cue terrible tragedy.

No Harm… is the kind of book we’d love to love. Smythe attempts to build a deeply intimate portrayal of bereavement and breakdown by showing us every detail in every scene and every thought in every head. It’s only intermittently successful at best; overall the effect is paradoxically distancing. The story is neither gripping enough nor Walker’s fall from grace sufficiently believable to properly ignite such a writing style. The way Walker’s presented, you’d imagine he’d have a little more fight in him. Indeed, if he had, this might have been a more impressive work.

The SF idea, however, is strong, addressing the proliferation of the use of “big data” in our day-to-day lives. From this we get enough plot for a Hollywood SF thriller of Minority Report’s ilk, but no more. No doubt carefully shorn of distracting subplots (Mrs Walker is a struggling writer, a self-referential annoyance) it would be of minor on-screen interest. As literature, the book fails in some of its aims.

Did you know?

Smythe won the Wales Book of the Year Award for The Testimony in 2012.