The title of James Smythe's latest novel is taken from Socrates's Apology. It is clearly ironic, suggesting that disaster will indeed befall the novel’s supposed good guy protagonist, Laurence Walker.
Walker is a happily married family man and US senator who is on the verge of announcing that he will run for the Democratic presidential nomination. He lives in the leafy community of Staunton with his wife Deanna (an author suffering writer's block) and their three children—seventeen-year-old Lane and younger twins, Alyx and Sean. Over the course of Smythe's near-future novel we witness not only the disintegration of a once-happy family but also the transformation of their homely community into something sinister and dangerous.
We glimpse a parallel between political trickery—"It's all about controlling the narrative" (p. 290)—and parental control tactics.
All the tricks that they've learned over the years about how to make the kids respect them—or, at least slightly, fear them—come into play now. (p. 31)
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is set at a time when people base their everyday decisions on a piece of prediction software, ClearVista. People ask the app: What is the chance of this air flight crashing? What is the safest route for my journey? Will I win this job? Walker's campaign team and sponsors insist he submits himself, at the outset of his campaign, to a full ClearVista assessment to answer two key questions: What's the chance of Walker winning the Democratic Nomination? What's the chance of him becoming President? Reluctantly, he answers a thousand online questions posed by the software. Bearing in mind the current European Union court ruling over "the right to be forgotten," it's intriguing that ClearVista also trawls the internet, mining all the data that’s ever referred to Laurence Walker.
Lies are pointless now, because information doesn’t die like it used to. (p. 81)
Walker's political adviser and Princeton wunderkind Amit Suri says ClearVista is the future of politics. He tells Walker:
This is when you have to be honest. All those things people hide, they come out. Clinton never inhaled, remember? But Obama did. And that stuff seeps. . . . You know their slogan? The Numbers Don't Lie, Larry. Never have, never will. The public believes math. They believe computers. People? People are harder to believe. (p. 25-6)
The early turning point in the novel is a family tragedy. And while each family member is overwhelmed by shock, it's Laurence who is caught in a downward spiral adding to the pre-existing doubts over his emotional resilience. When the results of his questionnaire are sent to Amit and Laurence, they know the campaign faces as uphill battle. For an extra fee, met by campaign donations, ClearVista then concocts a video that predicts a future scenario. In Walker's case, the video coagulates photographs and videos lifted from the internet for each member of the Walker family to create a frightening scene suggesting imminent domestic violence. It's far from clear how to interpret the video but it's nevertheless a disaster for Walker's campaign as it seems to predict that he'll reach a breaking point.
While this novel is a political thriller with a science fiction slant, it's also the story of a family in crisis. Smythe's depiction of Lane is particularly captivating as he charts her determination to capture the family's current crisis in elaborate tattoos. Deanna is depicted as a capable woman, in an equal relationship with her husband. She's braced for the inevitable upheaval caused by a long-term political campaign but oddly reticent to express her true concerns to Laurence about the potential impact on their family. This reticence didn't ring true. Deanna simply goes with the flow and, ultimately, takes little ownership of her share of responsibility for the family's disintegration. She feels it's all unfair:
All she did was marry somebody with ambition, and it was an ambition that he didn't even know he had when they met. (p. 200)
Smythe deftly leads the reader to speculate if there's political corruption afoot, or if ClearVista is a technology that's simply out of control. The novel reminded me of Minority Report (2002), and at different points I thought the story might be veering towards Homeland or All the President's Men. Smythe certainly keeps the reader guessing. There's some annoying repetition, particularly of the word "algorithm" and the phrase "The numbers don't lie," and this seems to suggest a lack of confidence in handling the techy details of ClearVista. This could have been tightened up and the book would also have benefited from tougher editing at a sentence level. In the hardback edition, there are typos that the publisher did not catch.
Overall, this is a readable novel that engages the reader's attention. I wanted to know how events would unfold. Will Laurence Walker evade harm? Is he truly a good man? Is he too emotionally damaged by his military service to overcome his family tragedy? Or, is ClearVista, alone, responsible for Walker's downfall simply by providing the world with a self-fulfilling prophecy? Novels set in the very near future can be provocative in making us reflect on current debates. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man achieves this particularly in regard to online privacy, suggesting one possible way in which our data could be harvested by commercial entities.
Anne Charnock's debut dystopian novel A Calculated Life is published by 47North. Her journalism has appeared in New Scientist. She writes about fiction for The Huffington Post and on her blog www.annecharnock.com. Find Anne on Twitter @annecharnock.
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