Laurence Walker is a dead cert for future President of the United States. On the verge of being selected as the Democratic presidential candidate, all the polls indicate that no-one can touch him. But this is the 21st century and no-one is going to cast their vote until they’ve consulted the opinion of ClearVista, an app that will predict the outcome of every decision in a person’s day, from whether a flight will land safely, a date will be a success or if a man can recover from grief. The numbers cannot lie. When it comes to the big decisions, ClearVista doesn’t just supply a prediction, it backs it up with a video depicting a likely future outcome. Unfortunately, for Laurence Walker, this is where it all begins to go wrong. To the horror of his agent Amit, ClearVista predicts that Walker has 0% chance of becoming president. But that is nothing compared to the shock in store for Walker when he sees the video.
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man straddles genres. On one level it is political satire, mocking the dreams of an ambitious senator, while on another it is science fiction. How can ClearVista predict what it does? How did this technology grow to such importance? But the novel is far more than that. It tells the very human story of what happens to an extremely successful man when life throws a banana skin under his feet. The fall is enormous. ClearVista might be able to predict this calamity but there would be no reason on earth for Walker to expect it.
The focus of the novel is Laurence Walker but the centre of his life is his wife, Deanna, and their children Lane, Alyx and Sean. As the story unfolds, all become important to us. The tragedy affects each of them and it is through Deanna, and especially the behaviour of Lane, the eldest daughter, that we understand what is happening to Walker. Deanna expresses herself through her writing but Lane chooses to use her body instead, covering it in tattoos which mark each event, each blow. The depiction of Lane is, I think, my favourite aspect of this novel. I grew to love her.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, James Smythe is one of the most exciting young authors out there. I read each of his novels as they come out – science fiction or literary thriller with a touch of something scifi – and I think it’s quite possible No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is my favourite so far, a position previously occupied by Testament. It’s not only a great story, driven by characters you can believe in and care for, it is also extremely accomplished and confident. Smythe is always clever in his narrative. In this instance, he brings us into the unravelling of a life through the use of present tense. It increases the sense of uncertainty which is completely at odds with the certainty of ClearVista.
I don’t want to give anything away of what actually happens to Laurence Walker, his family and his campaign. The novel relies on you watching Walker closely, listening in to his wife, children and agent. It wants you to be pacing the room along with Amit as he counts the minutes to the time of ClearVista’s promised call back. It wants you to reassess constantly your opinion of Laurence Walker. It wants you to sit riveted, watching this man fall to pieces.
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is an engrossing, pageturning and clever read. It is powerful, painful and moving. It also rings some alarm bells about the role of social media and the internet in our lives. But more than any of that it leaves an impression of Laurence, Deanna, Lane, Alyx, Sean and Amit that will not be dispelled in a hurry.
Do take a look at another review at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.