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no-harm-can-come-to-a-good-manReleased: May 2014

Dave Eggers’s most recent book, The Circle, has being lauded with praise recently for being, as the Guardian put it, ‘the most prescient satirical commentary on the early internet age’. The attention focused on Eggers is not undeserved, but it is perhaps clouding over the fact that there are many other recent publications within this new area of intelligent fiction that explore our new found relationship/obsession with technology and the digital social world.

James Smythe’s most recent book, No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, is a welcome addition to this fold. It’s not Smythe’s first excursion into exploring these themes though. His book The Machine, released last year, told the haunting tale of a new technology that could supposedly extract traumatic or painful memories from clients’ minds; unsurprisingly, the machine engineers slightly darker outcomes than originally planned.

The technology in NHCCTAGM is perhaps less outwardly sinister, at least initially, and its central character is undoubtedly more grandiose. ClearVista is the name of the new technology, an app that has been gaining widespread popularity in this near future. It’s essentially prediction software, able to give you a percentage of probability of the outcome to any question you ask it. With the use of online information and its seemingly uninhibited access to private details, it becomes known as being uncannily accurate. Its attraction is its simple convenience, and it becomes an unthinking finger-tap to its users, similar to how we all now automatically click on GoogleMaps the minute you can’t find a street. Want to know which presidential candidate is most likely to win the election? ClearVista can give you the exact percentage for each.

This is the option available to Senator Laurence Walker, the character at the heart of this book, who is expecting to use the software’s results as part of his presidential campaign, as in this case ClearVista also offers the option of a conceptual video to accompany the results, visualising this possible future. In theory, this would work as a great publicity stunt, showing the candidate involved in some sort of patriotic tableau, looking suitably presidential. However, for Walker things don’t quite work out this way.

In particular, the video that ClearVista presents to him is severely lacking in dutiful presidential behaviour, and instead simply shows an emotionless Walker watching dead eyed as his family cower in fear in a dark corner. It ends with the sound of a gunshot. Understandably, Laurence Walker’s life, to say nothing of his presidential campaign, takes a slight downward turn from there.

NHCCTAGM is a tense and thrilling read, the plot sparking like a lit fuse towards its explosive finish and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself reading it at a similarly fast pace. The character of Walker didn’t feel completely unfamiliar; he seemed to have strong echoes of Damien Lewis’s character in Homeland for much of the book. The two have more than a few similarities, their undisclosed dark side being one of the major ones, but this is in no way a bad thing – it’s what makes both characters such attractive centrepieces for both stories.

The book is a must for readers looking for more fiction exploring our new digital obsession and its unhealthy possibilities. Any fans of more standard thrillers will be equally satisfied with Smythe’s new work, and possibly more intrigued to explore further into this growing pile of intriguing digital dystopian fiction.

★★★★

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