No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smyth

No Harm Can Come to a Good ManNo Harm Can Come to a Good Man
James Smyth
The Borough Press, 374 pages
Review by Duncan Lunan

Well, a title like that should warn you. Laurence Walker is in line for the Democratic nomination to run for President of the United States. He is something of a war hero, having been captured in combat and withstood torture under which others have cracked. He is married with a son and two daughters, appears to have no skeletons in the cupboard, and his campaign is likely to attract major backers.

Everything looks good except that his principal opponent Homme (Everyman?) has beaten him in the race to be first with a computer prediction of success. This is a near-future world in which that counts for a great deal, because most major decisions are taken with reference to a predictive computer system called ClearVista, whose latest market version will even show you a snapshot video of a moment from your future life. Homme’s shows him on a Presidential visit to armed forces in the field; Walker’s, when produced, gives him zero chance of nomination or election, and shows him covering his family with a gun. Protests that ClearVista doesn’t predict what will happen are of no avail: the Party, the media and the public all respond on the basis that if it could happen, that’s enough for them. What follows has the inevitably of Macbeth, with the difference that Walker and his political advisor are trying to prevent the prophecy from being believed, much less coming true, rather than trying to bring about what it predicts.

My life as a reviewer is filled with strange coincidences, and this book has come my way just as my critical notes on the classic Jeff Hawke and Lance McLane comic strips, being published with reprints of the strips by the Jeff Hawke Club, have reached the point where their creator Sydney Jordan became increasingly preoccupied with destiny and foreordination. One of the major issues of philosophy is how (if at all) determinism and causality can be reconciled with free will, and as it happens, I found myself reading No Harm Can Come to a Good Man in parallel with The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose. One of the major themes of that book is how that philosophical debate relates to the practicality of artificial intelligence, and the provocative conclusion was that free will (a) is demonstrable, (b) cannot be simulated by algorithmic processes, so ruling out artifical intelligence in that form, now and for all time. The heavy emphasis in No Harm Can Come upon the algorithmic nature of ClearVista’s predictions might suggest that Smythe has taken his inspiration from Penrose’s book, and has set out to show us just how far wrong things could go, following Penrose’s logic to its conclusions, should people put their trust in such predictions nevertheless.

This is no abstract philosophical text, though – it follows Walker’s decline and fall in entirely human terms. In that respect it has a lot in common with Susan Barker’s Incarnations, which I reviewed last year for Concatenation: both show a flawed but basically decent man being overwhelmed by predictions about his future, from an apparently all-knowing source, against which he struggles in vain. The title has the same force as that moment in a disaster movie, when someone who should know better assures the other characters that absolutely nothing can go wrong.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 1.