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The ShortRead: James Smythe

The ShortRead: James Smythe

The ShortRead: James Smythe
27 May 2014

ShortRead of 21 May


No harm can come to a good man

Author: James Smythe

What's the story:

In the year 2020, ClearVista can predict anything – weather patterns, traffic flow, who you should befriend and who you should avoid. Give it the data and it will give you the answers - like Laurence Walker’s chances of becoming the next President of the United States. ClearVista will predict if he’s the right man for the job. It will predict that his son can only survive for 102 seconds underwater. It will predict that Laurence's life is about to collapse in the most unimaginable way.

No Harm Can Come To A Good Man is the latest gripping thriller from London-born author James Smythe - the new master of speculative fiction who's already been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award (a prize whose former winners include Stephen King and Margaret Atwood). For a chance to win a signed copy of No Harm Can Come To A Good Man, be sure to check out our competition.

Release date:22 May



The bar is in a hotel that’s full of people who shouldn’t be there at a quarter of four in the afternoon, so nobody bats an eyelid when Laurence and Amit take a table. Laurence orders an Old Fashioned, Amit lemonade. He and Amit don’t talk until the drinks arrive, brought by a waiter, brandishing them on a polished silver tray, like some service from a time long before this. Laurence sips; the drink is sharp enough, and good. The meetings with the higher echelons of the party always terrify him; they bring out the prospects of the future, and the reality of what this all could mean over time. Amit brings out the paperwork and the contracts.

‘They’re footing the bills,’ he says.

‘But this feels like bullshit,’ Laurence argues.

‘Necessary bullshit,’ Amit says. ‘Look, they want this, and everybody’s going to be using it. You know that POTUS’s team have some Here’s what Four More Years will mean stuff prepared, and you know that if they don’t, the press will. Anybody can use these stats; better we’re first out of the gate with them.’

‘So I fill this in, and then it tells me if I should be President?’

‘In theory.’ Amit flicks through the pages. ‘All this stuff, it’s all designed to use as a jumping-off point, that’s all. You answer this stuff honestly, the data miner verifies it – and then the concept of you as an honest candidate rises. It’s not rocket science, not like people think it is.’

‘It’s numbers.’

‘It’s math; they’re different things.’ Amit turns to various questions. ‘I have never cheated on my wife. You tick the True box, and you move on.’ He leans in close. ‘That is true, right?’

‘Of course it’s true.’

‘Just checking. Because this is when there’s no chance for secrets, Laurence. This is when you have to be honest, because all those things people hide, they come out. Clinton never inhaled, remember? But Obama did. And that stuff gets out.’ He finds more questions and picks them out. ‘These are easy wins. I have fought in a war. I have been honest about my policies. I have never lied about my sexual preferences. These are so easy, Larry.’

‘What’s the deadline? Realistically.’

‘No more than a couple of weeks: this is new tech; you get to be the first up to bat with the new, more polished algorithm.’

‘How different can it be?’

Amit smiles and leans forward. ‘When I stopped working for them, what we were doing was small fry. Compared to that . . . I mean, Jesus, Larry, the software will know you. That’s how it works. It finds out everything about you, and it learns you, and it predicts you. That’s the next wave.’

‘It’s ridiculous. So my word means nothing?’

‘Of course it does. But this reinforces that. 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.’ He looks down at Laurence’s hands, which are shaking, the ice rattling in the bottom of the glass. He raises his hand at the waiter walking by. ‘One more,’ he says, pointing to Laurence’s glass. ‘Listen: you can’t lie, though. Seriously, I know you’re full of integrity and all that stuff, so whatever. But we all lie. You lie on that, you’ll get caught. What I’ve heard about the algorithm now, the data mining? That thing will find out any secrets you’ve got.’ He finishes his own drink. ‘Look, this is fine. It’s totally fine. It’s you and answers and some bullshit video that’s going to run and run because it’s the first of its kind. We do this, we win the election. That’s what you want, right?’

‘Yes,’ Laurence says. The drink is put in front of him and he gulps it in the way that you shouldn’t. ‘That’s what I want.’


Laurence’s hotel room is functional. He lies on the bed, his head slightly swimming, and switches on the news. There’s a picture of him on the screen, between the two anchors: the shining, smiling one that’s on the front page of his website. The hosts are discussing the rumors.

‘I think it’s safe to say that they don’t qualify as rumor any more,’ one of them says, ‘because, come on. Look who he’s hired. Look where he’s been. And his answers to questions about it have been—’

‘So who’ll run against him?’ the other anchor asks. ‘Because, for my money, there’s only one other viable candidate, unless we’re dredging up one of the failures from last time.’

‘Which they won’t do.’

‘So, Homme?’

‘Makes a lot of sense. Good profile. Family man – I mean, they’re both family men, but still . . . and maybe more inclined to appeal to the more traditional members of the party.’ Laurence thinks about how little he likes or trusts Homme: they’ve met a few times and their politics do not have many natural points of intersection. His would-be opponent is as red as the Democrats get: he’s antiabortion, anti healthcare, pro war. Everything is structured as a response to the last few governments, a way of suggesting that the soft touch that has been taken hasn’t been enough. His platform is a return to old-school values. ‘But I don’t think he’s got a chance. Walker’s going to take this. He’s going to take the White House back, and maybe he’s what’s needed. You know, he’s got some real guts.’

Laurence switches the set off. He thinks about sleep, but instead he takes up his phone and searches for his name on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. He reads all the comments, and he tries to let the negative ones slide away from him.


For more excellent reads, check out our previous choices below - just click on the link:

The Murder Bag by Tony Parsons

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Who is Tom Ditto by Danny Wallace

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)