James Smythe is a young British writer who is slowly accumulating an impressive body of work. Smythe spins familiar stories, but gives them a trademark chilling edge. Most of his tales are about unraveling: what happens when humans are pushed beyond their limits. He counts Stephen King, Iain Banks, and George Orwell among his influences, and from his opening five novels there can be little doubt about his geek credentials. I read Smythe’s books in publication order.
The Testimony is a quiet-apocalypse novel. A mysterious voice speaks to the entirety of humanity at once, giving rise to countless unanswered questions. Supreme Being? Religious hoax? Scientific anomaly? The globe is thrown into disarray. Narrated by a host of different people from around the world, the story is told entirely through testimony. It offers up a global perspective on the end of the world, and, just when things might be about to get silly, Smythe changes tack and offers up a thoughtful, contemplative finale.
The opening two novels of his Anomaly Quartet are pure 2001. Both have small casts and are set inside closed systems. In the first book, The Explorer, humanity is reaching into space. The Ishiguro is heading deeper into the cosmos than we have ever gone before, but things quickly begin to go wrong. The Explorer confounded my expectations at every turn, from the speed at which things unravel to the slow tense build up to its Sixth Sense-style conclusion. I can’t say too much about the follow up, The Echo, because it will spoil The Explorer, but Smythe once again delivers a small cast and a slow-burning unraveling of a space mission and its crew.
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man examines our fealty to social media. Currently we’re happy to tell everybody what we’re doing, almost every minute of the day. The technology to predict our desires improves year on year, but what if there was software that could predict what you were going to do? This is what Smythe’s “ClearVista” does, with unerring accuracy. When a US presidential candidate undergoes a routine ClearVista report, it shows him on the verge of shooting his family. How could this possibly happen to the man who has everything? Is it a conspiracy or a mistake? Is there someone with a grudge out to get him, or can ClearVista see deep into your soul? In No Harm… Smythe asks important questions about free will and the perils of social media, whilst delivering a punchy political thriller.
My favorite James Smythe novel is 2013’s The Machine. This is one of my favorite novels of the last ten years. It’s brilliance has remained with me. I often find myself pondering it at unexpected moments of the day. The Machine is a modern reworking of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. It’s how a rework should be done, and it’s stellar–especially when compared with the recent tawdry imitation found in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Machine is set in Britain in the near future. It’s not quite a dystopia, but the fabric of society is crumbling. Vic is a returning soldier from conflict in the Middle East. A victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he is a shattered man. His marriage to Beth could not withstand his psychological breakdown, but there was hope: machines that could erase memories. The hope proved false, the machines had horrendous side effects and Vic was left without any memories at all. Can Beth restore the man she loves?
The book is a meditation on what makes us human. Are we the sum of our experiences, and if they are taken away what do we become? The Machine is a stylized piece of fiction, with a painstakingly constructed plot. It’s a book that resonates long after reading.
With an apocalypse novel, some old school sci-fi, a critique of social media, and a reworking of the original science fiction novel under his belt, Smythe’s geek credentials are more than sound, but this is GeekDad; what about the dad part? His latest novel, written under the name JP Smythe, is being marketed as Young Adult. If it’s anywhere near as good as his work for adults then you owe it to your children to know about this book, and I am pleased to report the Way Down Dark most certainly is.
If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.
Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.
Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.
The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.
This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.
Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.
Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.
James Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.
Over the years I have received review copies of all the books mentioned here. JP Smythe’s Way Down Dark was sent to me by its UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. James can be found on Twitter as @Jpsmythe and excellent literary-geek fun can be had @hodderscape and also www.hodderscape.co.uk.