Thursday, July 7, 2011

Flashback by Dan Simmons

Nick Bottom, once a detective with the Denver Police Department, once a family  man with a wife and young son and a beautiful little house set among greenery and mountain views, has been, for the last half decade, an addict. He, like 85 percent of the rest of the population of what's left of the United States, is addicted to flashback, a drug that allows the user to relive memories exactly, in real time. After his wife died in a fiery car crash Bottom sent his son to live in L.A. with his father-in-law and has spent as much time as he could afford to buy reliving the time he had with his wife.

As wretched a piece of humanity as Nick Bottom is, why would powerful Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Nakamura want to hire him to solve the murder, now a cold case six years gone, of his son? In particular, why would Nakamura want to hire him to solve the case which was Bottom's last case as a detective, a case which he was unable to solve with all the resources of the Denver PD behind him? Whatever the reason (and we won't discover it until far into this 550 page novel), hire him he does, and for a very good price.

After using a large portion of the money he's been paid up front to buy a massive quantity of flashback, Bottom intends to spend as much of the rest of his life as he can immersed in memory, coming up only once every few hours to walk around so that his muscles don't atrophy. He's quickly disabused of this notion by Nakamura's chief of security, Hideki Sato, who's been assigned to accompany Bottom for the duration of the investigation.

The world that Flashback is set in, a future a mere twenty-one years out from our present, is bleak. A large portion of the world--including pockets of the United States--is ruled by the Caliphate, a well-organized group of Islamic extremists from across the Muslim world. The Japanese own much of the rest of the world, and, having shed the restrictions placed upon them after the second World War, are working to rebuild Japanese society according to the ideals of medieval Japan. The remains of the United States (there are 44 states, several having either seceded or been absorbed by other countries), reeling in the twenty-third year of the jobless recovery, hires its armed forces out to other countries to bring in much-needed revenue, but still its cities crumble and fall. 

Flashback is set in a dystopian future which reads very much like an ultra-conservative I-told-you-so wet dream. It is unfortunate to a reader of liberal bent that Simmons's contempt for the current administration and its policies is so scathingly obvious, and that he prognosticates such a bleak future for the world based on this contempt. And yet, dammit, he's a brilliant writer. The future he imagines for us, whatever its inception, is perfectly realized and excruciatingly believable.


The story alternates between Nick and Sato traveling the Southwest, often in bad-ass armored vehicles, as they chase down leads, and Nick's father-in-law, Professor Emeritus George Leonard Fox and his son, sixteen year old Val as they flee L.A. in a convoy of independent truckers. The tension is almost unbearable, as each of the small parties is faced with obstacle after life-threatening, seemingly-insurmountable obstacle, and as it seems less and less obvious that they'll ever meet up. 

Besides his often gorgeous prose, one of Dan Simmons's most admirable qualities is his ability to write in seemingly every genre ever invented. Flashback has elements of all of those genres, from the hardboiled Joe Kurtz novels through the uber-futuristic world of Hyperion. Throw in fully realized characters, horrifying violence and disregard of humanity, and touching relationships, and you've got a nearly perfect novel. Ultra-conservative global-warming denial, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all. 


And oh, it all comes together--the storylines, the investigations, the relationships--in an ending which is absolutely killer.

10 comments:

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

It's definitely a good lesson about books - regardless of political beliefs, thoughts, etc., a good story is always a good story. Who knows, perhaps even the fiction thriller by Glenn Beck is also good, you know?

Rebecca Glenn said...

Well...um...I guess it's possible. Or it would be, if Glenn Beck had a fraction of the talent or an iota of the intelligence of Dan Simmons.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Thanks for this great review - I'd read a few reviews on Amazon that painted this as a blatant right-wing screed. Sad to see that's, in part, confirmed here. But it doesn't sound like that distracted you from enjoy the novel too much. And I'm really intrigued by it - fascinating premise.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Thanks, Greg. Yes, every once in a while he'd say something that would cause me to rear back in the wrong kind of horror...but then the writing would redeem him, and I'd continue reading for the beauty of the story.

And I do love a dystopia, no matter how we got there...

EnriqueFreeque said...

The concept of a drug called flashback is sheer genius. It's one of those ideas that's so freaking obvious sounding I can't believe somebody didn't come up with it already.

Rebecca Glenn said...

I know! Better yet, throughout the book there are rumors of flashback 2, which allows you to relive experiences as you wish they'd been...

Shawn said...

I'm concerned - I really want to read this, as Enrique said the concept of the drug is genius, but I'm usually not as forgiving as You obviously are. Maybe I'll start with a different Simmons. Summer of Night has been highly rec.

Rebecca Glenn said...

Simmons' politics are definitely not pronounced in the other work of his that I've read.

Dan said...

That's because the politics you are trying to ascribe to him are not his. He says as much in the June 2011 message on his website...

"Is Flashback A Novel Stating Dan Simmons's Political Biases?Flashback

In a word . . . no. In two words . . . hell no.

I spent 18 years as an elementary classroom teacher (and loved it!) and one of the things I was proud of when I ended that career and moved on to another one (writing) is that after working with hundreds of kids in so many interesting ways, including "Black History" lectures, social studies simulations such as our five days of "The Cuban Missile Crisis" and the gifted/talented APEX program I helped create to serve thousands of bright kids -- after all that, I stake my reputation that not one of those students I taught ever left with even a hint of my stand on religion or politics or any other adults-only issues. It was simply not my role as an educator to share them.

After 29 novels published, I want (and trust) the same to be true with those who read my novels. I have my own core beliefs, but my profession here is to speculate, not to argue my opinions or to pretend to be a prophet. That latter skill, prophecy. like the trick of walking on water, hasn't been done well in a long, long time.

Finally, it's also true that I've noticed that even the most famous (and popular) (and beloved) writers from the 20th and 21st Century can be abysmally stupid when it comes to politics. This tendency toward idiotic political opinions may be one of the very few ways in which novelists and poets are like movie stars and rock idols.

One is more likely to receive a more common-sense political view and interesting speculation about the future by asking an average citizen on the street than by querying most writers.

And yet . . . .

The Vonnegut--canaries amongst us do fall off our perches from time to time."

Rebecca Glenn said...

Dan, thanks for the link. Fascinating. Yet another testament to the power of Simmons's writing, as the narrator's voice (I would have thought the authorial voice) was so believable.