Flashback by Dan Simmons
Flashback by Dan Simmons is a slight challenge to a reviewer who, in American terms, is a liberal. In fact, I’m not American and, in American terms, I’m actually a rabid Marxist, Trotskyist camp-follower who, upon capture, should be crucified at the first available opportunity. Or, if you prefer, I like to think about politics from a left wing perspective. So we need to approach this review in three steps.
First, no matter how you view Dan Simmons, there are few to beat him at a technical level. The prose on display in Flashback has the trademark efficiency that lifts mere craft to that of an artisan (in the French sense of the word indicating a master craftsman). In this respect, Simmons is one of an elite band of writers who contrive to produce highly accessible language that engages the mind and seduces the eye to turn the pages more slowly in case something interesting is missed. Except, there’s a mass of research that keeps rearing its head. Now I’m all for a writer adding in detail for local colour, but this is padding the book out just to show off the hard work he’s put in. And then there’s all the Shakespearean stuff that takes us into a metaphorical dream. Wow, is that boring or what?!
Second, as to content, we’re into a mystery set in a dystopian future. There’ve been some unfortunate events on the world stage that have seen the US hegemony broken by its profligate ways and a general economic collapse reducing all the major Western powers, plus China and Russia, to chaotic states. Only two political systems prosper. The Japanese revive the shogunate and a Caliphate emerges to unify the Islamic world. This world upheaval leaves the US fractured with the Mexicans coming in from the south, some states seceding, and the Canucks building a wall to keep out the noisome Yanks. The general culture is encouraged to collapse by the spread of Flashback. This escapist drug allows people to revive past memories in full detail. Needless to say, this is highly addictive, persuading people to abandon the tribulations of future unpleasantness in favour of happier pasts.
I was optimistic when I set off because I like the idea of a detective investigating a cold murder case by interrogating his past memories. There can be a constant dissonance between what he thinks he remembers and the actual memories he accesses using the drug. And, in truth, the structure begins to work out along predicted lines as he surveys the murder scene and begins talking to those who were on the list of suspects when he was the lead detective six years previously. Unfortunately, the potential is never realised as the novel loses its narrow focus on the death itself and dives into the context. Although the whodunnit ending does solve the crime and reveal the broader truth about the cultural events that led to the death and continue to drive the contemporary political situation, most of the interest is diffused because of the politics involved. If you want this in strict science fiction terms, I wanted a P. K. Dick story about the paranoia of what we think we can remember (wholesale or not) but, instead, I got something Proust might have written if there’d been SF way-back-then.
For a man who starts off a hopeless addict of many years standing, our hero goes cold turkey and comes through to full health and vigour without even the hint of withdrawal symptoms. If this is a drug with such a powerful effect, psychological and/or physical dependence is not going to be thrown off so easily. I also find his son Val less than believable. It seems this boy is too essentially good to succumb to full gang membership. Frankly, this is unreal. The whole point of gangs is they reinforce group solidarity with everyone being actively involved. If one member is not participating, he’s given a choice. Either you’re leading the next gang rape or we’ll beat you to death. No-one is allowed as a part-time member, good as a look-out but nothing else. No-one is allowed to demonstrate intelligence. And no-one stands up to the leader without this being seen as a challenge for leadership, resolved by pistols at ten paces or a rumble in the jungle.
Third, dystopias come in many different shapes and forms but, in a sense, the common theme is the nature of the government (or lack of one) growing out of our present reality. Think of an author planting seeds in today and describing the stunted and twisted trees later dominating the landscape. For these purposes, stuntedness can manifest itself either in the quality of the leadership or the loss of freedom for the citizens. In this case, Simmons has a simple message. Everyone’s life when to hell in a handbasket because the US went too far to the left under President Obama. He bankrupted the country with his socialist entitlement programs, and killed its international reputation with a craven foreign policy. Ho hum. This is a more extreme worldview than usually offered by the neoconservative right wingers. We get to this dystopia because America is not aggressive enough internationally, and fails to defend the Utopian democracy and its freedoms created by President Reagan and the generational Bush team. Well, such superficial polemics might work for the Tea Party membership, but I find them ludicrously simple-minded.
Dan Simmons asserts you can only tell the difference between fantasy and reality because the real thing hurts. If you’re in doubt, cut yourself with the biggest knife around. The resulting pain tells you this is not a dream. For me, this book was the equivalent of a knife. It started well, but soon passed my pain threshold. I did finish it by skimming to see what happened, but it’s relentlessly dull and politically naïve. Flashback is the author as shock-jock, i.e this book is only for right-wingers who want their worldview confirmed by one of their own.