It’s not often that a new SF novel from a major talent has critics frothing at the mouth and posting one-star reviews on Amazon. Dan Simmons was obviously expecting the worst when he published a detailed apologia for his latest book, ‘Flashback’, on his website – in advance.
Trouble soon makes its appearance. The story is set in 2032 in a ruined America. In Europe, the Middle-East and Africa the Islamic Global Caliphate (capitals in Iran, Syria and at Mecca) holds sway over almost 2 billion people and has already expanded into Canada. China has collapsed into fiefdoms run by warlords, a terrain violently contested by the new superpowers of India and Japan. The southern part of the US is now settled by reconquistas of Nuevo Mexico, while Texas has seceded from the Union.
All this can be traced back to the economic crisis following 2008 when a failure to rein in Government spending, especially mandatory social entitlements, led inexorably to economic collapse. The real killer though is flashback, the ubiquitous drug which can let you relive your happiest memories while you lie twitching on some cot in a flashcave. So welcome to dysfunctional, broken-down America where armed, violent crime is omnipresent; the sports-stadiums are Homeland Security internment camps; the parks are full of the homeless, and buses have been discontinued due to suicide bombers.
The story opens in Denver where ex-Detective Nick Bottom is being interviewed by Japanese oligarch Hiroshi Nakamura. The billionaire wants Bottom to investigate the murder of his son, Keigo, which took place six years previously in the same town. Nick had been one of the detectives assigned to the case back then without success, and all further investigations have led nowhere.
Shortly after Keigo’s murder, Nick’s beloved wife, Dara, died in a tragic and meaningless accident and Nick fell to pieces. In desperation he turned to flashback: soon he was fired and ever since, amidst mounting debts, Nick has been a flashback-addict looping through those precious moments with his wife. Standing in Nakamura’s office, Nick has no hope at all of finding the murderer or murderers, especially as so many others have tried before and so much time has elapsed. But the oligarch is rich, and the fee would keep him under flashback forever.
Nick and Dara had a son, Val, who Nick selfishly handed off to Dara’s father in Los Angeles after Dara died and has since ignored. Predictably, Val has gone bad and is now running with the LA flashgangs who rape and kill, then flash repeatedly on the experience.
Nakamura’s son, Keigo, had state-of-the-art Japanese security: his murder was essentially a ‘locked room’ mystery. It seems that only a stealth team of Japanese ninja assassins could have hoped to carry out such an impossible crime. Since the Japanese all but run what’s left of America and have infiltrated the enforcement agencies, it was perhaps inevitable that no progress has been made on the case.
All of the above is established early in the story. There now follow several plotlines of ingenious complexity as Nick discovers that very little is what it had seemed. As Bottom retraces the last days of Keigo’s life, re-interviewing witnesses, we get more future horrors. Israel was annihilated by eleven dirty nuclear weapons killing another six million Jews as well as a million Israeli Arabs: an early achievement of the Caliphate as the world stood by. And then Nick discovers that his wife (an employee in the DA’s office) was involved in a secret investigation surrounding Keigo. Nick’s options begin to close in as his expected survival time reduces from days to mere hours, while the ramifications of the unfolding conspiracy go global.
Writing about ‘Flashback’ on his website, Dan Simmons compares his role in this book to that of a canary in a mine. The canary is there to warn of impending danger. In the mine, the danger is gas and the canary will fall off its perch and probably die. The ‘Flashback’ canary is there to signal other kinds of danger: the risks of politically-correct appeasement of those who wish America, as a standard-bearer for the modern world, harm; the perils of rent-seeking behavior over productive work, entrepreneurship and innovation; the threats of military emasculation and an inability to project hard power in defense of what’s right; the retreat from scholarship and dedication to the truth. There is no doubting Simmon’s commitment to his message but sometimes it comes across as merely gratuitous (whatever you may think about anthropogenic global warming, it’s certainly not a ‘hoax’ – which implies a deliberate intent to deceive by the whole scientific community).
This book of c. 180,000 words is vintage Simmons. Scenes are described with vivid impact, characters and dialogue seem effortlessly real (we know how much work that takes!) and the narrative-journey seems as authentic as a flashback experience itself. As is often the case with Simmons’ work, there is a literary hinterland. In the Hyperion Cantos, the referenced themes included The Canterbury Tales and the poetic works of John Keats. Here the central reference is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the weaver Nick Bottom is a ‘rude mechanical’ (an artisan) who is placed under enchantment by Puck (his head turned into a donkey) and who then makes love to a bewitched Queen Titania. But was it actually a dream? An echo of this ambiguity is present in Dan Simmons’ disturbing ending, where nothing can be truly trusted.
We should have no problem at all with what Simmons calls ‘his one and only dystopian novel’: he is entitled to argue his case. We may wonder a little about an Islamic Global Caliphate based on Shia Islam (it’s the fundamentalist Sunnis who are signed up to the restoration and extension of the Caliphate today) and a lot of things would have to turn out in the worst possible way to get where Dan Simmons paints it. But in this heartfelt novel, Dan Simmons has done a scarily-effective job of painting a near-future picture of our world, framed by a detective story in turn intriguing, touching, puzzling, thrilling and nauseating.
Simmons is an extraordinarily well-read, versatile and intimidatingly-knowledgeable writer, with great natural talent. No doubt he would wish to be counted with the immortals of literature. Somehow, I feel he doesn’t quite make it: there is a quality of construction about his work which, although beautifully-crafted, nevertheless subtracts from its page-turning quality. Although always rewarding, there is just the slightest effort of will required to continue reading.