My first exposure to Dan Simmons’ novels came through the horror genre — Carrion Comfort and Summer of Night were two excellent novels that seemed, to me, to be very original takes on themes found in the genre. I followed those readings with his work in a different genre — science fiction — by reading his works Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion. Those reads blew me away, and I kept going, reading more SF, horror and mystery. Everything was enjoyable.
When I saw that Simmons had written a dystopian novel titled Flashback, I had to give it a try. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the blurb told me that the United States is in a state of collapse and that 85% of its population are using a strange drug called Flashback, which allows them to enter a dream-like state where they can relive moments of their lives of their choosing. That sounds like a pretty cool premise to start with. Follow that with a former police officer, Nick Bottom, who lost his job after the death of his wife, and has now lost his son as well because of his addiction to this drug.
Nick is hired by a Japanese businessman who is serving as one of the US Government’s “Advisors” to investigate the murder of his son. It’s a crime that Nick investigated as a police officer, and he knows that nothing much is going to happen, but he figures he can milk it for a good payday, which will assure him of a supply of his drug. But there’s more going on, and Nick actually does make progress; actually is motivated to solve the crime.
The story is about Nick’s investigation and discoveries, as the world around him is revealed to him (with more clarity for him) and to us readers (for the first time). There is a value in considering this potential future as Simmons foresees it. So much politics is there, so much of the rhetoric we are hearing today is extrapolated forward to come up with the pessimistic future that is depicted here. Do I see it happening? Not at all. But I think it’s worth considering so that we can think about the worst case scenarios as depicted by the Tea Party and conservatives every day today.
So what did I really like about this book? Well, it’s a good story. The trouble comes from being too close to events referred to in this book as sorts of “trigger events” and seeing them from a different perspective. The book looks back at Obama’s elections, the federal debt, entitlements, the lack of military response, the way the administration is dealing with Iran, etc etc, and depicts them as the first steps in becoming the society that the book describes. I look at those same things and don’t see things the same. I look at Simmons’ depiction of Islam and Arabs and Iranians (notice I separate the two — Iranians are not Arabs, racially) and see fear primarily informing the story’s (and I’m assuming, HIS) view of them. I look at his depiction of Israelis as victims who have no responsibility for their own fate in this story, and I find myself disagreeing.
In the context of this story, of this world, however, these things all work really well. They set the table for an engrossing tale where the Japanese are looked at as a stable and sensible race with the proper goals — except for maybe it’s not exactly as it looks. I liked the idea of a “g bear” kinetic energy weapon fired from satellites in space. (The weapon’s name is a nod to the SF writer who imagined such a weapon.) I liked the way drones are incorporated into the story. I also thought that some of the video technology was imaginative and plausible.
I”ll point to some reviews of this book that focus more on the politics:
Some of them are pretty negative; they cannot seem to separate the politics from the novel. I found that I was able to do that, and I found FLASHBACK to be a pretty good dystopian story. Dan Simmons set out to write a dystopian piece, and he did so from his own perspective. I thought it worked.
At the very least, it’s a sanity check to ask oneself if an extrapolation into the future of current events might go that way. Basically an author is taking a what-if and answering it from his perspective, no matter the brand of SF, or even in other genres. And, whether we agree or not, if the story isn’t absurd and a good tale, who cares? It’s just fiction!
I guess my problem occurs when the standing on a soapbox becomes too much. A case in point is Gant’s seventy page rant in Atlas Shrugged. Whether you’re a Libertarian or not, this just has to be just ponderous and boring. It isn’t a good yarn–far from it.
There’s also the criticism that some dystopian literature is so damn depressing that the reader wants to slash her/his wrists before s/he finishes. Some of Atwood’s stuff is like that. I like to mix a wee bit of hope in my dystopian prose–it’s bad, but not that bad, because a few good individuals are trying to make a difference.
But the story is key, always and forever, in good genre fiction.
I saw complaints in reviews of FLASHBACK that Simmons states certain things as if they are facts, like saying that “global warming was a hoax of the left in order to grab money” and “wind power never ended up paying for itself.” I thought, well, yeah, there are those that argue those very things today, and no matter how much evidence there is on one side or another, there is still that other side, and in Simmons’ imagined future, those things ARE in fact “fact.”
I think it was at the very least thought provoking. As a relatively productive member of society paying a pretty high amount in taxes every year, there is something attractive in the libertarian philosophy that Simmons et al espouse. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep more of what you earned, and pay reasonable prices for things like medical care and housing out of that amount? Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone earned a livable wage and could do this? But as the judge in Caddyshack said, “The world needs ditchdiggers, too.” Point being that McDonald’s employees and Walmart employees (at the lowest level) will never be paid enough to live a comfortable existence that is more than paycheck to paycheck. So those people do what? Just go away and die? They require health care and education and certain public services, and it is in society’s interest to make sure that they get those things.
I went a little off topic there (not with respect to the book), but yeah, there are times that Simmons may have gotten a little preachy in this novel, expounding his philosophies through characters in long-ish expository chapters disguised as dialogue. I still thought that his story was really good and at the very least it makes you think of why the things he proposes probably won’t happen the way he describes…or will they? (he asks himself…)
It’s interesting that the libertarian philosophy enjoys a higher percentage of adherents in the sci-fi authors group than in the rest of society–Heinlein, Pournelle, Niven, Hogan, and maybe Crichton are a few famous ones (I’m ignoring Rand, who could never spin a good yarn). I prefer to let my characters preach different political and religious philosophies to show differing viewpoints, thus mirroring society. Then again, the above-named authors and others don’t have a blog that can serve as their soapbox. 🙂 I don’t know what Simmons’ problem is. Those kind of “facts” should be in a blog, but maybe he’s afraid of starting a conversation? It’s not often enough to be fun, but I’ve been attacked from both right and left on occasion. I’d find the world a boring place if everyone agreed with me!