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Onyx reviews: Flashback by Dan Simmons

One never knows what to expect next from Dan Simmons. Over the years he has written—and excelled at—horror, science fiction, historical thrillers, hardboiled crime and mainstream novels. Flashback could be billed as a science fiction thriller or as a murder mystery wrapped up in the trappings of "skiffy," as one of the characters pronounces sci-fi.

The book is set twenty years in the future. The intervening decades have not been kind to the world. China suffered an economic meltdown and its territory is now being eyed by various neighboring nations. Muslim terrorists obliterated Israel from the map. Militant Islam has taken over most of Western Europe and is making inroads into Canada. An economic crisis has bankrupted virtually every state in America, as well as the country as a whole to the point where the infrastructure is collapsing. Suicide bombings are a daily—nearly hourly—occurrence in most major cities. Parts of the southern U.S. have been absorbed into Mexico. Texas has seceded from the Union and Boulder, Colorado is now an independent republic. American currency has been revalued, tied somewhat to the Japanese yen. Japan is now a dominant superpower, returning to the bushido ways of the Shoguns and stepping up to fill the gap left by the Western nations. American soldiers are stationed overseas, fighting wars on behalf of Japan instead of defending the homefront.

Travel between cities is prohibitively expensive. Even travel within cities like Denver and Los Angeles is fraught with peril. Emergency radio stations broadcast terrorist alerts instead of weather or traffic advisories, and mapping apps take into account the danger factor of traveling via a particular route. Black, Hispanic and other ethnic gangs are waging all-out warfare for control of cities. Nearly everyone has a gun. Sports arenas have been turned into prisons where visitors need a personal sniper to guarantee their safety. 

To escape from the horrors of everyday life, people use a cheap and nominally illegal drug called flashback that allows them to re-experience specific events from the past. Some use the drug to revisit more pleasant times. Violence-prone gangs commit terrible crimes (gang rape, for example) and re-experience them via flashback.

Nick Bottom is a former Denver police detective who was fired because he became a flashback addict after his wife, Dara, died. He sent his teenage son to live with his grandfather in L.A. and spent his days in the past with Dara. One of his final cases was the unsolved murder of Keigo Nakamura, the son of a powerful and wealthy Japanese adviser in the running to become the top Shogun. Though there have been numerous investigations in the intervening years, Nakamura wants Nick to take another crack at finding out who brutally murdered his son, who was working on a documentary about flashback. Nick can use the drug to reexamine the crime scene, which he investigated, and past interviews with suspects. Nakamura's money and influence opens doors to Nick that were closed at the time. If he is successful, he will become relatively wealthy, but his life isn't worth a plugged nickel if he fails. It may not be worth much even if he succeeds.

Nick has an unwanted sidekick, a Sumo-wrestler sized Japanese assassin named Sato who has promised to kill himself if the murder isn't solved because he was in charge of Keigo Nakamura's security detail. Sato is primarily there to grease the wheels for Nick and keep him in line. Nick tends to be self-destructive and would gladly take all of Nakamura's money to hide in a flashback den for the next year.

While exploring a three-dimensional virtual recreation of the crime scene using video footage from hidden cameras, Nick makes a surprising discovery. His wife was present at the scene of the crime on the evening of the murder. She also visited the people Keigo Nakamura interviewed for his documentary. He starts using flashback to go over everything she said to him during the weeks between the night of the murder and the day she and her boss, an assistant district attorney, were killed in a car accident.

Nick hears about a new version of flashback that will allow people to take control of and modify their memories of the past, though everyone claims it is just a rumor. His investigation takes him all over Denver, to the Republic of Boulder, and on a harrowing journey to Santa Fe, which is overrun by well-armed land pirates. After Los Angeles threatens to devolve even further into chaos, he also has to go to the West Coast to see if he can rescue his son, who is on a terrorist watch list after becoming involved with a gang that tried to assassinate a powerful Japanese adviser.

Solving the murder is something of a McGuffin that Simmons uses to explore the social, financial and geopolitical implications of his postulated near future. The book takes such a strong stand on certain issues that it is almost guaranteed to offend readers, regardless of their political leanings. The country's downfall is blamed on the burden of entitlement programs and the nationalized health care scheme. Most of Islam is branded as militant and America's response is compared to the appeasement of early 20th century politicians when facing fascism. Racial invectives are hurled left and right. The dominance of Japanese society is reminiscent of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. Global warming is proven by time to have been false science. Is this novel a thinly veiled political screed? Do the book's politics represent the author's? That shouldn't matter. Neither should it matter if the reader agrees with the hypothetical situation it posits as a staging point for its story. The future is what Simmons says it is and readers should be able to get past the conservative viewpoint. 

However, Simmons manipulates the story in less forgivable ways. For example, the day that Nick's son arrives in Denver, unknowingly in possession of critical evidence that will blow the murder mystery wide open, Nick leaves for Los Angeles to rescue Val, thereby guaranteeing that they won't meet and share intelligence until the right moment. It feels a little too tidy: At times, the hand of the author is too visibly moving his pieces around the chess board.

On the whole, though, this is a fascinating novel. It has a deeply flawed lead character who isn't a brilliant sleuth with mad fighting skills. Instead, he's a plodder, going from one potential clue to the next and suffering repeatedly for his efforts. He sometimes has to be goaded into doing his job. He doesn't drive a slick car but rather a cheap, unreliable electric vehicle that is always threatening to die on him. He's more reminiscent of a world-weary noir detective than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger in a sci-fi thriller or even James Bond. The scenario is original and thought-provoking, and the near-apocalyptic America he inhabits is entirely credible, regardless of what readers think about the politics that pushed the country to the brink.

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