Onyx reviews: Flashback by
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
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
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
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
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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