Flashback, Dan Simmons


America, 2036: a wasteland in economic ruin. Terrorism and ultra-violence plague a once powerful society, whose only escape is to numb itself on flashback – a euphoric yet cripplingly addictive drug that allows its users to re-visit their happier, past experiences.

Ex-cop Nick Bottom is about to receive a proposition. Flashback dependency has taken his badge, his reputation, and the love of his son. All he has left are the flash-induced memories of his beloved wife, Dara, taken from him in a tragic car accident.

Now powerful magnate Hiroshi Nakamura needs Bottom’s services, and, in particular, his memories.

After reading The Terror a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading another Dan Simmons book. Despite the gushing reviews for Hyperion and the other space operas he’s written, they have never really been my cup of tea. After picking up Carrion Comfort (too heavy for my bag) my interest was piqued when I saw that he’d turned his considerable imagination to the near future in Flashback. But this is a disappointing and at times, a morally repellent book, where Simmons’ right wing politicking, racism, islamophobia, and patriotic gung-hoism gets in the way of what could have been a good thriller.

The story concerns a down and out detective, called Nick Bottom, who is a flashback junkie living in the near future. This future is a dire mess of poverty stricken former superpowers – islamic fundamentalism; terrorism as a daily occurrence; warring factions; independent states; Orwellian levels of state interference, and some rather nifty technologies like stealth-copters.

Flashback is a highly addictive, inhalation drug which allows the user to tap in to their own memories and re-live them with crystal-clear clarity. For Nick, this means constantly revisiting a happier time when his wife was alive, six years ago (that isn’t a spoiler) and before the birth of their son (now a wayward, estranged teen).

At the start of the book, Nick is hired by an outrageously rich Japanese man (in the book, Japan has become one of the predominant powers in the world) to find the person who killed his son six years ago. Nick was a policeman during the original investigation, which turned up no leads and, since that time, Nick has fallen deeper in to Flashback usage. But he takes the job, in order to get more of the drug so he can revisit his wife in happier times.  Nick is hired to use flashback so he can re-read the police reports of the original investigation, find new leads and, if all goes well, solve the case. All clear so far?

Now, much of the writing is good. In fact, Simmons has a knack for an action sequence. His imagery can often be vivid and startling. But just as you are becoming immersed in this world, Simmons strides in and smears a right wing diatribe across the page, pulling you from the action and forcing the reader to question the very purpose of the book.

Because this book reeks of one man’s fear of Islam, where the Caliphate has taken over the world, essentially because America and the West were too conciliatory to Islam in the early 21st century. Different cultures live alongside each other in this dystopian America, but loathe one another. It isn’t made clear why racism is so prevalent, or why Nick continues to mock Japanese pronunciation – a recurring ‘joke’ which has no relevance to the story.

In a few historical asides, it becomes clear that Obama is  to blame for the emasculation of America and the US is now being invaded by a huge variety of countries. It is no longer the power it once was and Simmons is using this near future tale to highlight the dangers of Islam; to suggest attacking it is better than making peace and that we simply cannot let America be ‘turned.’ There are sections here that smack of a flag waving, gun-toting patriot rallying the troops.

The basic plot line is interesting: it has the ingredients for a film noir-ish investigative thriller. The basic premise is perhaps a little derivative (Minority Report meets Strange Days) but there are some great, inventive twists and sequences, and his prose is so very readable. But these points don’t save the book, or disguise its ugliness.

I’d like to think that he wrote this book in order to spark debate about the role of religion in society, or to make a comment on technology vs. religion but I fear this is just a bit of Islamaphobia disguised as a novel, which is hard to ignore and impossible to forgive when you’re trying to enjoy what is supposed to be a thrilling story.

After reviewing this book, I found the following article on Dan Simmons’ blog which has made me think my review was too kind:




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