America of 2036 is a wasteland in economic ruin, plagued by Terrorism and extreme acts of violence. Society escapes from this harsh reality by numbing itself on the drug Flashback - a euphoric yet cripplingly addictive drug that allows its users to re-visit their happier, past experiences. It's also the number one recreation of the American citizen with over 87% of the population taking part.
Nick Bottom is one such addict, Flashback has taken his career as a cop, his reputation and the love and respect of his son, all that remains are the flash-induced memories of his late wife - and so he spends more time reliving those times than he does living in the real world.
Now the powerful magnate Hiroshi Nakamura needs his services, in particular his memories of the toughest case of his past career - as the head of the original investigation into the murder of Nakamura's son 6 years earlier. As Nick reluctantly delves back into that part of his past it becomes more and more difficult to know who to trust and then he uncovers a connection to his wife's death...
There seems to be a veritable deluge of post-apocalyptic and dystopian tales being released recently, not that I am complaining as I love the sub-genre but it does also raise awareness that we as a race are reaping far more than we sow - at least largely in the west we are a race of consumers with an insatiable appetite that really can't be sustained. I have always enjoyed the way Dan Simmons takes an idea and turns it on its head, reflecting on the other side of the coin and encouraging us to explore an alternative viewpoint.
In Flashback he does this with the very idea of dystopia, while many of these dark visions are the result of right-wing ideals progressed to an extreme, like those of free markets running wild or extreme military control being the most popular, Simmons takes the more liberal, left-wing ideas to the very edge, those of deficit spending and crumbling economics which seems to be largely directed towards the current political climate of the USA and the austerity of the world in general. Some of the conjecture and hypotheses presented within the novel does seem very credible, you can easily imagine that the USA deficit issue could spiral out of control, even as I write this review I see a headline in the Guardian that reads "US debt crisis threatens global markets as Congress is locked in blame game". You can't get much more topical than that and credit should go to the author for managing to expand upon those fears and present a future vision where it all went wrong.
These ideas do make an interesting counterpoint to the many violative dystopian visions however this isn't the limit of the coup d'oeil the author presents here. Simmons doesn't do things by half and introduces the idea that the current extreme Islamic terrorist movement has succeeded with a global Caliphate, which goes as far as celebrating the 9/11 attacks and includes an immense mosque built at ground zero - a counterpoint to the real life Mosque that was built upon the foundations of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey. Most of America is controlled by Japanese overlords who send out America's forces to fight on behalf of Japan and India.
It sort of creeps up on you too, you have to get more than a third of the way through the novel before being confronted by some of these strong political ideas, by which time you have already invested a considerable amount of time and head-space in the story and characters which makes this sudden plunge all the more dramatic (although in hindsight there are hints along the way). This vision does make sense, many authors writing dystopia have drawn upon the current political or religious climate to draw their ideas, Orwell did so with his left-wing communist fuelled 1984, while PKD opted for the extreme Nazi / Japanese Empirical viewpoint in his seminal work "The Man in the High Castle".
Science fiction is a wonderful genre that can be used to express alternative realities and present "what if" scenarios and done in the right way this works incredibly well (a good example being the aforementioned The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick) - even when the subject is a highly emotive, or disturbing one. This does however work better if the author doesn't colour the narrative and can be seen to either give a balanced argument or even better, let the reader judge raising debate rather than writing polemics.
It does seem that this is just what Simmons intended in Flashback and to a large part it does work but there is also a touch too strong political opinion presented that inevitably bleeds through to the religious undertones. It doesn't feel to be the author's intent to be in any way racist or to condone any extremist viewpoints but nonetheless it's a sobering, and at times shocking vision - including the use of a "second Holocaust" that seems inevitable with the rise of such an extremist religion.
To me though that's one of the messages the author is presenting here, literature does sometimes need to shock people to get the point across and perhaps we do need to consider just what would happen if the USA collapsed in upon itself. The author has clearly carried out a lot of research and it shows, there are enough facts at present in today's world that make this story all the more powerful.
I really liked the idea of the Flashback drug and it's used to great effect both as a vehicle to explore the back-story and an effective exploration of drug addiction - even so at times it does sometimes feel like there is a little too much going on, diluting the message. The main Characters are a little predictable and hardly original, they don't stretch the imagination in the slightest however some of the secondary characters are very colourful and sometimes more engaging. There are also a few rough edges to the narrative - the editing could have been done a little better and in a few places the dialog is simply ropey. There is also extended use of exposition which slows the pace at times to that of an asthmatic ant carrying heavy shopping while the use of repetition inherent in the idea of Flashback annoys and jars the otherwise fairly smooth narrative.
I did however love the hardboiled detective edge that flavours the story, similar in style to a previous novel of his Hardcase, a rich, noir tinted atmosphere that is perfectly suited to the story and backdrop. The story itself is well considered and makes excellent use of these flashbacks, with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes. This is undoubtedly a bleak future, and you can even relate to those who seek to relive happier times rather than face this blighted existence.
The result is a novel of uncomfortable power, a sobering vision of an extreme dystopia of violence and hatred, a drug addicted country that has stopped caring about itself and others, a genius work of pure dystopian fiction.
Written on Monday 1st August 2011 by Antony Jones.
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