Dan Simmons latest, “Flashback”, reviewed in mid Summer by the WaPo was declared a Tea Party manifesto. The plot occurs in a fallen U.S. some 30 years in the future, with Mexico occupying the Southwest, Japan in Hawaii directly and ruling the West and Midwest indirectly via zaibatsu viceroys. Israel is nuked out existence, and the Global Caliphate expands in Europe, Canada and even the remaining 44 1/2 U.S. states by Sharia Law.
The future U.S. is a broke, neo-totalitarian State, with cities and roads lawless. It rents out its poorly trained and equipped army as fodder to Japan and India to fight their wars. People deal with the catastrophes by abusing a drug called ‘Flashback’ that allows one to memory dive and relieve a past moment as new again.
All of the decline, this ‘appeasement’ occurred because of a man elected president in November 2008. His policies like ObamaCare, his speech in Cairo, it all started with one community organizer.
The lone, shining hold out of integrity and self-esteem? Why, the Republic of Texas, naturally.
The 550 pages uses the murder of a young Japanese in Denver to explore this shattered world. He was the son of an up-and-coming Japanese Shogun wannabe. When it occurred 6 years ago in novel time, the murder remained unsolved. Now, years later, the Japanese father hires the original Denver detective, fired and a Flashback addict to re-work the case. The detective has spent the last 6 years abusing Flashback, reliving moments with his wife, who herself was killed months after the original murder. Naturally, the two plot lines eventually over lap.
But Nick Bottom’s investigation with all its drama, action, and intrigue is not, to paraphrase Simmons’ Acknowledgement, what Flashback is really about. The writing of Flashback was fuelled by the author’s anger at the current state of the nation: strip away the futuristic SF narrative and Flashback is a commentary on the state of the nation today.
As with Simmons’ other works, he plays with references to classic literature and fiction to convey meaning. Here, his central protagonist is Nick Bottom, named we are told for the overconfident weaver from Midsummer’s Night Dream. Like “Inception”, the reader in the end is asked to resolve who Nick Bottom speaks for – “the failed, arrogant America of the past”, the clueless detective he’s meant to play, Dan Simmons himself – his out for writing this stuff – or the reader, for wading to the end of 550 pages.
The novel fails for a variety of reasons, apart from its ideology. (Simmons claims the politics expounded are not his, per se.) Take simple world building. There’s little connection between the dystopian, dysfunctional world and its alleged origins. Obama is said to have triggered a tidal wave of debt that destroyed the U.S. And that’s it. Socialism and multi-culturalism ate us from within. Proof? There’s a huge mosque celebrating the martyrs at Ground Zero.
National healthcare in the future takes 19 months to get
x-ray in line for a heart operation results back. Las Vegas remains a real oasis in the desert powered by Indian nuclear reactors (why only in Vegas we never learn). America we are simply told squandered its last fortune on green economy failures. Climate change? A leftist fraud.
Somehow China evaporated, too. One paragraph about a bubble and civil war. American boys drafted as mercs for Indian and Japanese interests in China under UN (???) auspices.
Texas, with its Randian philosophy of “No Losers Allowed”, remains a reminder of what America was. Texans suddenly control their borders very well and keep the riff raff out. Japan today is more in debt than America. Its mutli-decade non-functioning government beyond a national joke. It’s also entering its *third* Lost Decade. Somehow it’s now the only global power that will take a stand against the Caliphate and Sharia Law? Simmons declares all this by fiat. Never plausibly explained. Japan can use orbiting hypersonic kinetic energy weapons instead of nukes (which they also have) because Obama *forced* them to become a superpower. The Caliphate nuked 6,000,000 Israelis, deployed 5,000 more bombs, conquered Europe, Canada, the Middle East and it’s all because of Obama. And Ward Churchill. And MoveOn.
Simmons tries to distract from the lazy world creation by covering terrain long mined by Gibson. He ostentatiously drops in Japanese dialogue, cuts and pastes basic Wikipedia prose about Japanese industrial history. Adding to the cool (and screen play pick up) he litters the pages with 2 dimensional corporate ninja with miracle Japanese tech. Simmons also name checks Putin’s reign, too. Vendors at markets under ruins of Interstate overhangs hawk t-shirts with his image and 3D artificial intelligence. At key points even Putin makes commentary from a t-shirt.
There are individual set piece narratives that work. A covert escape by Detective Bottom’s estranged son and father-in-law from LA to Denver via illegal armed caravan. A battle near Santa Fe between two Japanese vehicles against three tanks and a small army. Each play well as anything in “The Road” or “The Book of Eli.” Still, these bits are lost in the clumsy political polemics.
A Great Power’s population abandoning today for reliving its past via narcotics is an interesting premise. A world building exercise depicting wow the U.S. domestically copes with these Lost Decades worth doing. A shame that “Flashback” relied on short cuts to try and do it all. At 550 pages, too.