Friday, April 29, 2016

Review of Flashback by Dan Simmons

Coming across reviews of Dan Simmons’ 2011 Flashback prior to reading the novel, I was struck by the number of times I came across the sentiment “good book, except for Simmons’ heavy right-wing views.  A lot of genre readers these days overly sensitive to the idea of what constitutes an extreme conservative view, the repeated commentary added intrigue to what the back cover synopsis promised to be a burning thriller.  (After all, don’t weapons floating freely in society go hand in hand with action plots?  How can it be so strange?)  Having now finished the novel, I’m able to comment myself.  Is Simmons’ view an extreme right wing one?  Depends on perspective…

Nick Bottom lives in a flashback haze.  The drug allowing him to recollect complete memories of times with his now-dead wife, he scrapes by on random private eye money, living in a cubbyhole in what was once a Denver shopping mall.  European and North American political weaknesses having allowed the Middle East to take power in the aftermath of nuclear war, most of the western world is now controlled by a Grand Caliphate.  Japan reverting to feudal ways, the land of the rising sun controls the majority of what is not in the Caliphate’s hands.  And it’s the leader of one of their largest, most influential corporations that calls Bottom to his office one day.  His son’s murder still unsolved, he hopes that Bottom, who was part of the original investigation, will be able to use flashback to relive the investigation and turn up clues that may have been missed.  With promise of all the drug he wants, Bottom readily accepts.  It’s going back through crime scene, however, that he gets a big surprise: peeking over the hood of a car is his wife.  Further revelations coming quickly thereafter, Bottom is dragged in. 

Simmons taking what he learned from the three Joe Kurtz contemporary crime novels he has published to date and adding a near-future backdrop, Flashback expands the criminal element from mafia to global and corporate conspiracy.  Bottom inhales his demons, but the overall effect on his life is the same self-destructive PI detached from society.  This includes not only Bottom’s present-state existence, but also his family.  Having shipped his son off to live with the grandfather while he perpetually turns memory’s dial back to the moments he most cherishes, Bottom makes for both classic Chandler-esque and contemporary anti-hero.

A tool rather than an idea to be explored, however, flashback is not used in as complex a manner as it could have been.  To put it another way, Simmons does not channel Proust.  Flashback is a straight-ahead action thriller.  The pace of the novel is kept fast, the reveal of key plot elements appropriate to mode (i.e. Simmons does a good job keeping the reader guessing all the way to the end), and there are relevant scenes of sensationalism, from satellite weaponry to street riots, desert commando shootouts to terrorist attacks.  Simmons even finds time to pay tribute to Mad Max and A Clockwork Orange.

The Obama administration and Canadian and European governments laid to blame for acting as doormats for Middle Eastern and Japanese empire building, it’s easy to see how readers might think Flashback is a vehicle for right-wing propaganda.   But it remains ambiguous.  Certainly, Simmons’ political views could be on full display: there is more than enough evidence to support the claim, from truck driver tirades to the impetus for the setting.  Then again, it may just be the author’s right to use ideas from the real world to build their imaginary backdrop—to take advantage of existing media currents to present a paranoid scenario of how things might turn out.  After all, such extensions of reality are some of the things readers look to writers for.  Just because the setting is right wing doesn’t by default equate to Simmons’ political views being in parallel.  In fact, guns are ubiquitous in the novel, but they do not make the novel’s world a safer place.  Bottom’s son mischievous in a way possible only in Flashback’s setting, the novel’s youth seem particularly negatively affected by the politics of the setup.  And if the novel’s conclusion is taken as sentiment, then the ideas being fought against certainly do not orient towards draconian politics.  All in all, it’s enough to make one question whether Simmons truly intended his novel as a political statement, or just a means to an exciting plot-end…

In the end, Flashback is a novel with ties to numerous other novels given its post-state/catastrophe setting—flashes (no pun intended) of McCarthy’s The Road, David Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Richard Morgan’s Market Forces, Ken Macleod’s The Execution Channel visible.  But Flashback distinguishes itself for the manner in which it realizes an extreme right-wing view of the world.  Whether the reader interprets the politics as Simmons’ own is their choice, as what is presented is a scary vision of a US where drugs and guns run rampant, and normal, quiet life is anything but certain.  Plot quite standard for a political thriller/mystery, Simmons’ loosely ties story to theme, and seems more intent on writing a traditional narrative rather than examining any ideas associated with the mnemonic recall of memory and the effect it might have on people. 

1 comment:

  1. I was struck as well by the sheer hostility directed toward Simmons after Flashback came out. I couldn't believe how readers equated the narrative voice and the extrapolation of current trends toward a dystopian future with Dan Simmons' personal opinion and political views. Especially, when held up against the twenty-five books he had published until then.
    I have to say, however, ever since The Terror, I think Simmons' novels have been too long for the own good. Not every novel deserves the 800-page treatment; sometimes the plot and arc of supsense only hold up for two to three hundred pages ... and that's okay (I'm thinking of Drood and The Abominable, in particular, but also Flashback). And at times, it seems he just had to put all his research in, even if it does not help the story-telling (again, The Abominable).
    Great review, especially putting a special emphasis on differentiating between the fictional world and the athour's personal views.