Book Review: Dan Simmons’s Flashback

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The best science fiction, the science fiction that is most enjoyable, that hangs together, that is believable and doesn’t strand the reader uses a simple formula: a story set in our world, that plays by our physical rules with one exception. In Asimov’s world, robots existed and lived among us. What happens if time travel is really possible? We find out in Back to the Future and The Time Traveller’s Wife. In Richard K. Morgan’s world of Altered Carbon, downloading your consciousness into another body is possible. Each of these novels follow the same formula. The story is set in our world, that follows the same rules of physics as we know them, with one exception. Any story that allows for more than one is known as fantasy.

The latest novel from Dan Simmons, of Hyperion fame, is a dystopian novel set 20 years in the future, After the Shit Hit the Fan. We don’t know what the shit was, but it was major. The United States is in ruins, the remaining population drives shit electric vehicles that can only go 30 miles to a charge, live in fear of constant Islamic terrorist acts (not threats), and are continually fighting off the Mexicans as they take over more and more of the US’s territory in the southwest.

Our main character, Nick Bottom, is an ex-cop and father, who’s wife has died, forcing him to pawn his only son off on his father-in-law, incidentally a Jewish academic who bumbles through life in this brave new world. Bottom, along with the rest of the country, is addicted to a drug called Flashback. Flashback allows the user to relive any memory, in real time, as if they were an observer in the moment. Through the use of flashback, the country as a whole is indulging its obsession with the past, with little care about the present or the future.

On the surface, this novel is about Bottom’s struggle as a flashback addict and private investigator, desperately trying to solve the murder of Japanese businessman’s son six years after the fact, reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler pulp. Supposedly, Bottom is chosen because his adept flashback usage means he can go back to the scene of the crime, over and over, to re-examine the evidence that is now lost. Beneath the surface, this novel is a tirade against the left, the progressives, the Democrats and Barack Obama, specifically. One chapter, completely unrelated to the story, describes in detail how Obama’s entitlements destroyed the US economy and the country. Using the language (dog whistles, if you will) of the modern day right, Simmons characters rail against every liberal idea currently held in popular regard. Review after review after review points this out for us.

Indeed, this novel is hard to read if you vote Democrat. Simmons is an excellent author, and you cannot help but cheer for our protagonist as he fights his way through this mystery, facing opposition at every turn. It’s when Bottom–who’s side you are on–uses his hindsight (helped by flashback) to explain how Obama and the Democrats destroyed the country, the reader can’t help but question his or her own beliefs. Even if you’re not sympathetic to the gun-toting PI, his liberal father-in-law will also explain for you how he was so, so wrong when he voted in entitlements as well. One hopes you get the idea by now. This book is catnip to the GOP.

Every good science fiction novel, and Flashback is one, follows the same formula: our world with one exception. If you had to guess, the exception would be the drug flashback. This is a red herring. The real exception, the part of the world that isn’t real, the one that every review misses is this: This story is only possible if the GOP is right about how the world works.

Flashback is one of the most clever and damming science fiction novels written in recent memory. Simmons never wavers from his thesis, and paints an ugly dystopian future that examines our world should the likes of Santorum and Gingrich accurately predict the future of our current course. Simmons, well versed in his craft, knows he has his readers hooked on the story, and brutally forces the reader to accept as fact that entitlements bankrupted the country into ruin. That Islam is a force of destruction and terror. That Mexico is one or two soft politicians away from reclaiming California.

Remember, this is good science fiction.

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8 Responses to Book Review: Dan Simmons’s Flashback

  1. JonnyVelocity says:

    Great article, I’m glad I read it.

    • JonnyVelocity says:

      Also, (I realize you know this, but) I wouldn’t place too much stock in SciFi writers predicting the future. By Back to the Future standards, we’ll have hover-boards in 3 years.

      • stucky says:

        I’ve never thought SciFi writers predict the future. The great ones tell stories that compel us to make real.

  2. HP says:

    Thanks for the warning – I’m not a big fan of preachy fiction even when I agree with what it’s preaching.

  3. Guy Fox says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I liked the story better when it was called ‘Strange Days’.

    The real exception, the part of the world that isn’t real, the one that every review misses is this: This story is only possible if the GOP is right about how the world works.

    And this is very different from changing, say, the laws of physics. The world can work according to anybody’s ideology because ideology reacts to the world in a way that, say, gravity doesn’t. If the world does or does not work according to the GOP or the MLP, it is because we’ve made it that way, and we’re interpreting it that way. In that sense, he’s not so much tweaking one of reality’s constants, he’s making a sales pitch.

    • Guy Fox says:

      There’s a better definition of SciFi out there, too. In a Penguin omnibus of many years ago, the editor argued that Sci Fi is the genre of stories where (hu)man(ity) pushes some capability (usually but not always technological) past the bounds of good sense. This would, according to that guy, make Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ the first SciFi story, though I would go with Icarus & Daedalus/the Tower of Babel.

      This definition is better because 1) it requires that people be involved; otherwise you could tell SciFi without any meaning or point; and 2) any story where the laws of physics are just different independent of human will (e.g. a world where sorcery is effective) becomes fantasy, which sounds more intuitively and semantically right.

      It would also make this book, based on your description, fit more comfortably in SciFi. As I said above, you needn’t tweak the laws of physics at all to make this world respond to conservative or any other ideology, because the laws of physics don’t care about ideology. But it does sound like Simmons is trying to show what he would expect when American left-liberalism, as a semiotic technology, gets pushed too far.

      • stucky says:

        I think that definition is just a rephrasing or facet of mine (or vice versa). If you start changing the universe willy nilly, you’re writing fantasy, and that was one of my points.

        I think good sci fi is allowed one exception. I’ll grant you that hard sci fi should have none, and is limited to the boundary pushing definition you state.

        My point in the article/review, if it wasn’t clear, was that Simmons wanted you to be mad at him, and tried to fool you with the flashback red herring, so that when/if you finally figured it out, you could feel as clever as he did when writing it. The drug flashback breaks our physical laws (as far as we understand them) and yet Flashback is not fantasy.

  4. ExOttoyuhr says:

    I would be interested in something that challenged the almost complete hegemony of liberalism and libertarianism in science fiction, were it not for the fact that if I were asked to choose between a hard-boiled detective and a Zulu spearman, I’d say that the Zulu was less far from possessing civilization.

    That said, why was this posted on Partial Objects? It sounds more like a ten-minute hate (by an ideology and against another ideology that not all of the readers subscribe to) than it does like a deconstruction of such things.