Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: Flashback Dan Simmons

Flashback by Dan Simmons
560 pages
Little Brown and Company

Dan Simmons is a brilliant novelist, and perhaps one of the greatest genre authors working today. The intelligence and versatility he has show in sprawling epics such as Carrion Comfort(A vampire horror novel) Hyperion (far future hard sci-fi) to historical epics like Black Hills is amazing. I can't state enough the level of respect I have for the writer and the novels he has written. That being said I have mixed feelings about his most recent Science Fiction novel Flashback.
Flashback is a long hard boiled mystery set deeply in the apocalypse dystopia genre that blurs the line between Science Fiction and Horror.

Speaking with the Agony Column podcast Simmons went as far as to say he didn't think of it as Sci-fi, He might not like the analogy but the plot and the basic concept also had a bit of a cyperpunk feel. The dystopia warning novel is a well respected genre that critics often elevate out of the genre ghetto and Simmons seemed intent on writing a modern Alas Babylon or Brave New World. A huge number of Americans believe our country is going down the wrong path and Flashback is a Simmons exploring that concept to it's worst possible conclusion.

The plot is great, and expansion of a Simmons novella which was written when Simmons had somewhat different political views. Nick Bottom is a detective, he is private now since his addiction to a drug called Flashback has kept him from the force. Flashback causes the user to to re-live in a near catatonic state the happiest moments of their lives for a one dollar a minute, the really bad part is 87% of America is addicted to it. The country is falling apart, Texas is a separate nation, Mexico controls the southwest, and Islam is taking over the world.

Nick Bottom is hired by a Japanese millionaire to investigate the murder of his son on american soil. He tries to solve the mystery by using Flashback and working with one of the businessman's personal ninja bodyguards. The relationship between Bottom and the Japanese body guard Sato is one of the highlights of the novel.
So what did I think of the novel? Well I read the whole thing, and I read it fast, Simmons is of course a skilled writer, so in his hands I had a enjoyable read in many ways. In the end however I cannot recommend this novel. It's not just because of the politics, which are entirely loony right wing nonsense. As the author of a novel called “The Vegan Revolution...With Zombies,” I know a thing or two about writing political novels, and certainly have read novels I didn't agree with before, and even liked a few of them. When I wrote Vegan Rev. I was very concerned that the story, and the characters came first, that I would not bend the novel to fit my views. That being said that novel was a satire. I think Simmons might have been better off fully inserting his tongue in his cheek.

While not as transparent and ideologically consumed as Crichton's State of Fear, that book was simply unreadble. Simmons wore his heart so much on his sleeve that he took his eye off the basic plot construction and prose that have made him a giant in the field. I honestly think it is Simmons weakest novel. Parts of the mystery are conveniently are withheld for no logical reason, cringe worthy right wing inter dialogues distract from the pace of the story, and the history of the future take on insanely unrealistic nature to fit Simmons's views. That's his right, it's his novel, the problem for this reader is that some of those future histories were so ludicrous it took me out of the novel. In a satire sure, but this was not a satire. The worst example is a off handed comment about the mayor of NY being the Imam of the mosque, my memory might be off but he may even be the the vice president too. You see just at the edge of this novel is a creeping fear of that the Arabs are going to take over the world.

In that same Agony column interview Simmons claims that he is a political centerist and he expects the book to anger readers both on the right and left. No way, this book is a right wing nut-fest only separated from Glen Beck's chalk board rants by the author's sharp story telling skills(which in my opinion have never been more dull). In 2006 Simmons created a shitstorm by publishing an essay on his website called message from a Time Traveler, linked here( which many - myself included see as a racist far right call for war with the Arab world. Flashback is not only an extension of those ideas but he breaks lots of new ground. Bashing left wing intellectuals in general (and Ward Churchill specifically), left activists(who are just tattooed and pierced idiots), denying global warming, bashing global climate scientists, a world that sits back and allows a second holocaust of Jews and portraying the Japanese to be even more evil than a Hong Kong movie would dare. (After the Japanese treament of the Chinese in WW II, it's not shocking that a huge % of HK movies have Japanese villains, not sure what Simmons has against them)

I am glad Glen Beck is already off the air on Fox because I could really honestly see him loving and blurbing this novel. When I finished this novel it had me wondering what Simmons thinks about the recent Arab spring, where people in several Arab countries rose up on their own demanding freedom. Many are dying today fighting for freedom in Syria, Iran and Libya - that doesn't jive with the fear mongering peppered throughout this novel. The story it self is entertaining, but Simmons is not up to his usual high quality, unless you have exhausted your Dan Simmons novels I would suggest going further back in the catalog.

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