I am a major Dan Simmons fan, but I had some reservations about signing on for this multi-layered, post-apocalyptic novel about life in the USA following The Day It All Hit the Fan. To tell you the truth, reading Flashback has been a hard jog down a rocky road. Simmons has never been a sunshine and roses author, as those of you who read (and loved) The Terror and Drood well know. However, this time out, the author’s grim and daunting worldview plumbs deeply into the lower depths of human nature.
A devastating Islamic nuclear attack has reduced America’s major cities to radioactive rubble, and a brutal invasion quickly divides most of the Midwest and the western coast into isolated fiefdoms controlled by Muslims and Japanese warlords; Texas becomes an independent country with its own flag, militia and constitution; Mexico decides to “reclaim” all of the land that had been taken from them and begins an aggressive invasion of New Mexico and the adjoining states. Surviving Midwestern Jews are herded into a sprawling camp known as “Six Flags Over the Jews” (on the site of an old theme park) and a terrifying jihad destroys Israel and six million inhabitants. American military forces are retrained by Japan as mercenaries and sent to fight in a protracted war in China.
All of these radical changes are merely some 20 years in the future. However, even the most surreal conditions described by Simmons are the projected outcome of conditions that have their roots in 20011. In case you are wondering, the economy does not recover and Medicare bottoms out. Simmons’ characters deliver harangues about how the world’s greatest superpower was brought down by a combination of governmental incompetence and public apathy. Right-wing radio programs are filled with hysterical rants; drug-crazed teenagers vandalize and rob; and America’s resources are being harvested by foreign powers. We have gone to hell. In fact, the Southeastern U. S. doesn’t even exist anymore – it is never mentioned in Flashback! (Perhaps it is a barbaric land filled with degenerate hillbillies.)
I have neglected to mention the significance of the title. Flashback is the name of drug to which 80 percent of the population is addicted. Although the drug is illegal, it is both cheap and available. In fact, there is evidence that suggests that major world powers will see to it that nothing interferes with the distribution of a drug that keeps the major part of America’s population dozing in thousands of flashback caves where they relive the past. Under the influence of flashback an addict can vividly experience the birth of a child that is long dead, honeymoons, athletic accomplishments and memorable/triumphant events – any action in which the addict felt vividly alive. Under the influence of flashback, death can be defeated ... for an hour or two.
The protagonist of Flashback is Nick Bottoms, an ex-cop living in an abandoned shopping mall in Denver. Nick, who occasionally encounters people who comment on the connection between his name and Nicolas Bottom, the weaver (and ass) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this Nick has lost it all: Dara, his beautiful wife who died in a freakish car accident; Val, a son that he has abandoned (the embittered Val lives with his grandfather); a promising career as a detective; and, yes, his self-respect. Now, he spends every available moment under flashback with Dara and his 10-year-old son.
Now, over five years later, Nick’s flashback sessions are rudely interrupted by Hiroshi Nakamura, a billionaire warlord who wants Nick to investigate the murder of his son, Keigo. Put under continual surveillance by an astonishing array of advanced gadgetry and Hiroshi’s security officer, Hideki Sato (who resembles Odd Job in the James Bond movie), Nick reluctantly agrees, hoping to finance a lifetime supply of flashback. Despite the fact that Keigo’s murder has been investigated repeatedly, Nick agrees to retrace his steps and re-examine the original witnesses – especially those who were attending Keigo’s opulent party on the night of his murder.
At the time of his death, Keigo was completing a documentary film on the use of flashback in America. Nick Bottoms begins to run into rumors of another drug more powerful than flashback that would enable users to manipulate and enhance the past. In addition, when Nick uses flashback to attend the Keigo’s party, he discovers an indistinct figure standing in the background of Keigo’s film ... a figure that he believes is his wife Dara. Why is she there? Nick’s determination to find the answer to this riddle provides the motivation that he needs to solve Keigo’s murder and return to a meaningful life.
However, in the process, Nick Bottom will descend into some of the most nightmarish landscapes ever described in speculative fiction. For example, Coors Field in Denver has become an open-air prison camp which houses the most dangerous criminals in America. Visiting the prison is especially risky for law enforcement personnel like Nick, but since one of his key witnesses is Delroy N. Brown (the “N” standing for the forbidden racial term that has been restored to conversation in Nick’s world and used by everyone) is in the Coors Field prison, Nick goes, clad in Kevlar-plus armor and an armed guard, plus a licensed sniper who does surveillance with a state-of-the-arts rifle ready to shoot any attacker.
Simmons is at his best in suspenseful passages such as this one. There are other nerve-wrecking passages, including an assassination attempt at the Disney Center for the Arts ... the luckless, 16-year-old Val joins the flash gang that plans this ill-conceived venture and is the sole survivor. Along the way there is a trip to the Denver Landfill Number 9, the place where thousands of nameless dead are dumped each week.
Much of Flashback consists of following two journeys: (1) Nick’s search for answers to Keigo’s murder and his wife’s mysterious connection with this crime and (2) Val’s attempts to be reunited with his father (and perhaps kill him). In time, these two treks will converge and three generations (Leonard, the grandfather, Nick, the father and Val, the son) will join forces to face the “final conflict.” There are some surprises here and some of them may strain the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Amid all of this darkness and subterfuge, there are patches of brilliant narrative. There is also an excess of deadly details about the power of automobile engines, the magnification strength of sniper scopes, and the marked improvements of military weapons (speed, destructive power, weight, etc.) All of this is verification of Simmons’ awesome research.
Finally, I was pleased to learn that Nick Bottoms comments on the solving of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Bolder, Colo. (1996). Although Simmons does not reveal the identity of the killer, I was gratified to know that this crime will finally be solved.
Flashback by Dan Simmons. Brown and Company, 2011. 553 pages.