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Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown / Hachette Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-316-00696-5
Publication Date: 07-01-2011
554 Pages; $27.99
Date Reviewed: 11-15-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Science Fiction  Mystery  General Fiction

The novel is a great canvas for crosstalk. With 'Flashback,' Dan Simmons, working in the dystopian genre, takes this to a whole new level, one that has offended and even alienated readers, and not without reason. In crafting his dystopia, Simmons has gone against the trend for those soothing scenarios where slate of civilization as we know it has been wiped clean. No RESET button was pushed to make the world in 'Flashback.'

The mere premise of 'Flashback' sets many heads afire. Just far enough into the future, every promise of the current presidential administration has gone bankrupt, and every nightmare of the far-right political polemicists has come to fire-breathing life. The economy is stultified in a permanent jobless recovery, the military is rented out to the Japanese and Chinese, and September 11th is celebrated as an American Islamic holiday.

Readers who might be inclined to think that these events reflect the author's political views, and that the novel is grinding a particularly sharp and unpleasant political axe, are directed to the novella version of the story, published in 'LoveDeath,' where the same endpoint is the result of Reaganomics. That said, there's an emotional wallop to Simmons' scenario, no matter what your beliefs are. Simmons does a damnably good job delivering the details of our downfall.

But politics and the details thereof are just the surface. Simmons wants his dystopia to hurt, and it does. 'Flashback' is fleshed out and filled with the awfulness of now. Get ready to grind your teeth in terror and anger as Simmons spares you no detail required to drive his relentlessly dark mystery over the edge and into the pit of despair.

In that pit, you'll find Nick Bottom, a disgraced detective who spends as much time as possible like most of America — high on flashback, a drug that lets him relive the good times. One wonders what the children of flashback's world are going to look back on, but only for a moment, as Nick finds out that the pit of despair is only the beginning. Nick Bottom is a wonderful character, a man who had his conscience shoved to the side by a life that bears all too close a resemblance to what many are living in this moment and in this world. Nick has long passed the Ability to Give a Shit about anything beyond his next fix and what once was. His son, Val, is even more bitter. "Flashback' is in many ways a literary cup of triple-strength espresso.

Rounding out the cast are thugs of every nationality, size and shape, none of them nice, all of them given just right shadings to make them feel both real and be really upsetting. Simmons imagines a society that is both the nemesis and the ultimate incarnation of jingoism. He's an equal-opportunity offender; don't come to 'Flashback looking for a comfortable dystopia. This is truly slit-your-wrists-and-hope-to-die material — except for the reader.

Here's where 'Flashback' requires a bit of a leap, and for some, a mighty leap. With all his worst-case scenarios in place, Simmons is pumping up the crosstalk in 'Flashback' to an epic level. Whether it's the Islamic America or the global warming hoax, there's something here to grate any sensibility. Simmons has built a world we don't want to live in, one we don't even want to believe possible, then given us characters and a plot that have the ring of a very unpleasant truth. It's a powerful and challenging combination.

In fact, while 'Flashback' hits all the right notes for a dystopian novel, it also hits the same notes, with equal power, to form the similar but not the same chords in a horror novel. If horror fiction is what scares us, then Simmons has taken it to a whole new level, and in a whole new direction. Having crafted a world that itself is largely plot, as in what happened to this world, when Simmons sets his wheels in motion he already has serious momentum, downward, ever downward.

There's no doubt that 'Flashback' is a divisive novel. There are readers who will, indeed those who have, assigned it to the "I threw it across the room" genre. But this has been true of many works that have gone to be recognized as classics. How time will treat 'Flashback' is irrelevant to readers of the present however. It's a brave novel and to a degree, requires a brave reader. Perhaps its most ardent fans might be found in the mystery-reading community, who are used to seeing darkness in our hearts. Simmons tells one hell of a good story set in a hellish version of our world.

The despair at the heart of 'Flashback,' the terror and anger it inspires are not so much the result of Simmons' clever world-building, or his plot. It's not the extrapolations that make this book so disturbing and upsetting. It's the reality upon which they are based. We need no enemy but ourselves, this book assures us. Welcome to The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

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