Little, Brown & Company
2011, 554pp, $27.99
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Dan Simmons first came on the scene with The Song of Kali back in 1985. Not only was it an excellent first novel, but it also had Harlan Ellison’s endorsement. Simmons then wrote Carrion’s Comfort in 1989, Summer of Night in 1991, and Children of the Night in 1992. He also wrote science fiction, and then later suspense thrillers, private-eye mysteries (the Joe Kurtz novels are absolutely great!), historical fiction such as The Terror (I believe this to be one of the best horror novels ever written that’s based on an actual incident), Drood (though I felt this novel got somewhat away from the title character of Drood, it still had some fabulous suspense scenes in it, dealing with 19th Century London and underground city where Drood and his followers lived), Black Hills, and now Flashback, which is in many ways a private-eye mystery set in a futuristic America.
Flashback is a long novel, running in at 550 pages. The author uses that space to discuss the economic upheaval of the United States and its dependence on a new Japan for survival. The country is no longer a nation, but is rather divided into sections with many of the states and tri-states assuming total control of their areas with armed militia. Part of the reason for America’s demise is the addiction of over 340 million people to the drug called Flashback. This drug enables its user to return to a mental state of happier times in his past life, and like a dream, it seems totally real while you’re experiencing it.
At the heart of the novel, Flashback, is ex-Denver homicide detective, Nick Bottoms, who’s addicted to the drug as a way of reliving his happiest moments with his dead wife, Dara. Nick is so addicted to Flashback that he lost his job after his wife died, and he then sent his young son to live in California with the father-in-law. Still, Nick is hired by a highly important Japanese advisor to the United States to solve the six-year-old murder of his own son. The case was never solved, and Nick had been the investigating officer on it at the time. Now, using the Flashback that’s given to him by Advisor Nakamura’s assistant, Sato, Nick has to relive the investigation and find out why there was no resolution to it.
While he is doing that, his son, Val, will have to find a way out of California after the gang he runs with attempts a futile assassination against a political figure. The only place Val and grandfather can go is to Denver, to the father who has totally ignored him for the past six years. Nick, however, isn’t the same man after a couple of weeks on the investigation. When he discovers his wife’s involvement in the murder, it all becomes personal to him, and he starts to get his old skills back as a former homicide detective. He also knows that if he finds out too much, he will be a dead man. His instincts tell him that as do some the people he talks to. Still, there’s no stopping Bottoms once he gets the ball rolling.
The question is how to find the killer and stay alive at the same time?
When I was a hundred pages into Flashback, I began to think that maybe Dan Simmons was on to something with his depiction on how the United States falls from its position as the world’s greatest power. With everything that’s going on with our present economy, unbelievable debt, and the fact that our congressmen and senators can’t seem to work with the President on saving our country, I began to see Mr. Simmons as being psychic and seeing what, in many ways, will happen to the United States in the next forty years.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if a drug like Flashback was invented and then put on the street for public consumption. I can see millions of people using the drug to escape the harsh realities of life. I’d probably be taking it myself so that I could go back and relive the happier moments of my own existence. I know I wouldn’t like the world that Mr. Simmons pictures some forty years from now and would probably jump at the opportunity to escape it for hours at a time. The author does a tremendous job of painting our future and the future of other countries, and it isn’t a pleasant picture to see.
As the story moved along, I found myself not caring very much about Nick Bottom’s son, Val. The kid wasn’t easy to like, and he seemed to feel as if the world owed him something. I guess most teenagers do, but I would have rather spend more time with Bottoms and his search for answers, rather than wasting it on Val and his slow change to a somewhat better person. Val, however, has something that is vital to his father solving the murder case in Denver. Because of this, his character is necessary to the ending of the novel.
The thing is Nick Bottoms is a much more interesting character, and I found myself identifying with him more easily than with his son or his father-in-law. I cared about what happened to Nick, and not to the others.
I did enjoy some of the supporting characters in the novel, especially Sato and Bottom’s ex-partner, K.T. Lincoln, and Bottom’s late wife, Dara. Sato played a sizable role in the book (no pun intended), though I think in real life, Sato would have said something to Nick at the end to prevent the chain of events that played out and almost got everyone killed. Lincoln seemed like the type of partner every policeman would want to have: sexy, beautiful, tough as nails, and totally unobtainable because she’s a lesbian. Dara was a woman who loved her man, though she had more secrets than the Russian KGB. It’s possible that if she’d just talked to her husband about what was going on, the whole thing could have been prevented, but then there wouldn’t have been a story to tell.
All in all, a great read by one of the country’s premiere authors. Don’t let the futuristic history, political science, and economics cause you to hesitate in reading this gem of a novel. It’s still a murder mystery with dire consequences for the detective attempting to solve it. Flashback is certainly Dan Simmons at his best.
P.S. – Guillermo Del Toro is turning Drood into a major motion picture.