Flashback: or, Thanks Obama by Dan Simmons

With finals wrapping up recently, I  was able to claw my way through one of Dan Simmons’ most recent thrillers, Flashback. It was a pretty easy effort made more fun by Simmons’ demented new worldview. Taking place in the near future when North America has become the new Middle East, the majority of the population have taken to flashback, a drug that lets them relive memories, rather than take the trouble to rebuild society. The Japanese have taken over the role of world’s police (thanks Japan!), and when a prominent Japanese administrator’s son is killed, he demands that protagonist and down-on-his-luck ex-cop Nick Bottom reopen the case for all variety of fishy reasons. The core plot is a been-there-done-that, I-bet-the-benevolent-old-man-is-the-bad-guy affair which serves as a vehicle for Simmons’ rampant extrapolation of America’s future and some sly commentary on our fatal obsession with entertainment. By imbuing Flashback with all the trashy influences of hard-boiled crime fiction and more Simmons makes the message even stickier, leaving you feeling a little dirty once you finally put it down.

Critics less bemused by current events than me have taken Simmons’ fictional politics to heart and have labeled him a Tea Party rabble rouser. All the finger-pointing could spark a debate that would go back and forth without Simmons’ honest-to-God off-the-record response (though admittedly come pretty close to the mark set up by liberal commentators), but it may as well be rendered moot by the novel’s ambitions, which aren’t as lofty as they seem. Simmons is writing speculative fiction rooted in real life, and he must take his inspiration from somewhere. Why not exploit the single biggest event of the 21st century this side of 9/11? The doomsayers of the 2008 election gave Simmons a readymade apocalyptic scenario, and he had the wit to string it out into a disturbing, hard-boiled fantasy epic. It may hurt campaigners to see their causes ridiculed, but Simmons clearly has a ball imagining a desolate American landscape where one might expect to see cheeky “Thanks Obama” graffiti scattered from sea to shining sea. Compared to Simmons’ other output, this is pure fluff that follows the classic noir plot beat for beat while indulging in some good old fashioned paranoia. If the liberal scattering of pop culture references, literary allusions, and digressions into Colorado history (where Simmons lives) are any indication, Simmons wasn’t too invested in the story to begin with. Hell, AMC finally picked up The Terror for adaptation, so he may as well rest on his laurels for awhile. There’s no reason to think Simmons is getting polemical here; political rants are attributed to imperfect characters who are all put in their places at one point or another. And really, the book dates itself so awfully by pinning the blame for our downfall on the Obama administration that in ten years or so when the world turns out to be just fine the joke will be on all the Chicken Littles who actually believe Simmons’ fantasy will become reality. If you’re willing to acknowledge this and let Simmons take you for a ride, you could prevent a bad case of boiling blood by realizing that he’s poking fun at political extremism as a whole, not just any one side.

All that said, it should be recognized that the real meat lies in the underexplored area of flashback use. If anything Simmons’ biggest offense is leaving out more details of the eponymous drug, all the more so because he squanders a perfectly acceptable Shakespearian allusion in protagonist Nick Bottom. He could have held my attention more had he swapped out an interminable action sequence or two for some deeper thoughts on the nation’s retreat into nostalgia. Nick is our lens into this tattered new world, and though early on we witness the dangerous effects of flashback use through its abuse by so-called flashback gangs, Nick comes off as a surprisingly functional addict, which makes his dependency seem bland, and dare I say it, only as dangerous as a moderate case of movie alcoholism. We take Simmons’ word for it that Nick is consumed by his addiction, but once he’s on the trail of a suspect his troubles nearly vanish. It seems a shame that a story wrapped entirely around the concept of a drug that gives way to full blown hallucinations from the past plays it so straight. Save for a single scene when Nick visits a brain-scrambled suspect who has taken a philosophical approach to the drug and a cheap quarter-chapter length jump scare toward the end, Simmons not once messes with our heads in the course of the story. The effects of flashback are documented well enough, but what’s missing is an exploration into its adoption by the masses. People as a nation giving up on the future is too ripe of an idea to merely show off its aftereffects.

While the novel mostly succeeds as a throwaway adventure for the paranoiac, a final edit could have excised a whole bunch of grating distractions, leading it to become the glinting crown jewel atop the pulp fiction landfill. Simmons’ curmudgeonly stab at future teenage slang shows him to be excruciatingly out of depth, too many characters speak with a long-winded expository clarity that should only ever be heard over loudspeakers at an airport, and a clichéd revelatory chat with a Bondian villain somehow explains the central mystery to Nick, an explanation we have to wait hundreds of pages for until he finds the right person to monologue to. Too many of Simmons’ expressions and analogies are under-wrought to the point of forcing a double take. Simmons is an effervescent writer, but some turns of phrase are bizarre enough to make you question the other effects of flashback, and if Simmons went method in his research of psychotropic drugs. Lastly, many terms and ideas bleed over from The Hyperion Cantos and The Ilium Cycle, places where the author’s cosmopolitan interests are better suited than this wannabe-grunge saga, and where his digs at organized religion are less cringe-inducing.

Readers who are able to suspend their political allegiances and ride the rollercoaster to the end will find plenty of amusement along the way. The action becomes burdensome to a point, but is just as devilishly excessive as any he has ever written. The meta references may be a laugh for some , but I couldn’t help but think Simmons was highlighting headings from his outline or missives from his editor whenever Nick mused that he was in “the wrong movie” or that the Bondian villain mentioned above does in fact remind him of a James Bond movie. Yet more reminders that this is light fare for thriller fans, and that Simmons is happy to wear his influences on his sleeve to convince us that we’re having a good time. It strikes a balance in the end, Simmons’ nostalgia paired with his predictions for our downfall, giving off the impression that he himself is a functional addict for good times long past.

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