Flashback — book review

FLASHBACK by Dan Simmons. Quercus £20

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

Dan Simmons is an intelligent and imaginative writer who is able to evoke complex situations with ease. The world he envisages twenty-five years hence is a frightening one, especially for the citizens of the Western World. He takes the financial crisis of now and postulates a spiral of decline for democracy and a rise of Islam in Europe and America.

The United States that is the home of ex-detective Nick Bottom has disintegrated. From the south the reconquistas have set out to reclaim the parts of the Southern States, blurring the boundaries between the US and Mexico. Japan is once again a force to be reckoned with. It has stepped back towards feudalism but that has strengthened its influence and the wealthiest families influence politics in all parts of the USA. Part of America’s decline is due to the drug, flashback. Under its influence, users go back and relive past experiences. After the death of his wife in a car accident, Nick became a flash addict and lost his job. Now the region’s Japanese Advisor wants to hire him.

Hiroshi Nakamura is hideously wealthy. He wants Nick to solve the murder of his son. This was the case Nick was working on when his wife died. It has been investigated almost annually since then and no-one has been able to pin-point the killer who cut the young man’s throat while a party was going on on the floor below. Keigo Nakamura had just finished making a documentary film about flashback at the time and the assumption was that he has ruffled feathers with his questions, especially as the last section of the film disappeared. Nick has been handed a poison chalice.

Nick’s investigation runs parallel with the story of his son, Val. He was sent to live with his grandfather, Leonard in Los Angeles and is running with a flashback gang. These groups of out-of-control youths commit crimes that they can relive under the drug. When the leader of his gang proposes assassinating the local Japanese Advisor, Val is a reluctant participant. Other crises are brewing in LA and as the situation explodes into violence, Val and Leonard find themselves fleeing towards Denver where Nick lives.

This is a frightening and very plausible future scenario which begins with the financial meltdown and the political restructuring that the world currently seems to be heading towards. Simmons is a fantastic story-teller but no novel is perfect. The main quibble is that in places he expostulates a little too much about the lead up to his political extrapolation and goes into a little too much detail about the hardware. The ending is also likely to generate discussion as to whether the last chapter was added at the insistence of the publisher. Ultimately, though, this is one of the best SF thrillers to appear this year.