A Review of Flashback by Dan Simmons

Flashback-Dan-SimmonsThere’s an apocalyptic crackle in the air. When isn’t there? But the noise seems to have gotten louder over the last few years. Many serious people accept that American decline is the new normal, while others are predicting the End of America, with glee or sadness.

To that pessimistic chorus, add Dan Simmons.

I have given up on Simmons’s work several times in the past. Loved Hyperion and Endymion, of course; went straight on to read Ilium, was gobsmacked with awe. Eagerly ploughed into Olympos, and was … bored. Once a writer bores me, I rarely go back to him. (Sounds like my early dating history!) I however gave Simmons a second chance with Drood, because it is narrated by Wilkie Collins, whose novels I like very much. What a nasty shock I got. Simmons gave poor old Wilkie’s reputation a real bashing about, depicting him as the manic-obsessive villain of the piece. Not at all fair when Collins is dead and can’t defend himself. I swore off Dan Simmons again.

Against my better judgment I recently picked up Flashback, Simmons’s latest offering and his first near-future science fiction novel.

And I’m glad I did.

This book kicks posterior. It’s a wild turbo-boosted ride through a shockingly plausible dystopia. At the same time, Simmons’s central extrapolation is risibly stupid. Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about Thin Men with Yellow Faces? I disagreed violently with its central premise, but it made me think. That’s what Flashback did, on a much larger scale. And so I call this eight bucks well spent and submit it would be worth eight of your hard-earned dollars, too.

Dan Simmons rocks prepper shades.
Dan Simmons rocks prepper shades.

The buzz about Flashback is that it’s the novel where Dan Simmons finally lets his Tea Party flag wave. “It expresses a political bias that renders much of this novel little more than propaganda for the Right side of politics,” said Gerard Wood on Science Fiction World, speaking for many fans. Simmons himself denies the charge: “Is Flashback A Novel Stating Dan Simmons’s Political Biases?” he rhetorically asks, and answers: “In a word . . . no. In two words . . . hell no.” Yeah, uh uh. I’m not buying that can o’ greens, Mister Simmons. Too much of Flashback’s scenario echoes the dire prognostications of right-wing pundits: demographic and cultural decline, Big Government profligacy bankrupting the country, national suicide by multiculturalism, etc., etc. The world-building here might as well have been a group effort by the columnists at NRO. Mind you, I don’t disagree with many of these predictions. The problem is that reviewers, focusing on the political premises of Simmons’s near-future scenario, have largely ignored its two central facts:

Flashback. A drug that allows people to relive the best bits of their lives, over … and over … and over. 95% of the population in this future is addicted. I don’t buy it. Maybe this is just me. But really? Whose past is that great that they’d want to live there? Oh, I know it’s a narrative symbol of how America has turned away from its future to embrace a golden past that never was. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of individual human psychology.

Which has never been Simmons’s strong point, witness: “the new Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that the Japs are carving out of China and the rest of Asia.” Yes! In this future, the Japanese are masters of the universe again! I confess. That’s the real reason I picked up this book. You never see the Japanese kicking posterior in fiction any more. I was ready for a nicely constructed mid-21st century scenario where demographic catastrophe has proved to be a blessing in disguise, spurring the Japanese to develop advanced robotics and energy technology that gives them superpower status in the post-dollar economy. But that’s not what I got. Take it away, Security Advisor Sato:

“Nippon has thrown off the uncomfortable pretense of democracy forced upon us–a cultural form that never fit us–and returned to something like the bakufu or tent-office or Shogunate, the seii taishogun form of strong military-industrial leader that ruled Nippon for so many generations.”

Bushido-the-Soul-of-Japan-Nitobe-Inazo-9781935785965You have to imagine this being uttered in a villainous Oriental lisp. Simmons reminds us about once a page that Sato mispronounces his ls and rs. This barely-competent-in-English super-ninja then continues:

“The bushido, the way of the warrior that demands honor unto death, reigns once again in the thoughts and actions of many Nipponese.”

Where do I even start? This reads like the fervid imaginings of a Jap-basher from the 1980s. I tried the scenario out on a few actual Japanese people, whose uniform response was “HAHAHAHA ha ha.” The concept of bushido resurgent is plainly the work of someone who knows zilch about Japan and has probably never been any closer to the country than its Wikipedia entry. Japan is no more likely to “throw off the uncomfortable pretense of democracy” than the USA is.

And then there’s this:

“Tsugi no fourtsu desu ka yaban to jodan owa-tsu ta no?” Sato barked at his four fighters.

The four young men bowed at once. And they bowed low.

“Hai! Junbi ga deki te, bosu ni id shimasu,” said Joe.

The lingo spoken by the Japanese characters here (Joe is also Japanese, but he uses an English nickname) may look kind of like Japanese, but it isn’t. The first line reads: “Is this the next fourtsu savage and joke owa-tsu?” (Untranslated words are gibberish.) The second line is actually almost comprehensible: “Yes! We are ready and will [move?] to bosu.” I’m guessing about this, though, because the romanization is,uh, eccentric. The book is littered with this bizarre lingo. I suppose it could be meant as some future dialect of Japanese, but it strikes me as what would happen if a person who had learned basic Japanese by ear a couple of decades ago, never learning to write it, had a go at transcribing the sounds his inner ear still remembers. Perhaps Dan Simmons has such a friend whom he relied upon for the “translations.” I would express surprise that his editor didn’t call him on it except that, as we know, editors don’t edit anymore.

So yeah; the Japanese aspects of this novel were cringe-inducing. Which ought to be a major problem, since in this future, America is administered by Japanese “advisors” living in posh enclaves. (China flamed out in the meantime—one of Simmons’s more plausible predictions.) But it’s actually not a deal-breaker. The zippy, thriller-esque plot keeps things moving nicely, while Simmons’s portrait of a dystopic future America is refreshingly different and vivid. At the very end, however, my suspension of disbelief gave up its Icarus-like performance and crashed with a dying howl. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll only say that I do not believe World War III will be started by those two antagonists.

Still and all; I wasn’t bored. You won’t be, either. If you’re a pessimistic conservative, you’ll nod right along with Simmons; if you’re a progressive, you’ll get a glimpse of how the future looks from the far-right side of the aisle; and if you’re an optimistic conservative like me, Flashback is a nice slab of escapism.


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  1. II’m going to generalize here, You tell me if it’s not YOU I’m speaking of.

    t’s so ironic that every once in a long time there is a Dystopian that isn’t from the Left side of the fence and how much that bothers these so called defenders of Equality. This story is even more Ironic as it was based on the author’s own same titled short story that was a much more common dystopian based on a future started in the Regan era, The fact that the same people who will/did hate the novel would have loved the short story.
    Ignoring that the Author was Hatefully attacked for daring point to a Dystopia based on liberal policies just shows how small brained the Right Think People are, Ignoring the hate and even Death Threats because he Dared write a Fictional work linked to the now and the non stop works being released now doing exactly the same is just more of the Utter Hypocrisy that is the Norm.

    Oh go ahead and Censor this, But don’t pretend we don’t know this is the typical knee jerk reaction to words the Traitors to Reason don’t care for(actually putting this statement here might play to your ego and you might allow it to slip then) But let me let you know, you have Deeper Problems and like many of the Buzzwords the left use to Shield themselves(And attack others) You need to look up the real definitions of them, And one in particularly Hypocrisy.

    I put this truth up because you shouldn’t be speaking for SF (Amazing Stories) and not have your ALL PERVASIVE PRIVILEGE come under some critique(Yes sorry but your side doesn’t have a patent on those words)

    P.S. I refused to read this book for years because of my Obama Deflector Shields, It was only after said President doubled down on EVERY SINGLE HATED BUSH BILL and the Real Vision of Fake Biased News came to show me how Horribly Dishonest and Hypocritical and Worse than Useless the Mainstream Media was, As the differences of how the media reacted to the same policies, Maybe Ignorance is your only excuse, Did you miss where Obama resigned the most hated bill of our Generation “The Patriot Act” Because it wasn’t a big deal at all when he did so(Twice) Not even headline news. The difference was Night and Day and Love and Hate, Hell look at the Supreme Court Nominee now, I bet you are whining about something he might or might not have done as a kid 36 years ago, Let me guess that you were one of the majority who didn’t give a turd about the much more pertinent rape accusations against Bill Clinton. I would say you should examine YOURSELF as this is easily a way to prove you don’t actually believe what you believe(have any Principles) you just have Hypocritical Biases that you cling deeply to your chest.

    Wake up, or at least stop Creating the Hate that you assuredly claim to Fight.

    1. Oh sad anonymous person. I wouldn’t dream of censoring such a perfect examplar of SO many errors: the author of the review actually recommends this work. She goes on to identify it as “…if you’re a progressive, you’ll get a glimpse of how the future looks from the far-right side of the aisle; and if you’re an optimistic conservative like me, Flashback is a nice slab of escapism.”, for just one leading example.

      For someone complaining about “buzzwords” you sure do use a lot.

      So no, I don’t mind posting a comment that is completely devoid of any sense whatsoever and yet still manages to provide us with a “glimpse…from the far-right side…”

      (To answer your question, I’d have had no idea if it was “me” you were speaking of except you did manage to mention the object of your ire by the 5th paragraph. Your statement that Amazing Stories “shouldn’t be speaking for SF” is incorrect on two fundamental levels: First – no one person or entity “speaks for SF”. That you apparently believe so strongly suggests at least a Puppy-Adjacent worldview, which we all know is hampered by ignorance and influenced by prejudice. Second – because no one officially “speaks for SF”, everyone with an interest in the subject is welcome to their views and encourged to express them because, unlike yourself, we’re interested in different viewpoints and the insights they mightt provide – presuming, of course, that they are actual insights born from consideration and based on fact – which your post is most assuredly not an example of.)

  2. “It was like being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch FOX News …” That’s a great line, Daniel! I suspect you are not a regular FOX News viewer.

    Thing about Simmons though is that everything he writes is different from everything else. E.g. I’m now reading ABOMINABLE and it couldn’t be less dystopian. I recommend it.

  3. I’m a big Dan Simmons fan and have followed not only his SF but his horror, fantasy, and mainstream books. I think he’s a brilliant writer and have picked up and enjoyed books I might not otherwise have read because he was the author, such as “The Terror.”

    That said, I found this one a huge disappointment because it was like being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch FOX News. This is a dystopian novel as imagined by the Tea Party and it was done with a heavy hand. I don’t have to agree with the politics of an author, but if he’s going to make it the centerpiece of his writing he’s going to lose me.

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