There’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.
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.”
You 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.