By Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur, 560 pages, $27.99
Updated: August 14, 2011 2:27AM
Dan Simmons’ Flashback is an abundantly entertaining, often outrageous right-wing fantasy about a weak, broken United States 20-odd years from now. The country is ruled by the Japanese, lives in fear of the Islamic Global Caliphate, and its citizens mostly spend their time stoned on a drug called flashback that lets them escape to a better past. Some of the events that have occurred between now and the early 2030s can be summed up thusly:
◆ U.S. Goes Bankrupt
◆ Israel Destroyed by Nuclear Attack
◆ Mexican Army Invades California
◆ Sharia Law Rules Europe, Canada
◆ Giant Mosque Built at Ground Zero
◆ U.S. Down to 44½ States
There’s more, but you get the idea. And if you haven’t guessed, the blame for almost all these disasters lies with the fellow who was elected president of the United States in 2008.
At the start of the novel, we’re in Denver, where Nick Bottom, an ex-cop turned private investigator, goes to see a man named Nakamura who wants Nick to find out who killed his son. It’s a classic private-eye novel opening, but things turn strange when we learn that Nakamura, a Japanese billionaire, is one of nine federal advisers who control money and National Guard forces in America.
No matter. Nick takes the case. The son was murdered six years earlier while filming a documentary on flashback addicts. Nick’s wife died in an apparent accident at about the same time, and Nick has become an addict — a “flasher” — so he can relive their good times together. He learns that the deaths of his wife and the young Japanese man might have been connected.
Desperate to find the truth, Nick teams up with the billionaire’s “security chief,” a professional assassin named Hideki Sato. Their investigation takes them to Santa Fe (now ruled by a Mexican army controlled by drug cartels) and Los Angeles, where Nick’s 16-year-old son and 74-year-old father live. The troubled, flash-addicted son is about to be drafted into the poorly paid, poorly trained U.S. Army, which is hired out as a mercenary force to fight and die for richer nations such as India and Japan.
Nick’s investigation grips us, as we try to puzzle out just why he and his late wife are of such interest to the Japanese power broker and how all this may — as Simmons hints — somehow change the future of the world. Along the way, we enjoy memorable scenes. A battle in the New Mexico desert, where Nick, Sato and a handful of Japanese warriors are attacked by a small army of bandits, is expertly handled. A survivor’s account of the nuclear attack that killed 6 million Israelis in 20 minutes is heartbreaking. As pure adventure, Flashback is first-rate.
All the while, of course, the novel is operating on a second, political level. Many readers will embrace — or be repelled by — the book on purely partisan grounds. We’re told repeatedly that the United States went bankrupt in 2022 because of runaway entitlements. Simmons does not entertain the possibility that trillion-dollar foreign adventures or outrageous giveaways to the rich might have been part of the problem. Or take the nuclear destruction of Israel by Islamic terrorists in the 2020s; one might expect this to be a nonpartisan tragedy. Not so. We’re told that the speech Barack Obama made in Cairo in 2009, calling for better understanding between the West and the Muslim world, was “appeasement” of “fascism,” and led (along with those darn entitlements) to “a total retreat from international responsibilities” by the United States. Ergo, Obama caused the incineration of Israel.
Or perhaps you’re wondering how our once-mighty nation came to be cowering before the Japanese and the Islamic Caliphate, even as Mexican armies retake the lands we took from them in the 1840s. It’s because we and the Russians agreed to a final START treaty that left us with only 26 nuclear weapons and no way to deliver them. Amazingly, we disarmed ourselves despite the fact that Iran and the Caliphate were building thousands of nuclear weapons.
Reading all this left me with distinctly mixed feelings. I enjoyed much of the novel. Simmons provides a strong narrative and well-imagined characters — the man can write — and yet I thought his dystopian vision of political reality, however deeply felt, vacillated between the improbable and the ridiculous. Give him this: With any luck, Simmons could be the Tolstoy of the Tea Party; at the very least, he’s more fun than Ayn Rand.
Simmons is an ex-schoolteacher who in the past 25 years has published more than 20 novels and story collections. He’s best known for his science fiction but has also written crime fiction and horror.
On his website, he denies that Flashback reflects his personal political views, but it’s certainly going to delight readers on the right more than those on the left. It can’t be denied that this novel’s arrival at a moment of near-total political breakdown in America adds to its relevance, whatever glories or disasters may ensue in the next two decades.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for the Washington Post.