Sunday, 19 August 2012

Induced Nostalgia

I'd gotten this book sometime back, but I can't remember if I put it into my reading list.

Was this a good book? Not really. Though it was reminiscent of a previous book, something about this one felt rushed.

Induced nostalgia
Don't dwell on the past

first published in The Star, 19 August 2012

For some, nostalgia is like a drug. In the United States, for instance, many are longing for the good old days. This nostalgia-as-drug metaphor is expanded and explored in Dan Simmons's novel Flashback, which takes place in what could be the mother-of-all-post-apocalyptic-worlds.

About 20 years from now, global order is topsy-turvy. The United States, European Union and China have collapsed; Japan is run by clannish feudal families and oversees a new South-East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere; large swathes of Israel are uninhabitable nuclear wastelands; and there's a Global Islamic Caliphate.

Also: the United States is several states short, Texas is a republic, and criminal elements comprising Hispanic gangs, Russian mafia and others are wreaking havoc.

Every (middle-class white) American's nightmare has come true, and over 80% of the population is seeking respite through flashback, a drug that lets its users mentally re-live the best moments of their lives. Contributing to the chaos are flash gangs, groups of miscreants who commit crimes and revisit them with the drug.

Disgraced police officer Nick Bottom (great name!) is a flashback addict who finds solace in the memories of his late wife. Embarrassingly, he's caught using the drug on video prior to a meeting with a client. So this client, a Japanese bigwig called Nakamura, sends his top goon with Bottom to make sure he does his job and keep him from going "under the flash". Nakamura wants the truth behind his son's death, a case Bottom investigated years ago.

Back home, Bottom's father-in-law receives an ominous warning to leave home over a flash gang's crime – a gang whose members include Bottom's estranged son, Val. Things get really hot when Val's gang ambushes and fails to kill a top Japanese diplomat. Son and grandfather go on the run, while Bottom learns, to his shock, that his late wife might be involved in the case he's now investigating. Old wounds are opened as Bottom gets to the bottom of the unsolved murder – and the murky beginnings of the American addiction to the past.

In Black Hills, Simmons suggests that that mankind's greed may eventually ruin the world. That happens, in a way, in Flashback. How it happened can be found in the book, but it's so tangled up with the other threads in the story, unravelling each thread for a better look can be tedious. About halfway through, you just don't care anymore.

The novel starts out slowly, exploring the Bottoms' background which nobody will eventually care about. About two-thirds into it, the pace accelerates because the book is running out of pages. Things start "falling into place" like Newton's apples at various points: A cellphone, some video footage, and bits of information from shady power-brokers reminiscent of James Bond villains, all build up to a plotline pile-up of an ending where the whole novel is supposed to – finally! – make sense ... but falls short of that.

Bottom's not even a protagonist in the true sense of the word. He feels more like a pawn in a very cluttered, ruined chessboard with mostly broken pieces.

It's hard to connect or relate to characters, whom I feel are less important than the world they're set in. The "eerily possible" scenario feels authentic, but the characters don't seem to belong there.

At first blush, and from the inclusion of a reading group guide, it looks as though Simmons is trying to do more than just entertain with this novel, despite his claim that, "hell, no!", Flashback does not state his political views. Why he wrote this book is explained in the guide, more or less, which leaves little room for a reviewer to come to his own conclusions.

But let me try.

Simmons' dystopia is America's nightmare, writ large. He's taken the fears of his fellow Americans, ramped it up to 25, and weaved it into what looks like a dystopian sci-fi thriller with a message: Stop dwelling in the past, face the pain of the present, and move on towards what could be a better future. And there's a lot of pain in the United States right now.

"You can't have life without pain," Simmons writes. "You can't have a future without pain. Being alive means having the strength to face pain and loss and to find something real through it and beyond it."

Great message, albeit one that's about 500 pages too long.

Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur (2011)
553 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-10198-1


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