REVIEW: Flashback by Dan Simmons

REVIEW SUMMARY: A dark, wry “post-fall-of-the-US” novel set in the near future.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An ex-detective-turned-drug-addict gets a chance of redemption if he can find who killed the son of a powerful Japanese megacorp owner, which can be easy if he manages not to get killed in the process.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Simmons knows his craft, and every one of his stories is a page-turner; the concept of the drug Flashback (already mentioned in other stories, albeit briefly), is too good not to explore further, and that’s what he does here.

CONS: The whole novel smells of hatred – a hate speech that cannot simply be attributed to the mastery of Simmons’s art of convincing his readers through the POV of his characters; there is more than meets the eyes here: a kind of righteous (?) fury with USA’s biggest problems since 9/11.

BOTTOM LINE: It may well be the worst novel Simmons has ever written so far. Only recommended for die-hard fans.


When I first heard of this novel, I immediately became interested because of what its title promised: a further analysis and investigation of the drug Flashback.

Have you read the Hyperion Cantos? That is the correct name of the Hyperion saga, composed of four novels (Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion). It’s my favorite Dan Simmons work to this day.

This is both a good and bad statement.

Good, naturally, because in the Hyperion Cantos, Simmons helped to redefine the Space Opera genre years before authors like Alastair Reynolds revamped it into what today is known as the New Space Opera. At the same time, in the first novel (which is a retelling in the far future of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, by itself no small feat at all), he managed to write mini-novels in different subgenres, from the almost old-fashioned detective story to the military SF adventure, adding a critique of cyberpunk and lots of suspense and even sheer horror to the mix. Among the many contributions of Simmons to the genre, was a imaginary drug called Flashback – in Hyperion, he mentioned it for the first time as a drug that could make its user relive her/his past experiences minute by minute – but its description is quite complex, being a 28th Century drug:

It is definitely an upper-class vice: one needs the full range of expensive implants to fully experience it. Helenda has seen to it that I have been so fitted: biomonitors, sensory extenders, and internal comlog, neural shunts, metacortex processors, blood chips, RNA tapeworms… my mother wouldn’t have recognized my insides.

Later, in the collection of stories Lovedeath, I found a novella with the same title (Flashback), revolving around a nasty consequence of the abuse of the (apparently) same drug, but in the 20th Century. Would it be the same universe of Hyperion? Simmons doesn’t make it clear. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t: there is no way to tell. I liked this new story all the same, because of a twist on it that Hyperion never mentioned (and I won’t tell it so as not to give spoilers).

Then I bought Flashback because I wanted to read more about this imaginary drug.

What I could read about it pretty much satisfied me; Simmons describes a lot more about its uses, its origins, and even some pathologies of its use that made me continue to want to read the novel, despite the hate speech that emanated from its pages.

But you can’t be serious, some of you must be thinking. That’s just damn good worldbuilding and an awesome character construction, right? I mean, Nick Bottom is a very talented cop but otherwise a mediocre man and flashback addict who lost pretty much everything he had in life and can’t help but blame the previous U.S. administrations (it’s not openly said, but it’s clear that it’s the present Obama one), and everyone else in the world wide world, the Chinese, the Japanese, ALL Muslims with no exceptions at all. (To learn more about the story, read John’s review.)

So you enter Dan Simmons’s site and read his monthly editorial (the Message to Dan from June 2011, if I linked it right). There, you read a well-formulated explanation to anyone who dares to doubt that he is only writing fiction: unfortunately, that all goes down the drain when he mentions the incident of the “mosque” building near Ground Zero. And it doesn’t seems to me that he does so as a tolerant, understanding, peaceful man. I’m sorry, but I’m sick and tired of bigotry and ignorance – and when it manifests itself in a writing who used to be so precise and then starts to deliver scenes like the market where the son of Nick and his flashgang friends buy AI t-shirts (one of them being a especially nasty rendition of Vladimir Putin), the whole scene reads like a Tom Clancy story, only worse. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Flashback is awfully irregular. When Simmons focuses on technology, he is very good at it. When he writes about the near future and the U.S., well, who am I to tell? I’m from another country. A country that fortunately escaped the wrath of his worldbuilding, but even so, let’s just say I’m neither convinced nor amused. I’ve read (much) better books by him, and sincerely hope to read more in the future.

36 thoughts on “REVIEW: Flashback by Dan Simmons”

  1. I understand some people are upset by the right wing viewpoints in the book (I point out in my review that people who don’t like that type of politics shouldn’t read it), but this isn’t much of a review. The story itself is decent (not one of Simmon’s better books), but it is still well worth reading. The drug interactions (specifically the portrayal of an addict) and the mystery are good (even with a few plot holes). And I enjoyed seeing a different viewpoint on a dystopian future.

    I find this review more intolerant of others viewpoints than Simmons book. At least he has the excuse of it being fictional.

  2. Sounds like what happened with Orson Scott Card and Empire, a book that I actually threw in the trash before I’d gotten more than 50 pages into it. It isn’t the right-wing viewpoint that’s the problem… well, it IS, but not in the way people might think. The problem is that these sorts of books buy into the right-wing mythology to a degree that is detrimental to the story. If your view on an issue is already cartoonish, it doesn’t seem possible to make a story out of it that really lives and breathes. 

  3. @Mark: As pointed out above, the drug interactions are really good, and that’s what made me read the novel until the end.

     

    And I enjoyed seeing a different viewpoint on a dystopian future.

     

    In which way this would be a different viewpoint of a dystopian future? Different in relation to what other viewpoints? Please clarify.

    As for intolerance… well, you’ve got a point. I don’t have the excuse of being fictional… because this is a REVIEW. It’s not supposed to be fictional. See what I mean? huh? huh? *nudgenudgewinkwink*

    And allow me to refer again to his message in his website. He has a polite rethoric, I concede that – but he is the intolerant one. I’m just showing my indignation. That’s another thing entirely, and I’m entitled to do it in a review.

  4. I think Improbable Joe may have nailed it:

     

    The problem is that these sorts of books buy into the right-wing mythology to a degree that is detrimental to the story. If your view on an issue is already cartoonish, it doesn’t seem possible to make a story out of it that really lives and breathes.

     

    Nuff said.

  5. Thanks, Fabio.

     

    You had mentioned privately to me a couple of weeks ago that you had a strong reaction to the book, and now I see why.

    Like you, I loved the Hyperion Quartet. And I think Drood is brilliant, absolutely so.

    Where I got an inkling of the hatred though, was in Olympos, which shoehorned in a very strange subplot that seems of a kin to the politics of Flashback. It absolutely baffled me at the time I read it and it detracted from the experience.

    In a story of posthumans and postsingularity beings, what in the world was *that* doing there, I had wondered.

    Maybe I wonder a little less, now.

    Also, this link from Dan’s site. It’s ostensibly a fictional piece. 

    http://www.dansimmons.com/news/message/2006_04.htm

    So, yeah.

     

  6. Thank you for the mention of Olympos, Paul. I read Ilium and liked it, but never got to Olympos, I don’t know why. Then several people started telling me exactly the same thing you just said about it. I know I will still read it because I want to know what happens with the characters of the duology (after all, Simmons’s prose is still powerful, and I love it), but sometimes I confess that it baffles me.

  7. … not that people with left-wing ideology don’t write ideology-driven books, but when they get cartoony and preachy the author is usually self-aware enough to go full-on satire.

  8. This is only a ‘review’ of the reviewers political correctness.   Not worthy of Sfsignal.  

  9. Thanks for this review.  I share your opinion of the Hyperion Cantos and of much of Simmons’ other works.  Having read some distasteful things on his website of late, I had wondered about this book.  The thing is, the man has such a crashingly powerful imagination and such muscular prose that I thought maybe this book would be okay.  But, alas, your review has warned me off.  And quite rightly so, it seems.

  10. I think SF Signal has to stop calling these “Reviews”. There’s hardly any analysis here, hardly even a couple paras on the book itself. I have very little sense of the novel and although it doesn’t sound great, I am intensely dissatisfied with the quality of this piece as a review.

    JeffV

  11. The politics in the book are very strange.  Maybe he did it as a joke.  But then again, the US economy doesn’t look good right now.  I don’t see the Japanese owning the US though, probably because of their nuclear problems, which I’m guessing happened after Dan wrote the book.

     

  12. @Jeff, I understand your dissatisfaction. In fact, this does not qualify as a bona fide review. Consider it as more of a reaction to a surprisingly bad narrative. There was much more I wanted to write about it – and, looking back, maybe I should have done it, so this piece could at least be an accurate analysis of what I see as an hysterical (in the Lacanian sense of the word) stand on Simmons’s part about us (US) versus them (the rest of the world). But I might have really gone meta here and did a poor job of writing about a poorly done novel. I sincerely apologize.

  13. @tam, is this was a joke, then it was a sick joke. No fun at all. But the whole thing about the Japanese owing the US belongs to the 80s, when it really could seem that way. Today? Maybe the Chinese, but that don’t seem likely, at least for the time being.

    And what about the Global Caliphate? The Middle East and North Africa have several different countries with lots of different modalities of Islam. Now, with the Arab Spring, we can see this more clearly (for instance, Lybia does not equal Egypt, which does not equal Bahrain, and so on). But Simmons should have done his homework, much as, for example, Ian McDonald does his when he writes about Turkey, India, or Brazil.

  14. Why do you assume that the viewpoints of the characters is also the viewpoints of the author?  I have read plenty of speculative fiction books where the characters put forth some very chilling and unpopular ideas. 

    If speculative fiction isn’t the place to experiment with ideas and viewpoints what would be a better fit?  Just like when someone writes a book about a serial killer I don’t assume the author is a serial killer.

  15. Dan, Fabio’s second-to-last paragraph addresses that.  And the other works which seem to be written in this same vein of hatred and intolerance. 

    I suppose its possible that Dan is being a deliberate agent provocateur, but doing it again and again, in the same vein, against the same cultural group, and with the same intolerance?  That’s a pattern, to me. Or he is cynically stoking the flames of intolerance.  That’s not any better than if he endorses these beliefs.

     

     

  16. Why is it tolerance only seems to run one way? I can’t begin to count  how many leftist-oriented books I’ve read that openly mock religion and shove “tolerance” down our throats– in other words, only the “ignorant” hold a differing opinion than the author. No one calls those books hateful. I’ve seen authors who dare to express conservative opinions cast out by the writing community in a scary fashion. Calls of boycotting and so on.  Dare we call it bullying– everyone understands that concept right? This isn’t a review. It doesn’t address the points raised in the book, it just attempts to denigrate the author for presenting a viewpoint the reader doesn’t like. Calling it bigoted and ignorant says more about the reader than the book. 

  17. All right, T.M.  I’ll bite.

    What do you precisely mean by “shoving tolerance” down your throat?

    I’m curious: What’s your single best example of a genre book that does this? 

    (To keep it on topic, since we are discussing genre fiction and authors at SF Signal.)

     

     

     

     

  18. You know, I think this “review” could be summed up with this line:

    “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”

     

  19. The book that most readily comes to mind is “Under the Dome” by Stephen King. I picked it up after reading a glowing review from this site. I loved King when I was younger but was taken aback by how stereotypical his characters have become. If the character was religious or a member of the military, they are the worst kind of hypocrites and portrayed as ugly, ugly people. I couldn’t finish the book. I’m not even religious. I could care less if someone has a beef with Christianity. But I’ve met a lot of people who don’t merit the stereotypes and I believe they outnumber the ones that do. 

    The thing is, King has the right to write whatever he wants. Just as anyone can write about global warming, homosexuality- or whatever the cause du jour is. That’s fine. I say let the audience decide what they want to read. But when a reviewer picks up a book, they need to review the book and leave personal bias out of it. Address the issues factually– leave the namecalling out of it. That’s all I’m asking. 

  20. Always more ???????????? then !!!!!!!!(count em=)

    I plan on reading Flashback but admit to being afraid of wasting my time.  I love Simmons work when hes on.  And at this time I’m rereading Hyperion for the 5th time.  But the thought of reading a rhetoric from the Right makes me cringe.   I see the prototype Republican as people who are too greedy to care about the future(its true)

    Apparently Global Warming was a Democratic Farce in this book.

     

    Now back to the present.

    Basicly  Big Buisness is the Republican Money Grab and they like to say that the Fake Global Warming and programs for the less well off  are the Democrats Money Grab.

    Well all I know is that if I’m going to FORCE myself to side with one of the leaches,and Since I do not own any Oil Stock etc, Then I will Logically if not reluncticly do so with the Group that is more for the Masses, and if they are not LYING about Global Warming, then they just might SAVE the entire HUMAN RACE. 

    We all know that Bush hired someone who only claimed to be a Scientist to debunk Global Warming and put his oil buddies at ease.

    What u need to take from this is not WEATHER GW (Not bush) Is Real but  what if it or another situation as dire is,  Who do you want running things then, Republicans who (for votes) pretend to listen to a invisible man in the sky and not scientist or facts.    Once again, if GB was/is Real  then we have a group led by Big Biddness who are so greedy that they are fighting to make sure we do nothing about it. And that my fool hardy friends mean you can Kiss the future of the human race Goodbye. 

     

    And I for One think its a serious enough issue to not be hiring a fake Scientest to lie to the American People so your Oil Complanys can make even more money then God, Once again.

    Thats why I am Worried about reading Flashback. I do not care for one of the best ever Science Fiction Writers to Piss me off with Republican BS.   It makes me go off on a Rant.

    Im not even going to proof read this. Some tortures are meant to be read no more then once.

     

     

    P.S.

    Why would I vote for someone to govern me that I do not even know.

    The Bigger Question is how we put and keep ourselves in a situation in which people govern us without being forced to be transparent.  Behind those close doors we know of countless fraud and crime. yet we still have the same get rick quick scheme in place.

     

    Who needs to be paranoid when you got the facts!

     

    1. I have to say I still haven’t read the book, But since I now Hate Liberals as much as I do and did republicans. I’ll probably give it a try.

      What’s changed? Well like Obama’s first add campaign promise. Ironically Nothing.

      The old saying.

      “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

      So true and I hate people standing on pedestals and pretending they are speaking the gospel. If you vote for party members, you might as well be a member of the Klan or Black Panthers. Nothing but self serving fools!

      Betrayed(for the last time)

  21. As for intolerance… well, you’ve got a point. I don’t have the excuse of being fictional… because this is a REVIEW. It’s not supposed to be fictional. See what I mean? huh? huh? *nudgenudgewinkwink*

    I have no idea what you mean. Simmons is writing a fictional novel and has based it on conservative beliefs. You’re supposed to be writing a review of this fictional novel. But I have no idea why you gave it two-and-a-half stars other than you didn’t like the politics. This seems much more like a political review than a book review.

    And allow me to refer again to his message in his website. He has a polite rethoric, I concede that – but he is the intolerant one. I’m just showing my indignation. That’s another thing entirely, and I’m entitled to do it in a review.

    At this point, it becomes clear that you didn’t actually read the note on his website. Allow me to quote from it:

    Is Flashback A Novel Stating Dan Simmons’s Political Biases?

    In a word . . . no. In two words . . . hell no.

    and

    If Not Peddling Your Own Politics in Flashback, What?

    To put it in stark terms, Flashback is the novel in which I share the psychological and real-world reality (if not any details of the actual experience) of the day I came home from college early in my freshman year to discover that both of my parents had been diagnosed with cancer and would soon die. And it will also share the dawning perception of a nineteen-year-old — after my parents’ slow and hard deaths that year only six months apart, and after hospital and funeral expenses were paid — that my younger brother (still in high school) and I, the remnants of what had been a fairly happy family, were flat broke, jobless, and seemingly without a viable future. None of my story of this is in Flashback, per se, yet it’s all there behind the book. The emotions are there.

    So Simmons has taken a real-life problem that he had numerous years ago, mixed it up with conservative viewpoints and written a novel based on that. The only conservative viewpoint that you can find in that message (that is truly Simmons) is when he talks about the national debt. Everything else in his note is talking about the (fictional) setting of the novel.

    Once again, I found your real-world intolerance of other’s beliefs to have lead to a very poor review.

  22.  

    “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author.

    “The term is ‘idiot.'”

     

    -Larry Niven

     

     

  23. Nice quote, but the reality is that the works of most authors are informed by their political opinions to some degree, Niven being the best example for that himself. A few writers manage to pull one over their audience, but many can’t or won’t. So far, Simmons has given no indication that he trolling his audience, but every that he stands behind his words.

  24. I’m curious, was Mr. Simmons being intolerant and hateful towards Christians & Catholics while writing some of his other stories and novels? For example in the HYPERION quartet of books, the Catholic church isn’t exactly shown in the most positive light is it? How about his portrayal of evangelical Christians in his short story, “Vanni Fucci Is Alive and Well and Living In Hell” or in his novel CARRION COMFORT? Were any of you that are upset now (because of Muslim intolerance in FLASHBACK & even ILIUM and OLYMPOS) just as enraged as you are now?

    I disagreed strongly with the political blame for the dystopian reality of the novel FLASHBACK, (interestingly the novella version of “Flashback” published in 1993 laid the blame for that dystopian reality at Ronald Reagan’s feet and policies) but I still felt the book deserved a rating of 4 out of 5 stars because of the compelling story.

  25. SFSignal should be embaressed to call this emotional tirade a book review.  We all encounter things we disagree with, that does not give us liscense to lash out with our most passionate impulses.  

    If the reviewer’s delicate feathers are ruffled by reading something he disagrees with then he should at least have the professionalism to keep his discomfort under control.   Please stick to reviewing a book on its own merits, good or bad.  

    And I disagree that this is Dan Simmon’s worst book.  I found Phases of Gravity the hardest to get through.

  26. Yeah, T.M. actually picked a winner there(although I think he’s mostly full of crap).

    Under the Dome wasn’t the worst book ever, but King’s politics (which I share) really clouded his ability to create real three-dimentional villains in this case. It was like he based the main bad guy on an SNL version of Dick Cheney, it was a poorly drawn sketch of a character based on a cartoon version of a real person. And since the book was so long, you got to spend so long with that guy, and the whole thing was sort of a disaster. 

  27. @Improbable Joe– by saying I’m “mostly full of crap” aren’t you doing the same thing the reviewer is doing here? You’re openminded enough to acknowledge I have a point with the Stephen King novel, but dish out an insult rather than offer a fair counterpoint? How often do you see conservative viewpoints in fantasy/scifi fiction that is received well? Yes there is Orson Scott Card, (who gets regularly trashed by those who don’t like his politics) but how many others? And of the ones you can think of, are they treated fairly?

    I can think of many authors who are very open with their liberal views– though not all push them in print. I did try to read Mark Charon Newton and felt his politics came through too heavily to enjoy the book. I didn’t trash it though– just didn’t bother to review it. I tried to read “Vicious Circle” by Linda Robertson but some early pot-shots at Christianity turned me off. I could name more books and authors, but what’s the point? Do you notice the liberal bias much? Because it’s easy to overlook when you agree with it. 

     I would never stoop to the tactics employed here, but it seems that trying to point out the incongruity of the side that portrays themselves as tolerant using name calling as a method of rebuttal means I’m “full of crap.” 

  28. Flashback is a challenging and conflicting reading experience. A reviewer on Amazon described it as “Michael Chrichton’s Rising Sun rewritten by Rush Limbaugh” and I think that’s nearly right.

    It’s a genre book through and through, starting as a detective story, ending as a thriller, set in a near future sci-fi frame. It revels in its pulpy heritage that’s full of cliched dialog and scenes borrowed from classic cop movies and westerns. Simmons is still quite good at this type of stuff, enough to make Flashback an entertaining potboiler.

    And yet. Flashback is truly hate speech. It is based in an alternate reality, a reality where every fevered imagining of the rightest of right-wing survivalist Tea Party crackpots is the gospel truth. It goes way beyond alternative political viewpoints and drips with terrible racist, bigoted, anti-scientific, anti-historical venom. There is no signal that this is just a character’s viewpoint – it comes direct from the authorial voice. And while Simmons says “hell no” the book doesn’t reflect his politics, everything else in his summary of the book confirms that he believes the political views in Flashback and is completely serious about it.

    So reading Flashback is sometimes like dragging your mind through piles of shattered glass. Lacerating and tiresome at the same time.

    And yet. Flashback is a also a real achievement of imagination. I don’t think anyone has fleshed out the Tea Party/Fox News dystopia in such zesty detail. Until now, it’s always been vague warnings and intimation. Flashback makes it concrete and vivid, even if you think, as I do, that the basis of the extrapolation is wildly and infuiatingly false.

    So my own rating for the book swings from 2 to 4 stars and back again. Maybe that will settle down after a while.

     

  29. I think it is very instructive to compare this “review” of Simmons’ book with the previous Sci-Fi Signal rave of King’s “Under the Dome”. Nowhere in the King piece is it mentioned that his left-wing politics dominates every description of the novel’s villians, from jabs at Sarah Palin and other republicans to the continuation of his forty year vendetta against anyone who believes in a Christian God. In King’s books every liberal is a saint and every conservative evil incarnate, but somehow that utterly shameless intolerance never bothers the reviewers including whoever wrote up “Under the Dome” for this site.  Given King’s sales and target audience I dare say he’s made a fortune off of extremely tolerant conservatives who read his books with an open mind, while never even thinking of referring to his writing as “hate speech”.

     

    One can conclude that Sci-Fi Signal is only offended by Dan Simmons’ supposed intolerance because it appears to be a different brand of of intolerance than their own. Left-wingers are so used to owning the medium from top to bottom (whether its literary fiction, television & film, popular music, etc) that when a conservative dares to dip their toes in the water the reaction from “liberals” is akin to the bug eyed Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The apostates must be expelled from the Body, and their ideas have to be silenced and/or punished.

     

    Hopefully Simmons continues to offend you in the future.

     

  30. Anybody care to give examples of this so-called hate speech?   The rather vague nature of these criticisms are annoying.

  31. Excellent review, Fabio. 

    I especially appreciated the fact that you were frank about your reaction to Dan Simmon’s politics; if there’s one thing I dislike in a review, it’s a lack of candor. 

    I recently read a conservative reader’s review of Glen Beck’s latest novel.  He was likewise frank about his admiration for the book, and that helped me in the same way. It certainly didn’t offend me because the reader’s politics were different than mine.

    Of course, you’ll get readers like ShoelessJoe above, who attack you for daring to state your opinion on politcal matters in a review (especially if they conflict with his own, apparently).

    On behalf of readers everywhere, I’d like to apologize for readers on the left and on the right who will attack you because you were honest.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  32. @Roddy Reta:

    I’m only 177 pages in, but here are some examples:

    1. USA collapsed due to debt created by the 2008-2012 administration and their evil socialist-democratic ways. There is no mention of there being economical problems before this administration whatsoever. It is relayed as FACTS in this book that the economical problems are the direct cause of Obama’s healthcare laws.

    2. All muslims support sharia-law, and all muslim immigrants to Europe were part of a perfectly planned invasion, intended to create a global caliphate of hardcore muslim countries. There are no further attempts to understand muslims or to try to explain how so many different countries and ideologies suddenly, within 5 years, come together under extreme fundamentalism. Believe it or not, most arab countries are NOT fundamentalist.

    3. Global warming is a left-wing hoax and all it did was pour money down a useless drain. “green” power, as in wind turbines, is only good for one thing: killing “billions of birds”. Do I really need to elaborate on the sillyness of this? My home country has used wind power for decades, we don’t have any issues with dying birds whatsoever..

    Those three examples alone are enough for me to completely throw myself out of the story, because in my reality, living in a social-democratic country with plenty of arab immigrants and lots of green power and healthcare, I find it so far from any possible future reality that I simply can’t believe in it.

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