It is only a few decades in the future, but the United States of America as we know it in 2011 does not exist. Weak government, an unwinnable and overlong war, and insurmountable debt that bankrupted each and every state government has put the U.S. in a state of ruination and near-anarchy. Islam is the prevailing world religion, and Israel no longer exists. The majority of the U.S. population does not care. Their longing for a return to the past has created an addiction to the new drug of choice --- flashback.
"...a veritable potpourri of styles incorporating sci-fi, crime noir and mystery/thriller, along with a highly intuitive political and socio-economic study."
Flashback allows the user to re-experience actual past events from their own lives. The addicted wander around in soul-less masses without any desire to participate in the new world order that no longer supports their former way of life. Ex-detective Nick Bottom is one of these lost souls. His wife, Dara, was killed in a car accident, and his inevitable addiction to flashback cost him his career, his teenage son, and quite possibly his life. Living in what used to be Denver, Colorado, Nick has a tiny condo inside a former shopping mall.
Nick is approached by a top governmental advisor from Japan, Mr. Nakamura, and asked to help with a cold case. This specific murder was of Nakamura's son, Keigo. Nakamura is well aware of Nick's flashback addiction, and also knows that he was a top-notch detective and possibly the only person who can successfully solve this crime. To assist Nick in his investigation, one of Nakamura's top aides, Mr. Sato, is assigned to escort him during his search.
It is difficult to find anyone who will help in this endeavor. Most citizens of the new United States have never recovered from the day their nation fell into ruin --- a date infamously known as The Day It All Hit The Fan. That date made 9/11 look like a minor event. Islam's radical influence around the world has permeated nearly every remaining nation, and the new "Mid-East" rose up and destroyed the country formerly known as Israel. This Second Holocaust swung the balance of the endless Middle East skirmish where the United States was thwarted worse than their prior battles in Vietnam many decades earlier.
While Nick and Mr. Sato are delving into their murder investigation, Nick's son Val is running with a gang of young radicals in a now-dystopian version of Los Angeles. Living with his grandfather, Professor George Leonard Fox, Val is a disillusioned youth who blames his father for his mother's death and exhibits all the traits of the proverbial "angry young man." Nick has plans during his investigation to locate his son, as well as his father-in-law, and rejoin them. This is not just out of sentimentality, but also due to the fact that some of the things he is uncovering leads him to believe he was set up by Nakamura, and that a severely wounded nation under the influence of flashback is just the tip of the iceberg for the horrors yet to come.
As a novel, FLASHBACK has it all. It deftly combines visionary science fiction with a firm grasp of current events that could very well lead to the horrifying near-future that has been created for this story. Nick Bottom is a truly tragic hero --- emotionally bereft, paranoid and lost, but still with a flicker of his old self that will keep you rooting for him all the way through. At times, FLASHBACK called to mind films like Inception and The Matrix --- as well as Mad Max, often referenced throughout. Simmons's constant peppering of historical facts, world events and popular culture add an extra dose of realism that creates a horrifying scenario whereby the reader can actually visualize this future world as being entirely possible.
Whenever someone picks up a book by Dan Simmons, it's like you're experiencing a different author each time. There is no modern writer today who possesses the ability to move effortlessly through genres the way he does. More importantly, he excels at each genre he tackles and seems to get stronger and deeper with each new release. In the case of FLASHBACK, the reader is treated to a veritable potpourri of styles incorporating sci-fi, crime noir and mystery/thriller, along with a highly intuitive political and socio-economic study. I breathlessly wait to see what Simmons has in store for his faithful audience next.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on August 1, 2011