Dan Simmons paints grim picture for America in ‘Flashback’

Dan Simmons first came on the scene with “The Song of Kali” back in 1985. Not only was it an excellent first novel, but it also had Harlan Ellison’s endorsement. Simmons then wrote “Carrion’s Comfort” in 1989, “Summer of Night” in 1991 and “Children of the Night” in 1992.

He also wrote science fiction, and then later suspense thrillers, private-eye mysteries (the Joe Kurtz novels are great), historical fiction such as “The Terror” (I believe this to be one of the best horror novels ever written that’s based on an actual incident), “Drood” (though I felt this novel got somewhat away from the title character of Drood, it still had some fabulous suspense scenes in it), “Black Hills” and, now, “Flashback,” which is in many ways a private-eye mystery set in a futuristic America.

“Flashback” is a long novel, coming in at 550 pages. The author uses that space to discuss the economic upheaval of the United States and its dependence on a new Japan for survival. The country is no longer a nation, but is divided into sections, with many of the states and tri-states assuming total control of their areas with armed militias.

Part of the reason for America’s demise is the addiction of more than 340 million people to a drug called Flashback. This drug enables its user to return to a mental state of happier times, and like a dream, it seems totally real while you’re experiencing it.

At the heart of the novel is ex-Denver homicide detective Nick Bottoms, who’s addicted to the drug as a way of reliving his happiest moments with his dead wife, Dara. Nick is so addicted to Flashback that he lost his job after his wife died, and he then sent his young son to live in California with Nick’s father-in-law.

Still, Nick is hired by an important Japanese adviser to the United States to solve the six-year-old murder of his son. The case was never solved, and Nick had been the investigating officer on it at the time. Now, using the Flashback that’s given to him by adviser Nakamura’s assistant, Sato, Nick has to relive the investigation and find out why there was no resolution.

While Nick is doing that, his son, Val, will have to find a way out of California after the gang he runs with attempts a futile assassination against a political figure. The only place Val and his grandfather can go is Denver, to the father who has totally ignored him for the past six years.

Nick, however, isn’t the same man after a couple of weeks on the investigation. When he discovers his wife’s involvement in the murder, it all becomes personal to him, and he starts to get his old detective skills back. He also knows that if he finds out too much, he will be a dead man. His instincts tell him that, as do some of the people he talks to.
When I was a hundred pages into “Flashback,” I began to think that maybe Dan Simmons was on to something with his depiction on how the United States falls from its position as the world’s greatest power. With everything that’s going on with our present economy, unbelievable debt, and the fact that our congressmen and senators can’t seem to work with the president on saving our country, I began to see Simmons as being psychic.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if a drug like Flashback was invented and then put on the street for public consumption. I can see millions of people using the drug to escape the harsh realities of life. I’d probably be taking it myself. I know I wouldn’t like the world that Simmons pictures some 40 years from now and would probably jump at the opportunity to escape it. The author does a tremendous job of painting our future and the future of other countries, and it isn’t a pleasant picture to see.

As the story moved along, I found myself not caring very much about Nick’s son, Val. The kid isn’t easy to like, and he seems to feel as if the world owes him something. I guess most teenagers do, but I would rather have spent more time with Nick and his search for answers than wasting it on Val and his slow change to a somewhat better person. Val, however, has something that is vital to his father solving the murder case in Denver. Because of this, his character is necessary to the ending of the novel.
I did enjoy some of the supporting characters, especially Sato and Nick’s ex-partner, K.T. Lincoln, and Nick’s late wife, Dara. Sato plays a sizable role in the book, though I think in real life, Sato would have said something to Nick to prevent a dangerous chain of events that plays out. Lincoln seems like the type of partner every policeman would want to have: sexy, beautiful and tough as nails. Dara was a woman who loved her man, though she had more secrets than the Russian KGB.

All in all, a great read by one of the country’s best authors. Don’t let the futuristic history, political science and economics cause you to hesitate in reading this gem of a novel. It’s still a murder mystery with dire consequences for the detective attempting to solve it. “Flashback” is certainly Dan Simmons at his best.

Wayne C. Rogers is the author of the horror novellas “The Encounter” and “The Tunnels,” both of which can be purchased at Amazon’s Kindle Store for 99 cents each.

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