Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Future shock.

So, before I dive into this review of Dan Simmons' Flashback and Albert Brooks' 2030, I'd like to let everyone know that I got my first anonymous nasty comment on my blog!

I am delighted. I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. Someone else is actually reading this! Who they are, I do not know, as like many on the Internet, they prefer to cloak themselves in an aura of mystery. Unless they are actually named Anonymous. Good Anonymous, please feel free to continue to comment - as long as someone is reading this, I'm thrilled.

Anyway! Dan Simmons! The Caliphate! Reconquistas! Japan inexplicably deciding to declare war! Welcome to the zany world of Flashback.

Dan Simmons is the author of the dense and rewarding novels Drood and The Terror, but he's also a prolific writer who hopscotches from genre to genre. If you became a fan of Simmons' work after reading Drood and The Terror, as I did, Flashback may be off-putting. It's a detective mystery disguised as a dystopian novel, with an overtly and brashly politicized subtext.

Flashback's America of twenty-something years in the future is a broke, collapsing behemoth. Hopelessly indebted to China, India, Japan, and other wealthier countries, America is down to forty-four states, has lost much of the Southwest to Mexico, and has resorted to renting out the Army (now with involuntary subscription!) to fight richer nations' wars. The government is defunct, and the National Guard is controlled by nine Japanese advisors, corporate billionaires with nearly limitless power. After a nuclear strike by Iran, Israel has been destroyed, and the Caliphate has taken over Europe and Africa.

Oh, and nearly 90% of Americans are now hopelessly addicted to flashback, an aerosol drug that allows you to relive your memories perfectly.

Nick Bottom is a former police detective who lives most of his life 'under the flash,' revisting memories of his deceased wife, Dara. He's estranged from his teenage son Val, now being raised by Nick's father, and lives in a grubby cubicle in a repurposed mall. Dara died in a traffic accident while Nick was investigating his last murder case, the killing of the son of one of the ultrarich Japanese advisors, Nakamura. The murder was never solved, and Nick's life dissolved into a haze of flashback after Dara's death.

Until Nakamura summons Nick and tells him to reopen his investigation. Nick is certain that this is one case he can't close, but he's out of money and out of options, so he accepts.

With Nakamura's deadly bodyguard Sato as both partner and threat, Nick begins retracing the steps of his first investigation, which takes him back to memories he'd prefer not to relive. In the meantime, he's still got a raging addiction to manage and an out-of-control son in Los Angeles who is tangled up in problems of his own.

Simmons doesn't shy away from placing blame: all of the issues that America faces are the fault of the current administration, from runaway entitlements to the secession of Texas (which seems to be doing fine, has a massive Army, and is populated by guys who talk like Chuck Norris).

Nick's investigation, as investigations in these types of books are wont to do, starts a veritable shitstorm. He realizes that his wife's death may have been less accidental than he thought, and to complicate matters, his son and father flee an erupting Los Angeles and turn up on his doorstep.

Although much of Simmon's content here is a stretch (is Japan really going to go to war with the Caliphate on behalf of Western civilization? Highly unlikely) but he's still a damn good writer, from a hair-raising battle in the desert between rogue militas and Nakamura's samurai to the reeking flashcaves where addicts twitch and dream.

But because this is a detective novel, and no one reads those to be left hanging, Simmons provides the obligatory loose-threads-wrap-up ending that readers expect, which feels like a cop-out from an author who dragged us all the way through the twisty, frustrating, and endlessly complex Drood only to dump us without an explanation. Not only that, but the ending is the most improbable of all in a very improbable novel. A nation so far gone as Simmon's America probably can't be saved, no matter the magnitude of the discovery of his plucky detective.

Albert Brooks, actor, comedian, director, writer, and multi-hyphenate extraordinaire (known only to me as the voice of Nemo) also purports to predict America's future, but despite some drolly funny elements, his flat, two-dimensional writing and stilted characters hamstring 2030.

Brooks' America is no less broke than Simmons', but his future is a rather gentler one. Ever since Dr. Sam Mueller cured cancer, the population has become more and more top-heavy as life expectancy soars, health care costs explode, and ever more advanced end-of-life interventions keep anyone from dying in a timely manner.

Since the voting public is now older than ever, Congress continues passing entitlements for the elderly that the young - broke, unemployed, and deeply in debt - are forced to finance, resulting in a surge of anger and outbreaks of violence against the "olds," as they're called. Throw in a devastating earthquake that flattens Los Angeles that the government can't afford to repair, and things are looking pretty bleak. President Bernstein is hoping to borrow more money from China, but China has other goals - and the President is pretty distracted with the emotional affair he's carrying on with his Treasury Secretary.

Brooks looks at the situation from both a macro and micro level - the President and other power players as well as one young woman, Kathy, whose father has left her with crippling medical bills after his death. Kathy's become involved with a group of young people, led by the charismatic Max, who have realized that they'll never be able to outvote the olds and are ready to resort to more drastic means.

2030's ending is rather ambiguous. Is America getting saved or damned? Although he peppers the writing with funny bon mots, his writing remains one-key throughout. Brooks behaves more as a deux ex machina for his characters, swooping in to fix Kathy's problems by manufacturing an abrupt romance with the rich Max (literally, their first kiss comes while her father's body is still on the kitchen floor). Max's anger about the "olds" is inexplicable, since he's wealthy enough not to have the problems others from his generation do. Likewise, Bernstein's infatuation with his new Secretary of the Treasury comes out of nowhere - and it's kind of depressing that Brooks gives us the first female Treasury Secretary, only to make her a home-wrecker.

Despite some interesting ideas, Brook's flat writing can't measure up to Simmons' incendiary prose.


  1. Congrats to gaining a Trollzster! You've arrived!!

  2. I know, I'm so excited. I'm naming him/her/it Pookie.