Dan Simmons' Flashback starts out as a somewhat traditional detective story. In a dystopic near-future, former police detective Nick Bottom has lived down to his name. Finishing out a downward spiral that begin with the death of his wife five years earlier, Bottom is now unemployed, estranged from his teenage son, Val, and hooked on flashback, a drug that allows a user to relive memories over and over again. Enter Hiroshi Nakamura, a billionaire and one of nine Japanese Federal Advisors who rule over what remains of the United States. Nakamura enlists Bottom to solve the mystery of who murdered the Nipponese executive’s only son five years earlier—a case Bottom worked while still a member of the Denver police department, and one in which even his addiction will be a plus. A dose of flashback and voila—Bottom can relive interviews, observations and even the reading of files. And here’s a shocker: all is not as it seems!
As with any detective novel, setting is crucial—oftentimes so much so that it becomes virtually an additional character. This is especially the case in Flashback, though instead of evoking some noirish past, Simmons conjures up a near-future that in many ways can be described as the sum of all Glenn Beck’s fears. Nick Bottom lives in a United States that has been reduced to Third World status by, among other things, out-of-control entitlement programs. The Islamic Global Caliphate, emboldened by the successful annihilation of Israel and the timid response from the Western world, is waxing in influence, enforcing its sharia law wherever it spreads. Reconquistas, expansionists from Mexico, are fighting for control of the Southwest. And children are less likely to be our future than our perpetrators, as teenage flash gangs lend a Clockwork Orange-tinged chaos to urban environments like Los Angeles, raping and killing to capture that perfect memory to flash back upon.
Without knowing the author’s political leanings, it’s difficult to know if the dire straits of the United States in Flashback are meant as a conservative's cautionary tale. Readers who skew to the right will likely nod in acknowledgement of so many impending dooms now realized and myths exposed. (“I knew it—global warming has been proven a sham!”) Those on the left will likely find the exposition (or lectures) brief enough—and the core mystery compelling enough—to continue on without much distraction.
And it’s always possible that this underpinning application of a collage of rampant dangers is apolitical—and even playful. Simmons is certainly talented enough to recognize in the zeitgeist of Beck and others an apocalyptic insta-kit of sorts onto which one can graft a sturdy piece of genre fiction quite nicely.
Regardless, Flashback is at its strongest when its lurking societal doomsday treatise is kept in the background and Bottom’s effort to solve the mystery—and survive solving it—is kept to the fore. Fortunately, that accounts for most of the novel, making Flashback worth the read the first time around.