Dan Simmons is known for his success in many genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime. But he isn’t known for mixing those genres. His new novel, Flashback, may change that; a bleak portrait of near-future America suffering from political disintegration and economic collapse, it also traffics in the tropes of the hard-boiled gumshoe yarn. It does neither well, though—and in his effort to make an omelet, Simmons is left with little more than empty shells.
Many have tried and succeeded at building a science-fiction/detective hybrid, from Philip K. Dick to, more recently, Warren Hammond. And at first, Flashback seems like it might follow suit. Set roughly two decades from now, the book centers on Nick Bottom, a disgraced Denver police detective haunted by the memory of his dead wife as well as the unsolved murder that ended his career. The PKD-like twist is that the drug Bottom is addicted to, flashback, lets its users relive moments from their past in vivid, immersive detail. That twist isn’t nearly enough to redeem Simmons’ leaden exposition, inconsistent voice, and histrionically ridiculous vision of a broken America—not to mention his moth-eaten bag of genre stereotypes.
But those aren’t the only stereotypes Simmons has on tap. He’s made no secret of his fear of Islam over the years, from the post-9/11 hysteria of his books Ilium and Olympos to his infamous Muslims-gonna-get-us blog post from 2006. In Flashback, Simmons inflates the paranoid speculation of that blog—much of it openly borrowed from Ken Grimwood’s science-fiction novel Replay—populating his workmanlike plot with rants against liberal academia; the Ground Zero “mosque,” rendered here as a jet-black version of the Taj Mahal; slang-dropping degenerate teens cribbed from A Clockwork Orange; and stock Japanese samurai-businessmen who can’t get their Ls and Rs straight, a fact he constantly, jarringly reminds readers in print.
But Simmons’ use of Flashback as a tedious cautionary tale about the coming Global Caliphate isn’t even the least appealing thing about the book. While Simmons vividly paints the past in his three most recent novels, The Terror, Drood, and Black Hills, he fumbles the future. His pop-culture references—the book drowns in them—are arbitrary and anachronistic, yet delivered with a wink of would-be cleverness. His most promising premise, the flashback drug, isn’t explored with the depth and imagination it demands; then again, neither is any of the generic future-tech he tries to incorporate. And a crime procedural that limps along for a hundred pages before the investigation even starts should be considered a crime itself.
On the plus side, Simmons is a veteran storyteller, and there’s a baseline of solid competence in Flashback. The plot, once it finally achieves velocity, keeps moving—even though one of its central conceits, the narcotic power of memory, requires frequent loops into the past. And the flawed ending—a speech followed by jingoistic pandering followed by the most glaringly trite epiphany—still manages to draw all the threads together. If only those threads weren’t so bare to begin with.