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The Greatest Story Never Told

  • Apr 1, 2012
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Let me begin here: that my slog to page 380 of Dan Simmons’ Flashback was a ribbon-deserving effort. Up until that point, tantalized by the intriguing synopsis at The Science Fiction Book Club that had prompted me to buy this book in the first place, my enthusiasm was whittled away by page after page of uninteresting delineations, told in a literary style as engaging as a stock ticker to a mendicant.  At some point, I began to suspect that there wasn't much of a story here, and if Simmons had had a good editor, this book would have been much shorter.  I probably could have finished it.  Here's a synopsis, and one far more detailed than the one I had access to.  

In the future—about twenty five years from now—the United States is a shell of its former self.  These are the end times for the great nation, and evidence of its decline is everywhere.  A segment of the population is using with destructive regularity a drug known as flashback.  Flashback allows the user to pick out a memory and relive it, while only semiconscious of the experience as a memory.  Quite a few people are addicted to it, and spend hours wasting away their present lives while reliving their pasts. One such addict is Nick Bottom, a washed-out Denver police detective, hired by Japanese business magnate Hiroshi Nakamura to pursue a failed investigation into the murder of Nakamura’s son. Nick had been on the Denver police force during the initial investigation and had worked on the case. Nakamura wants Nick to use flashback to relive all of the details of the investigation, hoping that Nick will see something that was missed. Nakamura would supply Nick with enough cash to buy all of the flashback he needs to aid the investigation.  Nick takes the job, not really believing he can solve the case, but he’ll have access to flashback, which he uses to relive the happier times he had with the wife he lost in a fatal automobile accident.  Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Nick’s abandoned son Val is living with Nick’s ex-father-in-law, a professor emeritus. Unbeknownst to the professor, Val is a member of a flashgang. A flashgang is a band of juvenile delinquents that performs acts of violence so that they can relish them later, under the influence of flashback. Because recollections on flashback are experienced with such vividness, any physical component is felt all over again. This makes rape an especially attractive crime for flashgangs.

The premise as I described it is all pretty much set up in the first three or four chapters. It did sound intriguing, didn’t it? Surely this would be a rip-roaring read. But, alas, it was not. One of the primary problems was the writing style itself. Most science fiction writers, I found, have a pedantic meter to their writing. The style is sufficient for telling a story, and most of the time it works; that is, if they stick to telling the story and the story itself is good. But the best writers, by taking you deep into the narrative through a distinct voice, can make almost every moment for the reader immersive. They can wrap you up in a character and make you forget you’re reading a novel, because the voice is so vivid, it becomes akin to listening. This is not what we get in Flashback. All of the prose sounded the same, plain and dispassionate, bereft of the tropes or poetic language that make for good fiction. Instead, it read like a technical manual. And in keeping with the style of a technical manual, the writing was technique driven, so that you could see the mechanics of the writing. One glaring example was that each chapter started in exactly the same way, with a past-perfect-tense overview of stuff that had happened while we were off reading the previous chapter, which had also started with the same sort of review. These would consist of two or three or four or ten pages of burdensome, time-consuming details of things that didn’t matter, a bloated jam of words without real imagery, constantly clogging the narrative flow. Chapter after chapter went on like this. At some point, I realized that you were rarely in a scene, that the heft of the words covered things in review; or were ruminations at some static interlude on possibilities to come. Very little happened in the narrative's present; and most of what happened—at least up until page 380—was a lot of traveling and talking, and with so much talk and so much description, I found my patience wearing thin. And when eventually you were in the action, it came after such long intervals, you would appraise it with suspicion, like a man who, dragging himself through a desert, suddenly arrives at an undulating soft-drink machine: this could be a mirage.        

To make all of this even less interesting, Simmons has an absurdly partisan view of politics, and a lot of it is no more enlightening then the brand established by right-wing talk radio. His view of socialism is just plain ridiculous, painting it as always totalitarian, omitting the fact that socialism has often been manifested in western democratic societies. If Simmons tempered his view by presenting a perspective from the opposite side (as one reviewer claimed), that view was given such a pipsqueak voice, it was easily squashed beneath the weight of words he gave the side he clearly favors. Because his political dumps were so clumsily shoehorned into this narrative, I sensed that we were dealing with a man for whom politics is a mental disease—like those people who’ve embraced that caricature of liberals espoused by the likes of Coulter and Limbaugh, and about which they suffer monomania—I set out on the internet, assured that his compulsive politics would be available somewhere else. And I was right. At his website, he had this to say: "2012 will be the year in which about half of you will see the America You Know and Love Disappear Forever and the other half will see a Resurgence of True American Ideals."  What nonsense.  That quote is the verbal equivalent of a Chinese finger puzzle, but read further down his page and it’ll become clear what he’s really all about. It’s the usual silly right-wing stuff.

It's not that his politics matter that much to me. I honestly don’t care. It’s that his novel was so ineptly written everywhere else, it made these right-wing asides all the more annoying. Before and after his ham-handed political treatises, there was way too much traveling, belabored with redundant descriptions of damaged highways, and the detours and alternative routes required to reach a destination, during which we hope out of sheer boredom that wherever we end up, this will be the place the story will finally resume. So, here we are, driving along, and already too invested—I bought the book—to turn back, buckled in for a lecture, enduring the descriptions of cityscapes, of gutted and collapsing infrastructure, and analyses of the social strata and cultural and ethnic divides resulting from the breakdown of the American social order, and the accursed pusillanimous ideology that led to it all. 

And if those turgid rides weren't enough, adding further to the dreariness, and reaffirming his commitment to catalog every tedious detail, there are inventories of equipment, vehicles, and weaponry, identified with long alphanumeric nomenclatures, that induced nothing into the mind of the reader except a desire to scream for mercy.  On and on it went, all those oppressive details, while somewhere else a story was taking place that we would read about at the start of the next chapter in one of those past-perfect-tense overviews. It was horrible. Simmons was flat-out refusing to tell the story I bought this book for. If this had been a work of nonfiction, some of that stuff might have been important. But this was fiction: not geography; not politics; not geopolitics. And as fiction, it was failing. There weren’t a lot of emotions here to give the characters life or to make me care. There was talk of emotion, but I didn’t feel any of it.

So there I—your heroic reader—was, beginning a new chapter, at page 376, and encouraged to believe by the slightly quickened pace of the previous chapter that the story was finally moving along, that Simmons had run out of excuses for segues. Of course, with the opening paragraphs of this new chapter, we’re once again presented with a past-perfect-tense overview of what had happened to the professor and Val—the professor had purchased safe passage from Los Angeles to Denver on a truck convoy—since our previous episode with them. I had come to expect these, and had accepted them as an artifact of Simmons' bad writing. Ever the optimist, I had allowed myself to believe that once we got past this briefing, we'd be in the story.  It went as expected, and we rejoin the professor as he’s riding in the passenger seat of one of the trucks. He’s having a nice chat with the driver. Then, out of the blue, this truck driver decides he wants to have a political discussion with the professor. "Oh, no, not again,” I exclaim to myself. "No way, no way."  I think I might have slapped myself in the forehead, though I can’t be sure. Once more, the story was derailed by another exegesis on the evils of those dastardly entitlement programs. And this time we learn from the purview of this future history the exact year the nail was put into our national coffin: it was 2008! Surprised? I wasn’t. And I could only assume that, because we were now in a truck convoy, more tear-inducing descriptions of highways and detours and mountain ridges and decayed infrastructure were to follow. So, as it turned out, the Coke machine was a mirage after all.

Exasperated, I stopped. Simmons had exchanged ham-handed for ham-fisted, two words that are synonymous in the dictionary but the latter implies an even ruder obtrusion.  It had become down-right laughable at this point. I looked at the page number: page 380. I flipped to the back of the book to see how much further this endurance test went on: the final page was 550. Oh, my God, I had so freaking far to go! Looking at that distance, I had to ask myself, Why? Why am I doing this to myself? It’s not like I’m in school and I have to write a book report. My boss isn’t going to fire me if I don’t finish it. So why continue? This is a terribly written book. Period. Why challenge myself in this way? We all have only a finite number of years, and I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning, and I therefore value my time much more than I used to. Also, my queue of must-read books reached the vanishing point years ago. With so many novels out there about which there is a consensus as to their greatness, it’s foolish to waste any more time with obvious crap. I closed the book. I was done.

And let's make this absolutely clear: it's not the politics that make this book so bad. Not at all. The final ham-fisted insertion of his politics into the narrative was just the proverbial last straw on top of the constant delays in telling the story, along with the blandness of his prose while doing so.  It was his god-awful writing style. If you’ve read this book, you should think back to how you felt during that experience. Weren’t you bored at several points, anxious to move ahead? Weren’t you at one point on the verge of screaming?

It’s amazing to me that a novel could be so badly written and so many readers not notice it. I’m bemused. The front of the book has a page of the author’s previous books, and he’s got a lot of them. If any of them are better than this, I’ll never know. Prior to this experience with this novel, I’d seen his Hyperion included on a list of great science fiction novels and, as a result, I added it to my Amazon wishlist. But I removed it, along with the temptation to read other stuff I’d considered, like Drood. I think I’ll stick to the classics; or get recommendations from friends I trust, who know good writing when they see it.

If you haven’t read this book, I would suggest you find your entertainment elsewhere. For the greater part—up to page 380—this novel was a morass of tenses that talked all around the story but rarely permitted us to be immersed in it. These while-you-were-gone summaries at the beginning of each chapter were what Simmons was hoping you’d mistake for voice. To us more astute readers, it betrayed his laziness. It allowed him to suggest to us a story while saving himself the trouble of actually writing it, which would have required inventing real prose and dialogue. The writer took himself way too seriously.  He didn't see himself as merely writing fiction, but instead was delivering some sort of predictive vision. It’s nothing but polemics and his vision will be proven ridiculous in the future. If he’s lucky, the book won’t sell that well and this mug-ugly creation will fall out of print. Until then, he’ll have to live with the embarrassment of it.
The Greatest Story Almost Told

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December 09, 2012
Having enjoyed Simmons's books back when I first discovered them (first CARRION COMFORT, then PHASES OF GRAVITY, then HYPERION and THE FALL OF HYPERION), I must say that 1) He _used_ to be a better writer (he actually suffered from depression in 2000, and was treated shortly thereafter -- and his writing, and internet postings, changed thereafter) and 2) the writing he was best at was a sort of pastiche-style, plot-driven, space-opera, or epic horror, novel (the aforementioned "Hyperion" books, along with ENDYMION and THE RISE OF ENDYMION, CARRION COMFORT, SUMMER OF NIGHT and A WINTER HAUNTING. Half of THE TERROR was pretty darn good). He also managed one pretty good thriller (THE CROOK FACTORY) and one good collection of novellas (LOVEDEATH, with the first and last pieces being the best stories). Since then, around 2000, or 2001, it has been all downhill -- and at a much faster rate during the past five years (DROOD featured a great character, a fictional Wilkie Collins, but no plot; BLACK HILLS was a didactic mess and you've experienced FLASHBACK). His next novel, THE ABOMINABLE, sounds like a rehash of THE TERROR (but set on Mt. Everest, rather than in the Arctic).
April 02, 2012
Enjoyed reading your review a lot! Hope we can see more. Oh, I am a community ambassador-moderator for the site. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to message me or community manager @. Thanks!
April 03, 2012
I wrote only one other piece, and that's back when this first started up. Then one day I decided that this could be fun, being part of this. I hope I can be a regular contributor.
April 02, 2012
You can never really tell what the public will buy!
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Alric Knebel ()
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Member Since: May 15, 2009
Last Login: May 21, 2012 11:59 PM UTC
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