Flashback, by Dan Simmons: "scarily possible" future or Right wing propaganda?

Dan Simmons' FlashbackDan Simmons’ latest novel, Flashback (July 2011), is “[a] provocative novel set in a future that seems scarily possible,” proving “why Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers." So says the publicist anyway. Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers, but sadly Flashback doesn’t prove that. And yes, Flashback is a provocative novel, but it doesn’t provoke because the dystopian future Simmons describes is "scarily possible", but because it expresses a political bias that renders much of this novel little more than propaganda for the Right side of politics.

This is not a criticism I ever expected to make of an author I rate in the top three or four writing in SF, Fantasy or horror. The fact that Simmons is a master of all three genres simply confirms his place amongst the best and most versatile writers of the last two decades. I have been and remain an ardent admirer of Dan Simmons, but in a long and admirable career, Flashback is not a highpoint. It goes without saying that the following critique is my opinion, and if you are an admirer of Simmons' writing, I encourage you to read Flashback and decide for yourself.

[5 August 2011: I've just read Dan Simmons' long defence of the novel in which he argues that Flashback does not state his political bias. I respect the author's attempt to justify and explain Flashback, but stand by the following critique. My analysis is of the novel, and the novel must stand independently of any authorial justification. If it is the case that Simmons does not share the Right wing views espoused by the novel, I apologise for tarring him with the Republican brush; nonetheless, Flashback remains a novel that will surely only appeal to the prejudices of those on the Right.]

Set some 20 years or so from now Simmons depicts a dystopian future in which the US has fragmented and collapsed into a minor world power beset by enemies from without and from militant factions of every persuasion within. The days of American world dominance are gone and reality for most citizens has become a bad dream, but 87% of the populace is beyond caring through addiction to flashback: in a drug induced dream-state, users re-experience the best moments of their lives. America has quite literally become a backward looking nation, turning its back not only on the future but the present.

"After ex-detective Nick Bottom's wife died in a car accident, he went under the flash to be with her; he's lost his job, his teenage son, and his livelihood as a result. Nick may be a lost soul but he's still a good cop, so he is hired to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor's son. This flashback-addict becomes the one man who may be able to change the course of an entire nation turning away from the future to live in the past."

Flashback distantly recalls the hard-boiled crime thrillers in Simmons’ Joe Kurtz sequence of novels (Hardcase, Hard Freeze, Hard as Nails). In fact, if it were possible to squint hard enough to obscure the political baggage of the novel, we might find that Flashback is in many ways a superior thriller to the Joe Kurtz novels: it’s a compelling mystery, an exciting thriller with complex twists and surprising revelations, a heart-breaking love-story, with heart-stopping action.  

But Nick Bottom’s investigation with all its drama, action, and intrigue is not, to paraphrase Simmons’ Acknowledgement, what Flashback is really about. The writing of Flashback was fuelled by the author's anger at the current state of the nation: strip away the futuristic SF narrative and Flashback is a commentary on the state of the nation today.

The historical ground-zero of the novel is, in a word, debt. Today’s debt, which this year in the US threatens to equal GDP. In Flashback, responsibility for the debt is laid at the feet of the current Democrat government intent on spending money it does not have on wasteful entitlement programs. Looking back at the beginning of the end, Nick Bottom explains that in the wake of the first financial meltdown (presumably our recent Global Financial Crisis) "the president we elected right then made it all worse…no, we all did… by passing those staggering entitlement programs that he knew, we all knew in our guts, that we couldn’t begin to pay for" (p. 278. Page numbers refer to the ARC edition of the novel). That, in a nutshell, is the premise of the novel and the foundation of the dystopian future that Simmons projects.

Predicting the decline of the nation on a tsunami of debt is as good a premise as any for a near-future dystopian novel. I have no issue with that. It’s also worth stressing that I’m not objecting to the political views expressed through the novel as such, although I do not share those views (I do not share Robert Heinlein’s political views either but devoured his greatest works of SF with relish). What is objectionable about Flashback is the ideological spin to the interpretation of the causes and responsibility for the debt. It is unbalanced and in its bias, it is uncritical. If the novel had been written by a left-leaning author, I'd be making the same criticism. The political bias in Flashback renders this work of fiction little more than propaganda, in this case for the Right side of politics. I'll stress this again: this critique is not a criticism of the political views expressed in or by the novel, it is an analysis of the novel's literary merit which I believe is compromised by the political bias it demonstrates.

Let there be no doubt that in the final analysis responsibility for the dystopian future outlined in Flashback belongs to a Democrat government with an addiction to entitlement programs and enforced redistribution of wealth. Social democracy is a dirty term in Flashback and it is a goal pursued by an irresponsible government in the interests of a citizenry which demands (expensive) rights and entitlements but without reciprocal responsibilities. The social democratic values and policies of the Left in Europe and Canada, which have been imported by the US, undermined the right working of the free market capitalist system through hugely expensive and wasteful publicly funded entitlement programs. Furthermore, these values and policies of the Left are also seen as responsible for opening the gates to an Islamic invasion that has seen the decline of Western civilisation as we know it.

What is conspicuously absent from such assertions is a balanced analysis of why, for instance, the nation is in debt. Instead there is an incessant criticism of "entitlement programs" and "social democracy”. At one point it is mentioned that by 2008 few citizens were paying taxes (though still voting for entitlements) and that 2012 was the tipping point when the majority of citizens were no longer paying tax (but still demanding entitlements of course). But the novel makes no mention that the low tax revenue to pay for "entitlement programs" might be a consequence of a Republican pursuit of minimal taxation in the years before the Democrats came to power (minimal taxation and limited government spending on “entitlement programs” being central to the Republican platform after all). In the ideologically spun reality of Flashback, the reason most people aren’t paying taxes is because few people are working as a result of a slumping economy and flashback addiction. It’s implicit to the logic of the novel that it is not the government’s role to provide entitlement programs but instead should let citizens keep their earnings to pay for services as they require them. In short, the market should be allowed the freedom to provide goods and services such as healthcare. The logical conclusion is that a government spending our tax dollars on entitlement programs is wasting money.

This is simply an expression of ideological bias: there’s no consideration about what a free market for healthcare actually means for those without the means to pay for it (the reality for many in the US without reform of healthcare). There’s no mention of the “free-market” activities of a rapacious financial sector that caused the market meltdown and first GFC, an economic meltdown that demanded some response from the government - spending in this case – to attempt to halt the slide into complete meltdown. We can disagree over the government’s response, but to criticise government borrowing and spending intended to limit the damage caused by the financial sector without serious commentary about the role played by the financial sector is one-sided at the very least. There’s also no mention of the hugely expensive wars in the Middle East pursued by the Right and funded by massive borrowings, a debt inherited by the Obama government.

Instead there is the endlessly repeated refrain of "entitlement programs" and the evils of “social democracy”.

The spin applied to debt and healthcare are the most obvious areas of political bias in the novel, but there are many more examples of the prejudice of the Right side of politics. To mention a few: the UN is a dependable ally of the Arab bloc and of Palestinians at the end of the twentieth century (p. 472); human induced Global Warming is a computer modelling error, and wind turbines are good only for killing migrating birds; NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was a hugely expensive fraud (p. 478); in direct (though unnamed) reference to President Obama, there is criticism of the US’s attempt at rapprochement with the Arab world as a disastrous policy of appeasement with terrible consequences (including the nuclear destruction of Israel).

Perhaps the most disturbing rhetoric of the Right relates to Islam and the Middle East: the migration of Muslims into Western countries is depicted as an invasion (which precedes an actual invasion under the Global Caliphate that is set to emerge in coming years); Muslims are incapable of integrating; they import outdated values and exploit western welfare systems in Europe and Canada (p. 353); and the inevitable consequence is that Muslims take over the countries they've migrated to, imposing Sharia law (as in Canada and Europe). The Germans and French "invited the tens of millions of Muslims into their house. They made the laws and sharia exceptions to their laws that ended up with them turning their cultures over to the Global Caliphate." Muslims, we’re told, under the Global Caliphate "brought language, culture, laws and their religious infrastructure with them. And much of that infrastructure was from the Middle Ages: tribes, clans, honour killings, and a murderous religious literalism and intolerance that neither Christianity nor Judaism had practiced for six hundred years or more" (p.353). Canada got what it deserved by turning its back on its own cultural (Christian) heritage with an open door policy and state-enforced multiculturalism, a policy that in less than two generations of Muslim immigration "produced a single theocratic culture which eliminated all diversity in its realms" (p.354). So much for multiculturalism.

If you haven’t yet read Flashback, an objection you should be raising about my analysis so far is the issue of voice. To whom should we attribute these statements of political bias or this ideological interpretation of events and history? The prejudice expressed by a character in a novel, or even by the novel itself, is not necessarily the prejudice of the author. Good writers, like Dan Simmons, create complex characters with widely varying values, beliefs and prejudices and it goes without saying that the author does not share all those values with his creations.

Dan SimmonsWhen an under-resourced medical doctor complains to Nick Bottom that the US’s healthcare reforms led to the crash of the great pharmaceutical companies in North America and with them the end to innovation and breakthroughs in medical research (p. 486), we should attribute that position to the character, not the author. On the other hand, this is an under-resourced doctor making a complaint based on his experience that unfunded patients in need of critical procedures don’t live long enough to get the government subsidised surgery promised them by universal healthcare, and if by some chance they do, they can’t afford the ongoing costs. In the future that Simmons presents, the doctor’s complaint is fully justified and his explanation that healthcare reforms are to blame is one that is sanctioned by the novel.

If it were just one or two characters, we might conclude that Simmons has (as he has done so many times before) created complex characters with differing positions. But time and again in Flashback different characters in different situations all voice the very same bias. Ultimately they are little more than mouthpieces for the author's political agenda and the prejudices they articulate are proven to be valid in the novel's future reality.

Those who insist that the opinions are those of the characters and not the author should step back and look at the bigger picture. When Nick "remembers" the Anthropogenic Global Warming furor, whose opinion is it that "it was just a cautionary tale from the early-century Dark Age of long-range computer modelling." (p. 478)? That's not framed as Nick's opinion. What is Nick's opinion however is the observation that he'd been looking "forward to longer summers, easier winters and palm trees in Colorado", but "the weather had been colder and snowier than average", and as a result the "science of Anthropogenic Global Warming had joined that of Herr Becher's phlogiston and Soviet Lamarckism evolutionary theory". Whether it is Nick's opinion or not that human induced global warming is a farce, the author has envisaged a future reality which demonstrates that it is a farce.

Time and again the future reality that Simmons has created confirms the validity of such statements of political bias made by his characters. It is very hard not to conclude that these opinions are those of the author.

Almost as surprising as the political bias however is the method with which Simmons typically delivers his message. The kindest description is shoe-horning: far too often the narrative simply grinds to a halt as the Republican message is shoe-horned in: it seems that Simmons’ righteous anger at the state of the nation has clouded his typically astute literary judgement.

And yet there are magnificent exceptions in which the Simmons of old shines through - such as Chapter 1.07 in which Nick pursues his investigation by interviewing Danny Oz a Jewish poet and refugee from nuclear devastated Israel. A beautifully conceived chapter, many of the novel’s themes are raised seamlessly with the narrative, entirely in keeping with the investigation that Nick is pursuing.

Unfortunately this example is a rare exception and the transition from narrative to political manifesto is generally clunky and transparent. One of the most disturbing occurs in Chapter 3.03 in which Nick’s father, Leonard, an aged Liberal academic, is set up as a straw man to be shot down in flames by a self-educated truckie by the name of Julio. Julio is an auto-didact, knowledgeable about everything from Churchill to Tocqueville, Shakespeare to Catullus, able to quote them all fluently in English or, as appropriate, in the original Latin. (I have no doubt there’s a truckie or two out there who can…) The truckie provides the academic with a lesson in world history from World War II onwards. This discourse is so laden with Right wing ideology it’s almost funny. We learn that post War Britain was a socialist nation (which may surprise many Brits who thought they had a centre-left Labour government under Clement Attlee) which made the fatal mistake of turning its back on the Class system and consequently went into decline. [Muslim practices are of the Middle Ages and are outmoded but ye olde British Class system with its roots in outmoded aristocratic forms of government is something to be cherished? No prejudice there, surely.]

The US (under Obama) emulated the European model of enforced redistribution of wealth and "socialism" and fell into decline as a result. If describing post War Britain as socialist is an exaggeration (the British Labour government of the time was centre-left at least), it is ludicrous to describe Obama's America as socialist, and no one outside of the US would do so. Both major Parties in the US are right of centre, it’s only that the Democrats are less Right and more concerned with equity than the Republicans. Equity does not equal socialism, except when the Republicans wish to incite fear in the populace that their property is under threat by enforced redistribution. Equity is not a Republican value and any attempt to achieve equity through redistribution of wealth (a progressive taxation system for instance) is very cynically dismissed as socialist.

And hey presto, Julio, the super-educated truck driver quotes Churchill from memory:

"Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy; its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery,’" cited Julio. "I agree with old Winnie that once a society has declared that the sharing of misery is a virtue, then there’s going to be a lot of scarcity and misery in that culture’s future to share..."

Poor book learned leftist academic that he is, Leonard is out of his depth and out-gunned by Julio's fast and furious arguments. The best he can offer in response is an ineffectual "but choosing a more … ah … communitarian approach to the rationing of scarcity and the social amelioration of misery does not necessarily mean that a culture has chosen decline." [Note the use of “communitarian”. Leonard might as well have said “communist” and be done with it, damning himself and his argument in the eyes of many Americans.]

"But have you ever known a modern culture that chose socialism - the enforced redistribution of wealth of the sort we saw about twenty-five years ago, Lenny - that didn’t inevitably have to embrace decline? Decline as a world power? Decline in people’s productivity and morale?"

Here endeth the Republican manifesto. What we have here is propaganda pure and simple, with no serious attempt to present a counter argument.

Finally a quick look at Simmons’ position on healthcare. Throughout the novel Simmons bemoans how the nation's healthcare reforms destroyed healthcare in the US. The reforms, which gave control of health to the government, aimed to make healthcare universally available (another of those undesirable entitlements for the masses) but was a disaster resulting in the collapse of the system. While everyone is entitled to healthcare in theory, the sick tend to die waiting due to the inadequacy of the system to cope with demand. The reform also destroyed the pharmaceutical companies - that bastion of free-market entrepreneurial excellence - resulting in the end of medical research which provided medical innovation. Nick's father, Leonard, is in need of a life-saving heart operation, which he's entitled to but of course will never live long enough to receive. Nick manages to get Leonard into good old Texas, the one remaining bastion of the old US values, where Leonard receives the operation: "down here," he's told, "we're old fashioned - we let you keep most of what you earn and pay for what you need." (p. 542). Leonard is saved and Nick is in debt for years but, he muses, "It was worth it" (p. 547).

Again, this is nothing more than the articulation of Republican ideology and articulated in this way it is nothing more than propaganda: most obviously, governments should limit taxation, but more cynically, if you can afford healthcare, you get it. If you can't, you borrow to pay for it and spend the rest of your life paying off the debt.

If you can't borrow the money, of course, you die. 

What could have prevented this moment from being propaganda? Simply removing Nick's observation that "It was worth it". In isolation we might have concluded that Leonard's life was worth any price that Nick had to pay - but by this stage of the novel the political bias in the statement is unmistakable, especially as it is made in the context of a statement about the virtue of limited taxation. Without such value judgements, Flashback could have been a truly exceptional novel of near-future dystopia in which we witness the awful reality of those living in a once great nation destroyed by debt.

I kicked off this critique with the statement that I have been and remain an ardent admirer of Dan Simmons and perhaps at some level I’m hoping that someone will contradict my reading of Flashback and tell me that I’ve missed the point, that it’s not Republican propaganda but some kind of sophisticated political satire in which the obvious reading is the opposite of the true meaning. 

I’m not holding my breath (although I have no doubt that some from the Right will tell me I've missed the point and that I am expressing my own political bias). If Simmons does not share the political views espoused by the novel and had intended Flashback to be a sophisticated political satire, that aspiration was unfortunately lost in the execution.

Notwithstanding Flashback, I stand by my admiration of Simmons. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are comparable to Frank Herbert's Dune in my estimation; Song of Kali, Phases of Gravity, Ilium, The Terror, Drood, Black Hills to name but a few are outstanding works of literature and they will stand the test of time when Flashback, I hope, is long forgotten.

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