by Dan Simmons
If you, like me, have been watching the recent US government shutdown with a mixture of horror and incredulity, you may have been wondering why on earth Congress decided to shut down government rather than (a) solve the budget crisis months ago, or (b) accept Obamacare.
I think I've found the reason.
I believe that the entire Republican branch of Congress secretly created a group bookclub meeting in which they read and discussed Flashback. Believing in Dan Simmon's portrait of reality and dreading the prognosticated Obamapocalypse, they figured it would be fun to see what would happen if the government shut down instead.
The plot itself is well-written and captivating--enough that I actually finished it, despite putting it down several times in disgust. Nick Bottom (hey, d'ya think the Midsummer Nights Dream allusion is obvious enough yet?) is an ex-cop, who, like 85% of the remnants of the US, is addicted to the drug Flashback, which he uses to relive his memories of his dead wife. He is pulled back into an old investigation of the death of a Japanese shogun's son, and ends up discovering a conspiracy of world-altering proportions. Interwoven with Nick's are the stories of Leonard, Nick's ex-Marxist-professor father-in-law, and Val, Nick's crass, selfish, gang-member son.
However, the book is primarily a polemic: characters, worldbuilding, and plot exist primarily to drive home Simmons' political message. I don't view myself as a passionately political person; I'm pretty jaded with both parties and all politicians and am registered as an independent. However, as I made my way through this book and my blood pressure skyrocketed at the fearmongering and bigotry I saw presented, I felt myself drifting farther and farther left. If you believe that Obama really is the Antichrist, then my review is not for you, but this book certainly is. If your political views are a little more in the middle, be warned that most of the book is devoted to detailing how those diabolically devious Democrats might destroy all those Fine Upstanding Principles of America.
So, then, what is Dan Simmons' future?
Fundamentalist Muslims have taken over much of the world. Obama's "policy of appeasement" led to the founding of the Global Caliphate, a radical religious Shi'ite Muslim group that has already consumed Europe and seeks to take over the world and treats all non-Muslims as second-class citizens. 9/11 has become a holiday where suicide bombing of Americans is celebrated as religious freedom.
Universal healthcare bankrupted America and stopped all medical innovation. ("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.")
The U.S. has collapsed. According to Simmons, the loss of American exceptionalism itself caused the country to fall. Parts are controlled by Mexico; most is led by Japan, which has gone back to shogunism and bushido. Only the Republic of Texas (groan) is still survivin' on the Good Old American Way. Texas, of course, is a utopia where Islam is not tolerated, universal healthcare is non-existent--although somehow loans are readily available for penniless individuals needing surgery-- and exceptionalism is alive and well.
"To those who cried 'Imperialism!'—and there were many of those kind left in what were now being called the Timid States of America—the answer was 'If you can’t stand the heat, get out of your neighbor’s kitchen.'”
A second Holocaust in Israel. Obama's lack of protection of Israel led to its nuclear bombing, where 6M more Jews died; those that remain slowly die of cancer from concentration camps in the US.
85% of the US is addicted to the drug Flashback, which does what it says on the tin: it allows you to relive memories of your past. (Personally, I cannot imagine anything more horrific than reliving your past but being unable to alter it, despite your knowledge of the future. But whatever.)
And, of course, everything is Obama's fault.
"'Your new young president gave a speech from Cairo that flattered the Islamic world—a bloc of Islamic nations that had not yet coalesced into today’s Global Caliphate—and praised them with obvious historical distortions of their own imagined grandeur. This president began the process of totally rewriting both history and contemporary reality with an eye toward praising radical Islam into loving him and your country. “The name for this form of foreign policy, whenever it is used with forces of fascism, Mr. Bottom, is appeasement.' Nick said nothing. “This president and your country soon followed this self-mockery of a foreign policy with ever more blatant and useless appeasement, attempts at becoming a social democracy when European social democracies were beginning to collapse from debt and the burden of their entitlement programs, unilateral disarmament, withdrawal from the world stage, a betrayal of old allies, a rapid and deliberate surrendering of America’s position as a superpower, and a total retreat from international responsibilities that the United States of America had long taken seriously....The economic crises which resulted in the death of the European Union and the collapse of China—as well as the violent and unnecessary deaths of more than six million Jews in Israel, and another million non-Jewish Israeli citizens, all abandoned by your country, Mr. Bottom—were merely further steps in this decline—at first deliberate and then merely inevitable—of the United States of America.'”
Oh, yeah. And...
Global warming was a myth.
When I open a novel, I generally hate being pole-axed with obvious political statements, independent of their polarity. What made it worse, for me, was the fact that Simmons directly named Obama and present-day leaders as the root of all evil. Not only did this remove any creative worldbuilding, but I think it broke the very function of scifi: the removal of conflict to a distant future so that we can re-examine issues without instinctive defensiveness. However, what bothered me the most was that Simmons' definition of a dystopia is, very literally, a world that is not run by white people.
Just stop and absorb that statement for a minute.
The racism and bigotry of the book was ever-present and painful. African-Americans are mired in violence, drug addiction, and poverty, and apparently it's all their own fault for not getting past "entitlement." Some quotes:
On affirmative action:
"The tens of millions of dollars set aside to buy art for the new airport had been turned into one big grab bag for minorities--spanics, blacks, Indians, you name it. Everybody but the Asians in Colorado. I guess they didn't qualify as minorities. Too smart. Anyway, the mayor at the time was black and his wife headed the committee that handed out all the art projects and all that counted was that the winners were minorities, not real artists, and certainly not good artists."
Note how that last statement implies that minorities, by their very nature, are both innately stupid and incapable of being "real" artists.
A short, skinny felon whom Nick instantly recognized as Delroy N[Simmons actually uses the N word. Repeatedly] Brown was in bed having sex with three white girls. None of the girls, Nick knew from his memory of the files at the time, was older than fifteen.
This phrasing, and the prominent mention of the girls' race, recalls the white racist phobia of African-American men raping white women that I thought we got rid of fifty years ago. I cannot believe Simmons both used the word and replayed this racist vision in his book.
"Nick had once told Dara that he was able to imagine K.T. being descended from Abraham Lincoln--if the former president had mated with a beautiful black woman with K.T's cafe-au-lait complexion and her chicory-bitter personality."
Note the use of the animalistic "mate" rather than "had an affair with." Worse even than this careless racism was Simmons' portrayal of white people as the generally virtuous, yet hapless, passive victims to Those Evil Muslims, Japanese, and Mexicans.
Take the hysterical characterization of all Muslims as terrorists and extremists:
"They invited the tens of millions of Muslims into their house. They made the laws and Sharia exceptions ot their laws that ended up with them turning their cultures over to the Global Caliphate."
"'But millions of Islamic colonists in former U.S. states? America would… never stand for it.' Nick’s voice had been dropping from lack of conviction even before he finished the sentence. America had stood for a lot in recent decades. More to the point—what could it do to stop an organized and Caliphate-backed colonization of these desert states? America hadn’t been able to keep the territory out of the hands of the Mexican cartels in the first place. Will they bring their own camels? wondered Nick. "
"Islam was always, despite America’s absolute resistance in acknowledging it, a violent and barbarous religion...the twentieth-and twenty-first-century fundamentalist terrorist-driven forms of expansionist Islam are vile obscenities... a barbarous desert religion intent on ruling the earth and treating its conquered people as less-than-human slaves!"
In terms of characters, Simmons' comments on an in-universe novel seemed all too apropos:
His characters were invariably victims of the social forces that had changed America and the world...and their actions--such as they were (most of the drafts was just talk)--showed their lack of understanding of those forces and their own impotence in the face of such change.
Leonard seems to exist primarily as pathetic strawman to weakly mouth inane "liberal" beliefs that he no longer believes; for example,
"But, he argued, as all progressive liberal Democrats and intellectuals argued to themselves...the nation would have been different for Obama if the right-wingers hadn't left them with an economy that was crumbling and a foreign policy that was failing everywhere. (Except, when Leonard continued being honest with himself, he didn't really remember exploding economies or disastrously failing foreign policies during his thirties and forties.)"
Val seems to act as a strawman from the opposite direction, thoughtlessly parroting the illogical beliefs he was taught in school; for example:
"They had the displays tuned to the inevitable English-language Al Jazeera stoning and beheading death channels, but they were also showing various 9-11 ceremonies around the country and the world...It made sense to Val that the site [of the World Trade Center] should be the place for North America's largest mosque to rise...Shahid al-Haram meant something like Martyrs of the Holy Place, which had evidently irritated some old-think right-wingers and die-hard American hegemonists."
Yet for me, Nick was the least sympathetic of all. As he thoughtlessly abandoned his own son to more easily retreat into a drug-addicted haze, Nick definitely begins as an antihero. His eventual showing of fatherly concern for the son he abandoned and betrayed rings hollow to me. His racist, biased, hate-filled viewpoint seems to echo those of the third-person narrator, and is caged in far coarser terms:
"Do I care? Do I give the slightest shit if this part of the country goes to the jihadis? It isn’t even part of America any longer. Is there any reason in the world that I should give a damn if the Caliphate towelheads replace the Nuevo Mexico beaners as America’s nasty new neighbors to the south? Or even as our new masters in Colorado, for that matter, replacing the fucking Japanese looking down on us from their fucking mountaintops? The Mexicans are all about drugs and corruption, the Japanese all about… well, all about Japan. Why should I care if it’s a hajji bureaucrat rather than a Jap bureaucrat running things? They’d be more efficient than the Mexicans and more honest than the Japanese. Word on EuroTel, Sky Vision, Al Jazeera, and the CBC is that the life of Dhimmis in old Europe and Canada is pretty damned easy. As long as the hajjis leave me alone to spend my days and nights with Dara, thought Nick, is there any reason I should care if their stupid crescent-moon-and-scimitar flag flies over Denver’s rotting gold-domed capitol? "
I really regret reading this, as Simmons is clearly a talented writer with a gift for suspense. I especially love the uncertainty of the ending--it definitely gets a half a star just for that. However, I find his viewpoint so toxic that I am unwilling to ever open another book he authored. Simmons limits himself to fear-mongering, emotional diatribes, and strawman debates. It is most definitely a polarizing book; if you like political works and you agree with at least some of the beliefs, it might be a fun read. Otherwise, I suggest having some Advil onhand for the incipient headaches and a mouthguard to prevent against wear from your soon-to-be-grinding teeth.