Why Write Dystopian Novels?
In a 1969 interview, Kurt Vonnegut said -- "I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever."
For anyone who doesn't quite get the canary in the coal mine analogy, here's a linked explanation -- " The classic example of animals serving as sentinels is the canary in the coal mine. Well into the 20th century, coal miners in the United Kingdom and the United States brought canaries into coal mines as an early-warning signal for toxic gases including methane and carbon monoxide. The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators."
Well, to be honest, most of those birds didn't "become sick"; they fell off their perch and went belly up and stone dead. The canaries had ceased to be. The canaries had gone to meet their maker. They were ex-canaries..
So those of us who write dystopian novels do so because we're weaker than the "more robust types" who can carry on with business as usual (even making profits and joining the Führer's favorite country club) through the increasing noxious gases of fascism or communism or limitless capitalism or attacks on our language or attacks on our intelligence and our deepest sense of reality and morality. This particular Vonnegutian super-sensitive canary in its cage on a long pole explores -- in the novel Flashback -- the possibility that the United States of America, if it continues accruing debt without rethinking its spending and social welfare programs, could implode in sudden and total bankruptcy, losing not only its position in the world but its own sense of self for hundreds of millions of its citizens.
In Flashback, this canary also imagines a cheap and available drug called flashback; a drug that allows hundreds of millions of Americans to find an escape hatch from life in such a damned and dismal future simply by reliving the good parts of their former lives. Over and over. And over. Twenty puny newbucks buys twenty perfect memories. And not just mere memories -- a full-sensory reliving of those minutes and hours and days we'd once thought lost forever.
So -- like Sir Thomas More, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, and literally hundreds of other authors ---
--- I confess that I have a canary-in-the-mineshaft weakness to certain noxious gases in the air these days. Each canary, it seems, falls off his or her perch and goes belly up in the cage at different times, in different parts of the mine, reacting to different -- but perhaps equally noxious -- gases.
Flashback is where I topple off my perch and go belly up with the best of them.
What Do the Best Dystopian Novels Give Us?
The language of these "noxious gases" speaks to us across the decades: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, and Memory hole all set off alarm bells -- even for those pre- or post-literates who never read the book 1984.
In the 1980's, state legislators in Midwestern tornado-alley states pondered making it a legal requirement to add a $5 chip to all televisions; the chip would allow state and federal authoritites to turn on the television in sleeping families' homes from a distant government disaster center, tuning the set to maximum volume, thus assuring that otherwise helpless families in a tornado's path would hear the tornado alert. Thousands of lives could be saved by such a simple, inexpensive early-warning system. All it required was one little harmless, inexpensive chip in the TV's remote control memory, allowing it to be turned on from afar when a twister was in the area.
Both state and federal legislators voted down the idea by a wide margin. The reason, they said, was that it "smacked of Big Brother". It may be that a majority of those senators and congresspeople hadn't even read the book. No matter. Orwell's idea is in the air now, perhaps in our genes.
Almost every American has an aversion to Big Brother, even if they don't know who the hell he was. Big Brother was a gift to freedom-loving peoples from George Orwell, who also gave us such concepts as -- War is Peace!, Freedom is Slavery!, Ignorance is Strength!
Each generation -- whether they have read Orwell's canary-in-the-cage novel 1984 or not -- learns, in its own way and unique context how to be wary of such triumphant statements by whatever party or person in power. War is not peace, and no amount of Orwellian Newspeak can make it so. In a real sense, the novel 1984 was like a smallpox or polio vaccination to immunize future generations from the plague of Ingsoc where the Ministry of Truth, when not spreading its propaganda, is watching us 24/7 through omnipresent telescreens.
So, one can ask, did the book 1984, written in 1948, help us avoid living in a real "1984"? For hundreds of millions of human beings under Communist and various dictators' rule during the second half of the 20th Century, it didn't. They experienced all -- or at least most -- of 1984's perverse horrors and more.
But for Americans and other free peoples, it's my opinion that 1984 has raised, for even the most "robust" among us, a hyper-awareness to certain noxious gases. (You don't have to be a supersensitive canary to detect such gases; you just have to watch the damned and doomed canary.)
Is Flashback A Novel Stating Dan Simmons's Political Biases?
In a word . . . no. In two words . . . hell no.
I spent 18 years as an elementary classroom teacher (and loved it!) and one of the things I was proud of when I ended that career and moved on to another one (writing) is that after working with hundreds of kids in so many interesting ways, including "Black History" lectures, social studies simulations such as our five days of "The Cuban Missile Crisis" and the gifted/talented APEX program I helped create to serve thousands of bright kids -- after all that, I stake my reputation that not one of those students I taught ever left with even a hint of my stand on religion or politics or any other adults-only issues. It was simply not my role as an educator to share them.
After 29 novels published, I want (and trust) the same to be true with those who read my novels. I have my own core beliefs, but my profession here is to speculate, not to argue my opinions or to pretend to be a prophet. That latter skill, prophecy, like the trick of walking on water, hasn't been done well in a long, long time.
Finally, it's also true that I've noticed that even the most famous (and popular) (and beloved) writers from the 20th and 21st Century can be abysmally stupid when it comes to politics. This tendency toward idiotic political opinions may be one of the very few ways in which novelists and poets are like movie stars and rock idols.
One is more likely to receive a more common-sense political view and interesting speculation about the future by asking an average citizen on the street than by querying most writers.
And yet . . . .
The Vonnegut--canaries amongst us do fall off our perches from time to time.
If Not Peddling Your Own Politics in Flashback, What?
To put it in stark terms, Flashback is the novel in which I share the psychological and real-world reality (if not any details of the actual experience) of the day I came home from college early in my freshman year to discover that both of my parents had been diagnosed with cancer and would soon die. And it will also share the dawning perception of a nineteen-year-old -- after my parents' slow and hard deaths that year only six months apart, and after hospital and funeral expenses were paid -- that my younger brother (still in high school) and I, the remnants of what had been a fairly happy family, were flat broke, jobless, and seemingly without a viable future. None of my story of this is in Flashback, per se, yet it's all there behind the book. The emotions are there.
And some three hundred and seventy-five million Americans experience that feeling in Flashback.
What's the Starting Point for Flashback?
A left-Democratic friend of mine recently said that all this fuss about the national debt was just so much "Tea Party nonsense".
For purposes of basing a speculative fiction novel in a profoundly dystopian near-future, I'm not so sure my left-wing friend is right. Recently I heard a reporter ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the question -- "What is the greatest existential threat to the United States today?"
You know, unlike most of reporters' questions these days -- "How do you feel about winning the Olympic gold medal?" "How do you feel about having five members of your family carried away in the tornado?" -- this was a damned good question.
What is the greatest existential threat to America in 2011? What threat out there could end us as a free and viable nation? Russia with its aging stockpiles of megedeath sitting in its rusting missile silos and old submarines tied to wharfs? China with its surging technology, new stealth bombers, heaps of hydrogen bombs, new nuclear submarines, and a clear hunger for Taiwan and a Pacific hegemony? Iran with its new nuclear toys and incipient madness? Al Qaeda and its jihadist sympathizers around the world seeking and waiting impatiently for its chance to get its grubby hands on those weapons to murder more American men, women, and children?
What is the greatest existential threat to the United States in 2011?
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- soon to retire as I write this, but seen by almost everyone as a serious man, one of the finest and most solid members of both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations, one of the few men or women in government today with the Greek gift and curse of gravitas -- did not hesitate for a second when asked that question.
"The most serious existential threat to the United States is its rapidly growing national debt," said Robert Gates.
Sounds like a boring premise on which to build an exciting dystopian novel. But we'll see. There's also a deep love story in Flashback. And the core of the book is a complex mystery -- a compelling thriller even without the dystopian elements of the novel.
And beneath that are certain revelations about ourselves and our society that I think will run deep for readers.
But what does a stupid canary on a perch in a cage held out on a 12-foot pole know?
What Does the Phrase "Die-Ought-If" Mean?
In the Flashback-present twenty-some years from our own, ex-police detective Nick Bottom, Nick's 16-year-old son Val, Nick's 74-year-old father-in-law Professor Emeritus George Leonard Fox, and millions of other Americans know that "Die-Ought-If" is the way they pronounce the acronym D.I.A.H.T.F. -- the Day It All Hit The Fan. They use the phrase casually, but usually with some hint of pain, the way we currently talk about "nine-eleven" or "ground zero" and the way our parents' generation talked about "November twenty-second" and their parents' spoke of "Pearl Harbor".
I never learned when exactly the Day It All Hit The Fan was, but I got the sense it was closer to our "now" than to their "now". The Day It All Hit The Fan obviously wasn't just a replay of October, 1929, or of the puny housing-bubble-collapse/Global Financial Crisis/Great Recession of 2008 . . .
On Die-Ought-If, everything that could hit the fan did hit the fan.
It was global economic meltdown, but who gave a rip about the rest of the world? Here was bad enough. Here it was Die-Ought-If. Sometime closer to our now than Flashback's their now, if you were an American, you woke to find that the United States -- the interest on its debt now outpacing all revenue -- had, overnight, defaulted on it debt. You'd vaguely known that the government, in order to continue supporting "necessary" programs such as healthcare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and continued "stimulus spending", was already borrowing sixty-three cents for every dollar it "spent" , but, suddenly, all of that became irrelevant. Our primary bank -- China -- was no longer there: split into thirty segments, each with one or more warlord fighting for ascendancy. The fact that "China" was now demanding payment in full on certain loans meant almost nothing. What meant something was that your ATM longer spat out any money, even when you swiped the card again and pressed all the right buttons.
Now, in Flashback future not so far away, the dollar is, quite literally, no longer worth the paper it was printed on. Your savings and investments -- if you had any -- are gone. Prices have gone up a bit: an airline ticket from Los Angeles to New York now costs more than two million dollars, a loaf of bread around $900. The movie you want to stream on Friday night is only $1200.
Die-Ought-If was the day that Medicare and Medicaid died, the day that Social Security became a nostalgic memory -- like, say, those big, black phones with a rotary dial -- and the day that ObamaCare, expanding generously since its conception as every government in history has, expired like a newborn with its umbilical cord wrapped tight around its neck.
Medical services in America continued to be provided, of course. When your diagnosed cancer calls for chemotherapy, you get in line. (Unless you're very rich.) The first state-insurance-funded chemotherapy sessions will arrive, on average in post-Die-Ought-If America, in eighteen months or so. No one talks about Death Panels any longer. There are no panels. Everyone is truly treated equal in post-Die-Ought-If America. (Except, of course, for those who can pay in Old Bucks or gold.)
Die-Ought-If was also the day that gasoline went to $300 a barrel and then really began to climb. It was the day that the consensual hallucination of the stock market -- everyone's stock market, everywhere -- popped like the precariously levitated soap bubble it always was. The Day It All Hit The Fan was the day that the steady 8.3% unemployment jumped to 72.9% but then dropped and stabilized because it no longer really meant a whole lot of difference whether one was employed or unemployed.
"Nothing will come of nothing, speak again," King Lear said to his doomed daughter Cordelia.
Lear's Fool said to Lear that now he was nothing without his crown and power: "Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I'm a fool, thou art nothing". According to the Fool, King Lear was a zero and was no better than a "shealed peascod".
There were a hell of a lot shealed peascods in America after Die Ought If. After the Day It All Hit The Fan, the giant number 0 was found painted on walls and abandoned cars and on the sides of buildings. Often it was painted in blood. Sometimes it was dabbed on the foreheads of murder victims. No one knew what it meant.
Gold was still worth something and in the days after the D.I.A.H.T. F. the federal government passed legislation appropriating all private gold and promptly sent troops around to collect it. So much for that particular portfolio investment.
The seizure of all gold didn't seem to change anything. Both the government and its citizens remain broke. Mother is dead. Father is dead. Uncle Samuel, who used to help the family in hard times and was the source of many presents, has been institutionalized either for Alzheimer's or for passing bad checks or for both.
The new American economy with its National Identification Card and its billions of near-worthless newbucks replacing real money struggled into existence, closer to our "now" than Flashback's "now", but did so with real difficulty: a bloody breach birth. Most people -- ex-homicide detective Nick Bottom included -- have found a way to survive in the new not-quite-real-economy. More than a few chose not to. Internet sites showing how to rig explosive suicide vests for best results -- including dipping the hundreds of shrapnel nails and tacks and marbles in rat poison -- received more than a million hits.
What's the United States Like In This Flashback Future?
America has seen better days. Including during the depths of the depths of the 1930's Great Depression.
There are 44 stars on the new flag of the United States.
The good news is that America finally has a solid and almost unpassable border -- more than 2,400 miles of it, protected by "smart fences", "seven-sense" detectors, other high-technology means, and a highly trained border force that means business to the point that almost no one passes this national border fence. The bad news is that the fence was created by, belongs to, and is manned by Canada. Americans at the end of their string try fleeing north, but they fail. The Canadian parliament, once so gentle and generous, passed the "three time's the charm" rule; the mass burial sites are said to take up hundreds of acres between Stepstone and Dog Lake north of Thunder Bay.
Hawaii is a royal kingdom again, presided over by a pure-blooded Hawaiian queen -- Lili'uokalani the Second, also known as Lili'uoka2, a top-streaming music star. She does not like tourists from the United States. Just as in the 1880's, a hundred and fifty years earlier, Hawaii is a fair-scented isle with too many hungry suitors, the Russian Federation, India, and Nippon among them.
Alaska is an energy-sufficient republic thanks to its "nationalized" oil and natural gas but it also has to play a complex game with the Russian Federation . . . and Canada . . . to keep its newfound independence. And its oil.
Texas is once again the Republic of Texas -- it's brought its oldest flag out of mothballs -- and the citizens there have voted, perhaps a bit whimsically (but probably not), to refer to themselves and to have others know them once again (it was popular during the days of the Alamo) as "Texicans". The aerosol drug flashback, sold everywhere in the remaining forty-four continental states, is illegal in the Republic of Texas: the punishment for the offense of using flashback in the Republic is prisoner tattooing, the loss of both index fingers, and exile; the punishment for selling flashback inside the borders of the Republic of Texas is execution by firing squad within 48 hours: no appeal, no delays, no blindfold.
A civil war in Mexico between the government and drug cartels (and between drug cartels and drug cartels) has driven the cartels and about 20,000,000 Mexicans across our former (and laughable) "southern borders". Sometime in the first decade of the 21st Century, an opponent of the easy illegal immigration from Mexico that had already brought more than 12,000,000 illegal immigrants to America -- primarily to its Southwestern states -- had said (most politically incorrectly) -- "To move to a new country, to work for yourself and your children to learn its language and culture, and to work hard and hope for the best is to be an immigrant. To move to a new country while carrying your old flag, language, culture, behavior, and national loyalties with you, is to be a colonist."
There are about 23,000,000 new colonists in the great swath ranging from the border with the Republic of Texas on the east, including all of what had once been New Mexico and Arizona, small swaths of Nevada, and irregular parts of southern California up to Los Angeles, ending at the Pacific Ocean. This is Nuevo Mexico -- pronounced in the proper Spanish-Mexican way -- and while the civil war continues to wage in the south with Hugonista rebels, trained in Argentina, reportedly occupying everything from the former southern border to Veracruz, Nuevo Mexico itself is reported to be calm and self-sufficient. Except for stories of starvation. And for stories of entire cities (such as Las Vegas, formerly of New Mexico) having to be abandoned because of water shortages. And except for Hugonista raids from the south and for Nuevo Mexico's constant border war with the Republic of Texas.
All in all, Nuevo Mexico is still a safer place to be than the United States.
What's Wrong With the United States in Flashback?
As mentioned earlier, the economy and currency have collapsed -- imploded. Health and social services have all but ceased to exist.
There's no government money for repairs, not even after ABO -- the Almost Big One -- hits the Bay Area, Anglo-held Los Angeles,and what's left of American California.
Violence in the streets is endemic. The upsurge in domestic jihadist terrorist attacks shortly after Dit-Ought-If has made suicide bombings, sniper shootings, and all forms of terrorism chic.
Nick Bottom's 16-year-old son Val, sent off to live with his grandfather six years earlier because his father is too busy using flashback to pay attention to his child, looks out on a city, Los Angeles, completely lost to tribalism: Latino gang areas, Nuevo Mexico outposts covering several miles of the southeast part of the city; Vietnamese gangs owning the south; rich Anglo Protection Associations building walls and hiring ex-Blackwater mercenaries to draw the line in Bel Air, parts of Malibu, sections around Mulholland Boulevard, the working sections of Hollywood; black gang Central South areas where young men have taken the middle name "Nigger"; Aryan-Brotherhood areas of L.A. where it's death to enter without a tattooed blue-tear at the corner of your eye; the high-tech-protected Asian compound near U.C.L.A. with slayer drones buzzing overhead day and night . . .
In a time where any crowd is a suicide bomber's inevitable target, crowds no longer gather. Malls are closed and turned into condos. (Nick Bottom lives in a former luxury mall, now low-rent cubies, in south Denver.) The great sporting stadiums in America are now mostly detention centers or Homeland Security prisons. Denver has both -- the Coors Field baseball park turned into a mostly open-air prison holding around 70,000 detainees, most of them black or Latino (the populations do not mix, exept at the pitcher's mound where representatives can meet and talk on the truce rubber) and Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High where the Broncos once played. Now it's a black-roofed, black-walled, laser-eyed Region Homeland Security Detention Center. Detainees check into Mile-High Stadium, but they never check out. Alive.
American males still get their sports fix. NFL Football, MBL baseball, NHL hockey, NBA basketball, whatever the hell the initials are for soccer -- it's all live on 3DHD TV. But the games never actually happen, as such. World-class athletes continue getting paid more money than dictators of Third World states -- of which there are many more now -- but they do their moves in a green-screen TMC (total motion capture) environment and the computers do the rest.
While Nick Bottom can drink a beer and watch his favorite pitcher throw the first pitch for the first game in a three-game series with the Mets in a perfectly rendered 3DHD Coors Field -- all the 37,000 faces in the crowd real people rendered from previous 3D video capture -- he can also smell the stench from the real Coors Field Detention Center more than four miles from his Cherry Creek Mall Manors seven-by-nine-foot cubie, subdivided from a former Baby Gap, every cubie in America big enough for a standard 7-foot widescreen 3DHD flatscreen, guaranteed by the New Bill of Rights.
Along with the terrorism, some of it directed for some obscure purpose (mostly jihadic) but the majority random, there's the flashgang violence.
Val Bottom belongs to a flashgang in L.A. Flashgangs commit violent and illegal acts solely for the purpose of flashing on them again; reliving them again and again via the cheap drug flashback.
Val's flashgang of eight boys has gang raped a 13-year-old spanic girl (for some reason Val volunteered to "stand guard" and didn't join in this time) and then Monk, Toohey, Sully, the Cruncher, Dinjin, Gene D., and Val leave the bleeding girl and retreat to their hideout -- the "eyrie" their leader Billy Coyne calls it, on the barricaded-off V-steel of an overpass high above an abandoned stretch of the 101 dropped during the ABO that Val barely remembers -- to flash on the rape.
Once safe high among the girders and slabs, Val's flashgang flash again and again, always to repeated orgasm, reliving -- over and over -- every sensory detail, sight, sound, thought, feeling, and physical sensation of the rape of the young spanic girl. Such power. To rape and beat someone not once but fifty times. A hundred times!
The only thing Val Fox . . . his school name, his grandfather Leonard's name actually, since Val is really Val Bottom but will not honor his father who abanoned him . . .the only thing Val Bottom wants to flash on is the shooting of his old man. The killing, the very personal killing -- Val now has the 9mm Beretta semi-automatic and the ammunition -- of ex-detective Nick Bottom by his abandoned and forgotten just-turned-16-year-old son Val Bottom.
Shooting his father for the sin of abandoning him will happen soon, Val vows, despite the distance between Los Angeles and Denver where his father lives and despite chaos that's ripping the nation apart. Val vows that he will settle the score with his absentee father.
How About New Forms of Energy, New Types of Cars in the Future of Flashback?
Evidently our current hope-and change-focus on windmills didn't work out so well. Ex-homicide detective Nick Bottom lives in Denver where the locals have always taken an undeserved personal pride in their view of more than 150 miles of the Continental Divide. The line of snowy high peaks, a very few rising to more than 14,000 feet, have always shown pure white against the deep blue Colorado sky.
Now all of that view -- and further beyond the curve of the earth, north far onto the plains and Jim Bridger mountain wilderness of Wyoming and south beyond Pikes Peak deep into what had been New Mexico -- is studded with abandoned wind-turbine windmills. There are hundreds of these windmills, thousands of them between the Canadian Wall and the point where the mountains dwindle to desert near what used to be the Mexican border, and each tall, rusted, abandoned windmill is 350-ft. or 400-ft. tall. The blades are frozen in place from the day the state utilities finally gave up on them. Remnants of hundreds of thousands of birds, especially the night-migrating species, lie sliced and diced under the old snow and thin high-country soil. Giant conduction cables snake across and around and down the slopes and through slashes in the forest especially cut for them -- for our renewable wind power salvation -- more than a decade and a half earlier.
Earlier American administrations were more obsessed with windmills than Don Quixote had been. And the outcome is much the same as the Knight with the Woeful Countenance, save that America has spent trillions of dollars in a mostly vain -- and finally abandoned -- attempt to capture the wind. There is no money left to tear down and cart away the giant windmill turbines that mar the view along every seacoast, on almost every great mountain ridgeline.
So the hundreds upon hundreds of windmills along the Divide west of Denver rust in the high, chilly summer and winter sun above 11,000 feet.. The cables scarring the mountains on both Western and Eastern slopes of the Divide are turning a vomitous rust brown. No electricity flows through them. Denver and the other cities in Colorado and Wyoming receive power -- between rolling brownouts -- from huge new coal-burning plants or from one of the small nuclear reactors mass-produced in India or Japan.
The Sierra Club demands -- no longer requests, but demands -- that the thousands of rusting windmill skeletons be removed from the Continental Divide and from America's other lonely, lovely windy spots. But there's no money to throw a big tarp over them, much less remove them. Evidently this drives some lovers-of-the-planet mad. According to the Homeland Defense Security Agency's annual assessment, the Sierra Club has become a terrorist organization, responsible for more than three thousand suicide and terror bombings a year. (This makes it one of the minor terrorist groups operating in America in Flashback's near-future present.)
A few freelance scavengers try to salvage precious metals in what's left of the wind turbine's motors and many of these people fall to their deaths, blown by high winds from the stalks and bulbs of the 40-story tall turbines. Meanwhile, the windmills stay there, standing along the high mountain skyline like some ugly metal picket fence; or perhaps, to reach for an odder but more interesting (at least to me) simile, looking more like the rusting, long-legged remnants of some Martian War Machine Invasion gone terribly wrong for the Martians. (Our generation, of course, were the Martians in this folly.)
As for futuristic cars -- a few exist, but Nick Bottom and his fellow Americans rarely see them except as an occasional blur hissing past them in the Lexus Lane. One of the characters in Flashback describes the hydrogen and fuel-cell-powered cars the nine Japanese Federal Advisors and a few rich and corrupt Americans drive as "low, slick skateboards with bubble windshields and a clutter-free interior out of a 1957 Popular Mechanics". The old high-occupancy lanes on I-25 and other urban Interstates have become the Lexus Lanes, reserved day and night for the few VIP vehicles. Unauthorized driving in the Lexus Lane, no matter how jammed the traffic on the regular lanes might be, means automatic loss of a driver's license and a visit to Mile-High Stadium. The Lexus Lanes are almost always empty. Flashgangs often lay mines in them, just for the hell of it.
Nick Bottom, like so many Americans, drives an eighteen-year-old gelding. Geldings are gasoline-electric hybrids built almost as long ago as our present day, but with their gasoline engines and all attendant internal-combustion bits ripped out and the primitive electrical systems re-rigged to power the hybrid's small electric motors at each wheel. Of course, most expensive hybrids from our decade and the last weren't built to run on electric power alone. They do so poorly.
Don't look for any high-speed chases in Flashback. Nick and most other Americans have the option of driving 28 miles a day at 38 miles per hour or 38 miles at 28 m.p.h.. And that's only if there's lots of downhill involved.
It takes about sixteen hours to recharge Nick's gelding and the electricity from the reactor at the Rawhide Project near the Wyoming border isn't cheap. But with regular gasoline going for more than $58 a gallon -- old bucks, real dollars -- Nick pays for his trickle-charge and hopes his gelding holds together for a few more slow miles.
What About the Rest of the World?
The rest of the world? Who gives a damn about the rest of the world?
Regular Americans rarely give much of a damn about the "rest of the world" even in good times -- except for planning expensive European vacations where they'll be insulted by their hosts -- and they're even less interested during, say, the Great Depression or in the years since the Die-Ought-If.
But we get glimpses of the Rest of the World through Nick Bottom, his father-in-law Leonard Fox, the Japanese billionaire and powerful Federal Advisor Hiroshi Nakamura, and even through 16-year-old Val Bottom's points of view.
The Rest of the World has been busy with its own chaos while the United States has economically imploded and geographically shrunken:
A couple of million young American men and women are fighting "overseas" -- in the warlord-ridden mess of civil-war-divided China; in Malaysia and Indonesia and the free-fire zone once called Pakistan; in parts of Guatemala and Colombia -- but the United States is not at war. These American soldiers are mercenaries, hird to fight for the rising new superpowers -- Nippon, India, Brazil -- and we've brought back the draft (conscription, Selective Service, compulsory military service) to meet the need for troops. We had to. Payment for our military's services is America's primary source of hard currency.
Val Bottom, just turned sixteen, has already received his first notification card from the SS (Selective Service), a subset now of Homeland Security. They're going to keep close tabs on him until his induction after his seventeenth birthday.
We also get glimpses that tell us that the Global Islamic Caliphate -- only a fervent fever dream now in a billion or so minds -- is real enough in the post-Die-Ought-If days of Flashback. The Global Caliphate is a giant crescent, its central curve and core and capital in the Mideast where the triumphant states of Iran and Syria struggled toward mere regional hegemony in our own day. It seems that they succeeded. And then some. The northern horn of the Caliphate crescent stretches from the heart of the Mideast (Mecca and Medina, no longer part of the dead state Saudi Arabia at the heart of this heart) across Turkey and eastern Europe and all of Western Europe with the sharp tip of its crescent ending in Canada.
Europe, in our not-so-far-away Flashback future, is -- more than anything else -- old. Evidently it had neither the heart, stomach, energy, or armies for struggle. The E.U., save for the convenience of the euro in parts of the continent, has ceased to exist. Most of the nations of Western Europe -- as nations qua nations -- have similarly ceased to exist. What the hell -- most of them had long since been embarrassed by anything so crass as patriotism or "nationalism". Those ideas belonged to a bloody and dusty past.
So the Global Caliphate is vital across Western Europe and the U.K., allowing islands of "autonomy" for the remnants of the old nations occupied mostly by old men and women. The Global Caliphate, in contrast, is young. And filled with the energy of more than two billion True Believers who are seeing their faith's dream come true.
In Flashback we see these places and events as through a mist . . . or through a veil. Professor Emeritus George Leonard Fox has been married three times and we hear that his grown daughter in his second-marriage was wed in France and "went under the veil". He's not heard a word from her in the decades since.
The southern horn of the Global Caliphate's crescent sweeps triumphantly -- following the curve of Islam's first great expansion in the 7th Century -- across northern Africa, across the Atlantic into parts of Central America, with its sharpened horn buried deep in southern Mexico.
Canada, used to dividing itself into smaller parts to appease ethnic groups, languages, and claims to prior ownership, now divides itself gracefully into parts of the Umma and scores of local Canadian enclaves, many run by First Peoples, others by gangsters and terrorists, some by both groups combined. Ottawa's seat of government has control over Parliament Hill -- on a good day -- but little more. The most common baby name in Canada in the time of Flashback is Mohammed. (Way back in 2010, this was the most common baby name in Sweden.)
We learn in Flashback that jihadist terror in the United States is widespread, but the violence tends to be lost against the backdrop of chaos. Cities, states, and Americans are making a separate peace whenever possible.
In the first draft of Flashback, more than seven months before I heard the first news or whisper or rumor of this reality, I had written that Muslims had demanded that a mosque be built on the site of New York's Ground Zero -- the site of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. I wrote this because of my study of the habit of expansive Islam in the Middle Ages -- and after the Middle Ages -- so frequently building mosques on the sites of great military victories over the infidels. (Christianity, of course, had done similar things, building churches and cathedrals over "pagan" sites -- but most of these sites were ancient ruins or druid stones.) Islam built its trophy marks more quickly and with little subtlety.
"Hagia Sophia" is Greek for "Holy Wisdom" and the Christian cathedral to rise on that site in Constantinople was dedicated in the Fourth Century A.D.. Hagia Sophia was formally consecrated and dedicated in the name of logos -- "discourse" or "reason" or "knowledge", as in the idea of "Word" from the opening of the Gospel according to John --" In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Besides dedicating the cathedral to reason, it meant dedication to the Holy Spirit who is the bringer of Grace and source of human reason.
From 260 A.D. to 1532 A.D., the Haga Sophia served as the central Constantinople Cathedral for both Orthodox and then Roman Catholic faith. The story is told that in May of 1532, as Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II broke through siege defenses around Constantinople, up to 50,000 Christians rushed to the great square outside Hagia Sophia and then pressed into the cathedral itself, where priests and bishops were saying Mass, the Holy Liturgy, and the Prayer of the Hours around the clock -- begging God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and especially Jesus Christ to deliver them from the infidel.
But the infidel - or in these infidels' particular view, the enemy of all infidels, the followers of the Prophet -- prevailed that May day in 1532. The sultan had promised his men three days of unrestricted looting and pillage if they succeeded in taking Constantinople, and Mehmet II was as good as his word. The thousands of Christians cowering in Hagia Sophia -- including the bishops saying Mass until Muslim troops beat them into silence or killed them -- were fair game for such pillage. The cathedral was deliberately desecrated and looted and the men, women, and children praying there killed on the spot -- except for the thousands who were dragged off in chains as slaves.
When Mehmet II entered Hagia Sophia, he immediately ordered it converted to the Ayasofya Mosque -- as per the tradition of raising mosques to praise Allah after great victories. Hagia Sophia remained a mosque from 1532 until 1935 when the first Turkish president and founder of the secular Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ordered the mosque turned into a museum.
So this is why -- seven months before any news of the debate about the mosque at Ground Zero hit the media -- I had written in my first draft that in the near-future of Flashback time, over the hole at Ground Zero, rose the Sharid al-Haram -- the largest mosque in North America. Sharid al-Haram means something like Martyrs of the Holy Place, or so young Vasl learned in school in Los Angeles, the mosque eternally (and quite correctly, according to young Val's teachers) memorializing the martyrdom operation of September 11, 2001 -- the day, the teachers explained, when the American Hegemony and illegal occupations of Islamic holy lands finally began to break.
September 11 is one of the days in the novel and Val and his grandfather hear not only the AK-47 shots of the faithful echoing around Los Angeles in celebration of the day, but also most of the church bells in L.A. ringing in peaceful and sympathetic support of the Islamic holiday.
Then, in my second draft, I took out the Sharid al-Haram mosque. I felt it was just too cynical. Muslims, especially American-born Muslims, I felt, would never be so completely insensitive and overbearing as to demand a mosque on the very place that jihadist Islam -- with the terrorists screaming Allahu-Akbar! as literally the last things the men, women, and children in the hijacked aircraft would ever hear -- had attacked America. And if they were to be so outrageous, I thought as I removed those Sharid al-Haram paragraphs from the second draft, New York and American politicians would never allow such an outrage to get beyond the talking stage, no matter how dedicated to religious freedom were are in this country. Building a mosque at or near the Ground Zero site would be like . . . well, like raising a huge mosque on the foundation of the great Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Instanbul. Raising it literally on the bones and bone dust of the slaughtered.
Well, imagine my surprise. Reality does that to me. And frequently.
And then there was the little matter of Six Flags Over the Jews.
Six Flags Over the Jews:
Elitch Gardens, first opened in 1890, is one of the oldest amusement/theme parks in America. In 1995, after more than a century of operation, Elitch's -- as it was known to Denverites -- moved from the suburbs where it and its gardens had always been to a site close to downtown Denver. Media outlets around the country led with the story that Elitch Gardens was the first such amusement park in America to move closer to the urban center rather than further away.
For almost a decade from 1997 to 2006, Elitch's was purchased by the theme park giant and renamed "Six Flags Elitch Gardens". Locals never called it that -- it was only "Elitch's" as long as it was a theme park.
Now, in the near-future of Flashback, it's informally but almost universally known as Six Flags Over the Jews.
For all of Israel's vaunted vigilance, the attack, when it came, was a complete surprise. More than six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel died in three hours of concentrated nuclear and thermonuclear fire.
A few hundred thousand survivors of what was already being called "the Second Holocaust" were sent to survivor - refugee camps in Europe and America. Six Flags Over the Jews is one of these camps -- fading UN-blue tents and cardboard shacks and old funhouses turned into quarters for about 20,000 ex-Israeli refugees from the Big Burn of 2-19.
Nick Bottom, seeking out the murderer of Keigo Nakamura, has to interview the Jewish poet and Second Holocaust survivor Danny Oz in the shadows of the remants of the sky rides and broken rollercoasters and fading carousels. What Oz -- who is using flashback more hours a day than is Nick Bottom, a hardcore flash addict himself -- has to say will change Nick's life forever.
For more than 100 years there was a motto -- first a giant billboard and then just a remembered saying -- Not to See Elitch's Is Not to See Denver.
Nick thinks it's probably still true. Which makes him, like the cancer-ravaged poet Danny Oz (most of the survivors of the Israeli Big Burn have some sort of cancer), all the more grateful for flashback. If either man believed in a God, he'd thank that God every day for flashback.
What Is Flashback?
Flashback is the return of hope and escape from the unescapable. Sold in small, clear-plastic, disposable aerosol inhalers, flashback is cheap and plentiful, a source of it standing on almost every corner, bulk amounts available in down every dark alley.
Flashback has become the savior for millions.
Recent polls say that 87% of all Americans are flashback addicts. But a study of those polls showed that 82% of the pollsters were flash addicts, so who's to be believed?
Those under the flash -- like former Denver Police Detective Nick Bottom before he was fired -- don't show up for work that regularly. And when they do, they're finding a solitary place to go under the flash half the time. Flash addicts are poor risks for employers. But, then, there's an 87% chance that the employer himself or herself is under the flash.
Nobody knows for sure where flashback came from, although the word out is that it was developed in Israeli labs as some sort of easier-than-waterboarding interrogation method at the secret biowar installation deep under the Negev Desert. Rumor says that the secret labs were literally buried under the cover soilof the so-called Havat MaShash Experimental Agricultural Farm. (Danny Oz had been visting an archaeologist friend in the deep cisterns of Be'er Sheve not that far from Havat MaShash Experimental Farm when all the megawatt-megaton lightbulbs went off up on the surface -- he'd seen it all in mirrors they'd arranged to bounce light down into the deep, dark tunnels of Be'er Sheve -- but so what? Who cares? Nick Bottom didn't.)
So flashback may have come from an Israeli biowar lab, or maybe not, but now it's everywhere.
Or almost everywhere. Reliable word is that getting caught using flashback anywhere in the spreading Islamic Global Caliphate means public stoning followed, invariably, by a public beheading. No appeals. No exceptions.
Rather suprisingly, Nippon -- as Japan now prefers to be known -- has brought back the death penalty after almost a century. It applies only to users and sellers of the drug called flashback. Even more surprisingly, Nippon strictly enforces the law: most of the men and women on Nippon's 3-month-max Death Row are teenagers.
As mentioned, the Republic of Texas exiles you the first time you get caught going under the flash. Execution squads for flashback peddlers. No appeals. No exceptions.
But for most under the flash in the forty-four battered states of Old America, life -- at least under the flash -- is good. Fifteen bucks, less than 3 cents old money, buys you fifteen minutes of golden memories.
Learn to concentrate so you don't miss the entrance point. Inhale.
Under flashback you don't remember these wonderful times. You relive them. Every second of sensory experience, every sound, every sight, every touch -- relived in full. As many times as you want them. (Or as many times as you have money for.)
Be honest -- here's a vial of flashback. No side effects. No cravings. An odorless, tasteless aerosol vial. One deep breath and you can --- see and hear your long-deceased grandparents again.
Relive your first sexual encounter in total sensory real-time experience. (All right then -- your first successful sexual experience.)
Re-experience intimacies lost with friends and lovers truly lost; go back to the same wonderful minutes and hours (or full days if you wish, and have the money) as many times as you want to.
Be honest. Would you try flashback? Just once? What would be the harm? Just to hear your lost loved one's voice for a few minutes, without the distortions and fadings of memories or photography or old video or film. Just to see yourself at a younger age -- to feel the energy and emotions you had long ago. What would be the harm? To feel your mother holding you when you're two years old. To enjoy that perfect dinner with your beloved before that swim on Maui in the phosphorescent sea on the first evening of your honeymoon.
Go ahead. You know you want to. What's the harm?
In the People's Republic of Boulder in Colorado -- a real People's Republic now, separate from America and requiring a passport to visit, not just an old joke -- the Naropa Institute, enlarged now to include the old Bureau of Standards building, the Chautauqua campus, and most of the University of Colorado buildings, accepts only devotees willing to pursue the Path of Total Immersion as taught by (the late) Sensei Shantarakshia Padmasambhava.
Followers of Total Immersion float in isolated Total Immersion tanks twenty-two hours a day, reliving their entire lives from birth forward to whatever age they entered the Institute. A thirty-six-year-old-woman pays tens of thousands of dollars -- real dollars, old dollars, many billions of newbucks -- to re-experience all of her thirty-six years while also receiving one hour of conversation daily from a Naropa Total Immersion Life Counselor. (The other hour out of the tank is spent exercising so that muscles do not totally atrophy.)
But you don't have to commit yourself to Total Immersion. Or even to the Naropa Institute. Nor do you have to become one of the sketchy types -- Nick Bottom is one -- who spends hours and hours under the flash in a so-called flashcave, where special security personnel -- bouncers -- watch that your belongings aren't stolen in the cavernous, candlelit interior of a former warehouse or giant basement.
Just try the flashback once, for a few minutes. Say a five-minute flash. It is not physically addictive; chemists and pharmaceutical experts will attest to that.
Isn't there one person -- gone forever in your so-called "real life" -- whom you'd like to see and hear and touch again in this rich, recaptured life of flashback?
Go ahead. You know you want to.
The Love Story?
At the heart of the heart of Flashback is a love story.
Nick Bottom loves his younger wife Dara more than life itself. Now that he's lost his job with the DPD, he has more time to spend with Dara. They make love in the afternoon. They make love in the morning. When he wakes feeling alone and frightened late at night, they touch and whisper and make love in the night.
Nick likes having more time with Dara now that he's not working. It doesn't take lovemaking to make him happy (although it always does) -- just lying in the hammock with Dara or watching an old movie on the 3DHD with her (she's ashamed to admit it, but she loves An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) (but she'll also get excited about the new James Bond or Bourne release) -- any of these mundane things make Nick realize that life is worth living.
Sometimes Nick will go back to the same conversations with his wife, listening carefully to Dara's comments and opinions. Her wisdom becomes more apparent with each conversation and he can't believe that he -- a mere cop --can have such an intellectual yet truly wise wife. Why go to the Himalayas and climb a mountain to find a holy man when there's someone in the kitchen or bedroom or working in the garden who can answer most of the questions you need answered in life?
Nick's sorry -- when he remembers -- that their son Val has to spend so much time with his grandfather, Dara's much-loved but also very absent-minded Professor Leonard Fox, but that's just necessary now that he's not working as a cop, now that he and Dara need to spend as much time together as they can.
Besides, Val's there with them much of the time. It's fun, in a slightly dizzyingly way, to watch him grow -- and then, oddly, but not oddly enough to ruin the experience, watch him un-grow.
Former Detective Nicholas Bottom loves his young wife Dara more than he loves life itself. Now that he has no permanent job, Nick has set things so that even trying to find the killer of Federal Advisor Hiroshi Nakamura doesn't take up more than a couple of hours per day (but the job is necessary, he needs the money). He spends as much of the rest of the day and night as possible with Dara.
Dara Bottom died -- from a terrible traffic accident that claimed two other lives -- five years ago this coming February.
Nick Bottom needs this job "finding" Keigo Nakamura's killer. He needs every real dollar he can get, and Hiroshi Nakamura has promised $15,000 old dollars -- the equivalent of about $22 million newbucks -- if Nick can find Hiroshi Nakamura's son's killer.
You understand why Nick needs the money. It's the only way he can continue seeing his wife; he's used up his pension, his savings, the insurance money from the accident, the money from the sale of almost everything they'd owned together, loans from his former detective partner and from his father-in-law (who had nothing extra to lend but did it anyway), and even from money that Nick's stolen from other flash addicts.
Nick needs the money from Nakamura. He loves his young wife Dara more than life and has absolutely no intention of allowing a day go by without seeing her, holding her,and making love with her.
If music be the food of love, play on.
He can't remember which Shakespearean character had said that, or in which play, but Dara had told him once. He'll see her tonight and hear her say it and watch her act it out for him.
The May 23rd review of Flashback in Publishers Weekly begins its starred review thusly --
"Simmons makes some logical if depressing extrapolations from current political and economic developments in this outstanding mystery thriller set in a neaer-future dystopic United States."
And an "outstanding mystery thriller" I hope it is, my friends.
I've enjoyed talking at length about All Things Dystopian, but the beating heart of Flashback is this mystery-thriller about which we will talk very little indeed.
Even the reasons ex-cop Nick Bottom has to solve this locked-room, locked-building, locked-mind murder mystery keep changing and shifting as the novel progresses. And hidden within the daunting murder mystery is a larger mystery -- more powerful and strangely more personal -- and some of these revelations almost stopped me, the author, in my tracks. I love it when a book of mine surprises me like that.
PW also says -- "Simmons keeps the action moving briskly and smoothly, despite the novel's length."
'Despite' nothing! I would argue with the emperor, gently, never losing my powdered wig while doing so, that Flashback has just enough notes in it -- not one more than necessary, not one fewer -- to make an enjoyable mystery-thriller.
A review of Flashback from San Antonio, arriving from a friend just hours ago, begins -- "Perhaps no other contemporary novelist is as effortlessly versatile as Dan Simmons. . ."
"Versatile"? I'll take that. "Effortlessly"? Yes, my friends, as effortlessly as a just-tossed-off Fred Astaire dance routine. Just don't open his (or my) closet and find all those worn-down and actually bloody practice shoes. (In truth, if I could write half as well as Fred Astaire danced, I'd never have to write again. To live, I'd just hock a few of my Nobel Prizes for Literature.) Actually, I think I could name a few writers who wrote as "effortlessly" as Fred Astair danced, but, like Astaire, they've passed away. Their work hasn't though. I don't think it ever will.
Anyway, Flashback will be released everywhere on July 1. The middle of summer is often considered a down time to release a novel, but it's a perfect time for this novel. If, like me, you don't have a beach for this particular reading, rent one. It's worth it.
While I hope I've convinced you about the dystopia part of this project -- this canary is off his perch and flat on his back and chirping (or singing, or whatever canaries do) no more -- I'll remind us all that the outstanding mystery thriller someone mentioned above is just running the opening titles and is about ready to begin.
Begin the countdown.
Fasten your seatbelts.
Join me in reciting the Alan Shepard prayer -- "Please, Lord, don't let me (bleep) up!"
And pass the popcorn.