After reading The Terror a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading another Dan Simmons. Despite the gushing about Hyperion and the other space operas he's written, it isn't really my cup of tea, and after picking up Carrion Comfort (too heavy for my bag)my interest was piqued when I saw that he'd turned his considerable imagination to the near future. But this is a disappointing and at times, repellent book, when Simmon's right wing politicking, racism, islamophobia, and patriotic gung-hoism gets in the way of what could have been a good thriller.
The story concerns a down and out detective, called Nick Bottom, who is a flashback junkie living in the near future. This future is a dire mess of poverty stricken former superpowers; islamic fundamentalism; terrorism as a daily occurrence; warring factions; independent states; Orwellian levels of state interference, and some rather nifty technologies like stealth copters. Flashback is a highly addictive, inhalation drug which allows the user to tap in to their own memories and re-live them in crystal clear clarity. For Nick, this means constantly revisiting a happier time when his wife was alive, six years ago (that isn't a spoiler) and before the birth of their son (now a wayward, estranged teen).
At the start of the book, Nick is hired by an outrageously rich Japanese man (in the book, Japan has become one of the predominant powers in the world) to find the person who killed his son six years ago. Nick was a policeman during the original investigation, which turned up no leads and, since that time, Nick has fallen deeper in to Flashback usage. But he takes the job, in order to get more Flashback (so he can see his wife). The Japanese businessman re-hires him because Nick is the only person to have seen all of the police documents relating to the case. Nick therefore has been hired to use flashback so he can re-read the police reports of the original investigation, because they have since been destroyed by a computer virus, find new leads and solve the case. (And along for the ride is his Japanese minder, Sato, so, narratively, Nick has someone to bounce ideas off.) As well as this, there are parallel stories of Val, Nick's estranged son, and Val's father in law, an emeritus professor, who is Val's guardian.
Now, much of the writing is good. In fact, Simmons has a knack for an action sequence and a good sense of character. His imagery can often be vivid and quite startling. But just as you are getting immersed in this world, Simmons strides in and smears a right wing diatribe all across the page, pulling you from the action and questioning the whole purpose of the book.
This reeks of one man's fear of Islam. The Caliphate has taken over the world, essentially because America and the West were too conciliatory to Islam in the early 21st century. Different cultures live among each other here, but loathe one another. it isn't made clear why racism is so prevalent, or why Nick continues to mock Japanese pronunciation (totally cringe worthy). Obama is basically to blame for the emasculation of America. The US is being invaded by a huge variety of countries. it is no longer the power it once was. Simmons is using this near future tale to highlight the dangers of Islam; to suggest attacking it is better than making peace; that we simply cannot let America be 'turned.' I don't have a problem with people having strong opinions about politics, or war, or religion, but sections here smack of a flag waving, gun toting patriot rallying the troops.
The basic plot line is interesting: it has the ingredients for a film noir-ish investigative thriller. The basic premise is a little derivative (Minority Report meets Strange Days) but there are some great, inventive twists and sequences, and his prose is so very readable. But these points don't save the book or disguise the ugliness.
I'd love to think that he wrote this book in order to spark debate about the role of religion in society, or to make a comment on technology vs religion- but i fear this is just a bit of Islamaphobia disguised as a novel- and that is hard to ignore when you're trying to enjoy what is supposed to be a thrilling story...