Nick Bottom, once a detective with the Denver Police Department, once a family man with a wife and young son and a beautiful little house set among greenery and mountain views, has been, for the last half decade, an addict. He, like 85 percent of the rest of the population of what's left of the United States, is addicted to flashback, a drug that allows the user to relive memories exactly, in real time. After his wife died in a fiery car crash Bottom sent his son to live in L.A. with his father-in-law and has spent as much time as he could afford to buy reliving the time he had with his wife.
As wretched a piece of humanity as Nick Bottom is, why would powerful Japanese billionaire Hiroshi Nakamura want to hire him to solve the murder, now a cold case six years gone, of his son? In particular, why would Nakamura want to hire him to solve the case which was Bottom's last case as a detective, a case which he was unable to solve with all the resources of the Denver PD behind him? Whatever the reason (and we won't discover it until far into this 550 page novel), hire him he does, and for a very good price.
After using a large portion of the money he's been paid up front to buy a massive quantity of flashback, Bottom intends to spend as much of the rest of his life as he can immersed in memory, coming up only once every few hours to walk around so that his muscles don't atrophy. He's quickly disabused of this notion by Nakamura's chief of security, Hideki Sato, who's been assigned to accompany Bottom for the duration of the investigation.
The world that Flashback is set in, a future a mere twenty-one years out from our present, is bleak. A large portion of the world--including pockets of the United States--is ruled by the Caliphate, a well-organized group of Islamic extremists from across the Muslim world. The Japanese own much of the rest of the world, and, having shed the restrictions placed upon them after the second World War, are working to rebuild Japanese society according to the ideals of medieval Japan. The remains of the United States (there are 44 states, several having either seceded or been absorbed by other countries), reeling in the twenty-third year of the jobless recovery, hires its armed forces out to other countries to bring in much-needed revenue, but still its cities crumble and fall.
Flashback is set in a dystopian future which reads very much like an ultra-conservative I-told-you-so wet dream. It is unfortunate to a reader of liberal bent that Simmons's contempt for the current administration and its policies is so scathingly obvious, and that he prognosticates such a bleak future for the world based on this contempt. And yet, dammit, he's a brilliant writer. The future he imagines for us, whatever its inception, is perfectly realized and excruciatingly believable.
The story alternates between Nick and Sato traveling the Southwest, often in bad-ass armored vehicles, as they chase down leads, and Nick's father-in-law, Professor Emeritus George Leonard Fox and his son, sixteen year old Val as they flee L.A. in a convoy of independent truckers. The tension is almost unbearable, as each of the small parties is faced with obstacle after life-threatening, seemingly-insurmountable obstacle, and as it seems less and less obvious that they'll ever meet up.
Besides his often gorgeous prose, one of Dan Simmons's most admirable qualities is his ability to write in seemingly every genre ever invented. Flashback has elements of all of those genres, from the hardboiled Joe Kurtz novels through the uber-futuristic world of Hyperion. Throw in fully realized characters, horrifying violence and disregard of humanity, and touching relationships, and you've got a nearly perfect novel. Ultra-conservative global-warming denial, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all.
And oh, it all comes together--the storylines, the investigations, the relationships--in an ending which is absolutely killer.