Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Reader's Disillusionment

I am a big Dan Simmons fan. Or, I was, anyway. His Hyperion Cantos series is one of the greatest sci-fi epics of the nineties. More recently, I have been blown away by Drood an historical fantasy based on the final days of Charles Dickens. All of his books are rich and smart and literary. I recommend them to my friends all the time. As a devoted fan, then, I was excited when, while browsing the library stacks, I stumbled across Flashback, a newer sci-fi work of Simmons that I had somehow missed. I took it home, naively eager to devour it.

Flashback is a near future dystopian novel which describes a devastated United States. Most of the population is addicted to a drug called flashback which allows its users to fully re-experience moments from their past. The economy is completely ruined and the country has mostly handed administrative control over to Japanese "advisors." Both Texas and the city of Boulder, CO have seceded from the union and function as separate nations. New Mexico is mostly a wasteland patrolled by criminals. Terrorists set off bombs wherever they can. All is chaos. Nick Bottom, a former Denver police officer and current flashback addict is called in to help solve the grisly murder of a Japanese advisor's son. Nick agrees to take the job but only for the money. He needs to buy more flashback so he can spend time with his deceased wife, the tragic victim of a car wreck. But Nick slowly gets drawn into the case as he discovers it may be related to his wife's death.

Like all of Simmons' novels, the story is well put together. Nick is a classic noir detective who must not only solve the crime but also come to understand his client's interest in him. He is a deeply flawed creature who grows more likeable with each passing page. The sci-fi elements are cleverly woven in. By the end, the book's manipulation of reality rivals that in the best Philip K. Dick novels.

Still, about a quarter of the way in to the novel, I started to have an uneasy feeling as an agenda revealed itself. This horrid national nightmare, it seems, is All Obama's Fault, as the characters explain in long awkward political speeches. The entitlement programs like healthcare that Obama pushed for in his first term lead directly to national bankruptcy. The money dumped into fighting global warming, which turns out to be a hoax, doesn't help. And Obama's "appeasement" of radical Islam only encourages the terrorists and results in more attacks on our own soil.

All the politics hurt the novel, but that's not what bothered me so much. What bothered me is that I discovered, the hard way, that Dan Simmons, to whom I was a devoted fan, harbors a political ideology very unlike my own. His politics, as presented in Flashback at least, are even offensive to me. His economics are based on a misunderstanding of basic principles and the conflation of violent radical Islam with mainstream Islam goes beyond mere insensitivity. I don't even want to talk about the global warming thing. I felt, in short, betrayed. How could someone I thought so intelligent and well-informed be so wrong politically?

The bigger question was what to do about it, how to respond to this new information. I came up with a few options:
  1. Flee. Break up with the author. Stop being a fan. (Tough to do. I will point out that, offended though I was, I still finished reading Flashback. I disgust myself.)
  2. Self doubt. Maybe it's me, not him. Maybe my politics are the wrong ones and need to be questioned.
  3. Re-examination. Do I need to re-read everything in this new light? Are there hints of this uglier Simmons in the Hyperion Cantos and Drood that I simply failed to see the first time around?
  4. Enabling. Maybe he didn't really mean it. It is fiction, after all, not a manifesto.
  5. Denial. Move on. Stay a fan. Pretend it didn't happen and pray it doesn't happen again.
I'm still processing this one. If you read Flahsback, though, I beg of you, read it for the story, not the politics. In fact, I give you permission to skip to the next paragraph every time you come across a politically charged word like "entitlements." You won't be missing anything important.


Patricia Dolton said...

I have never read anything by Simmons, though Drood seems very interesting & I have been thinking of reading it. I enjoyed reading your review because of the points you bring up about an author's politics & what to do if they differ from you as a reader. I have no answer. I suspect the answer would be different for many. I just wanted to say, "Thank you for being honest."

aquafortis said...

Yes, you bring up some interesting questions about what to do when you find you're disillusioned by an author...I haven't read Simmons, either, but I'm sorry to hear about it. :(

david elzey said...

the question now is, if you went back to the beloved novels you HAVE read would you see the politics there all along just beneath the surface? or is this a new bend for an author who feels they now have an audience and pulpit for their views?

i tend to find life too short to keep reading something i find objectionable simply because its well-done.

Jen Robinson said...

Personally, I'm turned off when any author shoehorns overt political views into their works - you see this a lot in "environmental post-apocalypse" novels. I'm put off because I think that ANY heavy-handed moralizing ruins the story. But I try not to be bothered by whether or not the views are different from mine - I read in part to hear a diversity of perspectives, even when it's hard not to equate different with wrong. But those are my personal soapboxes. I think it's good to think about these kinds of questions. I know a lot of people went through a similar thought process regarding Orson Scott Card's views (though I don't think he has shoved them into his books in this way).

Colleen said...

I'm really surprised his editors let him be so obvious about all this as he is a mainstream author and clearly, this is not a mainstream book. The only Simmons I have read is TERROR and while a lot of folks loved it, I was really bothered by how casually he played with history. Maybe because the events of the Franklin Expedition were so long ago, a lot of reviewers felt fine with the way Simmons wrote about them. To me it seemed too far from the truth and was incredibly cruel to the men of the Erebus & Terror. And man, he plays so hard and fast with Francis Crozier and so many people thought it was an accurate portrayal. It really bothered me.