“Flashback” by Dan Simmons (Reagan Arthur, 2011)

Flashback
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It seems like the bestselling and award winner author, Dan Simmons, used up a lot of his talent and ability with the truly fantastic The Terror, and almost as good Drood, and in the meantime has been publishing sub-par work that fans and readers of his have come to expect to be otherwise.  Black Hills was an atrocious story that seemed to get lost in itself; while Flashback is a definite improvement on its predecessor, yet it still has a lot to be desired as a science fiction novel, especially when coming from the mind of such a talented author.

In Flashback, the United States is on the brink of collapse, but the citizens of America don’t care because 87% of them are addicted to a drug known as “flashback,” that when taken allows users to travel back into their past and memories and live specific moments over and over in excruciating detail, to the point where it is almost as if the memory were reality.  Nick Bottom used to be a detective, a good one, and then his wife was killed in a car crash, and now he’s been fired and is addicted to flashback like so many others, reliving moments with the love of his life.  But Bottom was a good cop and one rich man knows that, and is employing him one last time to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor’s son, because Bottom remembers the time of the murder and will need to use flashback to remember some important details to see if he can find out just who this murderer is.

While Flashback seems like a vaguely interesting science fiction premise, and Simmons tries for a quasi-noire story in down and out Nick Bottom, the big problem is that this storyline and construct has been done and overdone in some way or shape or form numerous time in the genre and through various mediums: William Gibson did it with Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson did it with Snow Crash, Phillip K. Dick did it with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made renowned by the movie version, Blade Runner), Richard K. Morgan is another author who uses this construct.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a distracting obstruction if Flashback was written by a middling author, or even a new one; but to have it written by a man whom many have come to expect truly great and original and astounding novels from . . . it leaves one feeling disappointed to say the least.  Here’s hoping Simmons novel in 2012, whatever it might be, is a big improvement, or the man may begin dropping fans like a person suffering severe leprosy drops digits and eventual limbs.

Originally written on September 21, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Black Hills” by Dan Simmons (Reagan Arthur, 2010)

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In 2008, at a signing for Dan Simmons’ last incredible tome, Drood – as well as in an interview for BookBanter – the bestselling and award-winning author talked about his next novel in progress: the story about a young Native American boy, Paha Sapa, who is possessed by the spirit and soul of General Custer, who recently expired at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.  It was a very unique sounding story, which is what Simmons does best, but I was certainly hesitant about the novel it would become, Black Hills.  Sadly after the pinnacle of his writing with The Terror, Black Hills is a mediocre at best novel that Simmons clearly put a lot of work into, but at the end leaves the reader thinking: “Is that it?”

The story begins with 10-year-old Paha Sapa visiting the battle ground of Little Big Horn, after the fighting.  He comes upon a man lying on the ground; as he investigates, a cloud form of the man’s spirit/soul enters his body.  Dan Simmons has done his research on Native American ways and culture, as Paha Sapa prepares himself to become a man.  His name means Black Hills, named for the specific hills of South Dakota.  The story then jumps to 1936 when Paha Sapa is an old man, in his seventies, working on the building and sculpting of Mount Rushmore.  Paha Sapa’s specific job is demolitions, strategically placing the dynamite to blast the rock.  But he considers the building of Rushmore a great insult to his people and his country, and with President Roosevelt scheduled to make a visit in the near future, Paha Sapa has his own celebratory explosion planned.

Black Hills jumps back and forth in time with Paha Sapa’s growth as a boy in becoming a man, and then his slow, meticulous planning of the catastrophic explosion of Rushmore as he continues to work on the historical site.  At the very end of the book, as the reader is left wondering why things happened the way they did, Simmons launches into a lengthy ethereal commentary about protecting and respecting this land and this world, which simply comes out of nowhere.

Simmons does what he does best with Black Hills: some interesting characters, strong description, good writing; but the story and plot are lacking in development, depth and interest that his other novels always possess.  Black Hills is simply not a book for everyone: new readers may enjoy it, some Simmons fans may also, but this reviewer found it to be a weak novel from one of the best writers writing today.

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Originally written on May 19 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Drood” by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

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Our Mutual Friend was the last book that Charles Dickens wrote “THE END” to and published.  On June 9th, 1865, Dickens was on a train journey with his mistress.  A section of track over an upcoming bridge was missing, but the warning to stop the train hadn’t been set far enough away, and at this time for a train to make an emergency stop it was required to pull the emergency break on each car.  It was a catastrophic and devastating accident, like that of a horrific plane crash.  Most of the cars were destroyed, almost all the passengers killed or horribly injured.  The only first class car to make it in one piece was Dickens’ car.  He survived, going back into the train that was hanging off a the edge of the bridge to get his coat which contained his latest chapters for Our Mutual Friend.  Almost five years later, to the day, Charles Dickens died.  It was after this incident, known as the “Staplehurst disaster” – where Dickens could never travel comfortably again, fearing for his life – that the author began his obsession with death, the mysterious, the macabre, and the paranormal.  He began the most strenuous and exhausting series of readings of his life, which almost killed him.  He also began work on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last book which he never completed, but remains to this day one of the few mysteries which has never been solved.

Wilkie Collins, a fellow writer and good friend to Dickens in the last years of his life, is the unreliable narrator in Drood.  On the outside, Collins reveals himself as a caring and dutiful friend to Dickens, but he hides many secrets: his addiction to laudanum, consuming glasses of it each day while others take only drops; as well as to morphine and opium.  He suffers from rheumatic gout, which affects most in a specific area, but in Collins’ case he suffers the agony throughout his body and especially in his head, often rendering him helpless with pain.  It is through this drug-addled mind that we see Victorian England and the last years of Dickens’ life.  Collins has also been visited throughout his life by another version of himself who he communicates with and when unable to write, hands over his pen to this doppelganger; as well as a tusked creature that he fears.  Wilkie Collins is clearly not of sound mind.

Then there is the character Drood, dressed in black hat and black opera cape.  First seen by Dickens while searching for survivors at the Staplehurst disaster; yet each person that Drood attends to mysteriously dies.  He lives within the deepest bowels of London, in the Undertown.  Beneath the stench and horrors of Dickensian London exist nightmares never dreamed of, and it is here that Dickens goes to visit Drood, joined by Collins.  Simmons doesn’t hold back with the vivid detail of this world, shocking and disgusting the reader, but forcing them to unstoppably turn the page and keep reading.

The story continues, balancing the literary world as Collins writes and publishes his books, while Dickens performs his exhausting readings; then there is the growing mystery of Drood and his recently acquired acolytes who bare the same haunting, macabre visage which terrifies Collins.  And yet to satisfy his opium addiction, Collins must travel each week into the Undertown to receive the necessary drug.

Simmons does another incredible job with his new book, after the success of The Terror, creating a complete and detail-filled world as seen through the eyes and addled mind of this unique character.  Weighing in at over 777 pages, it is a heavy tome that could continue on and never end.  Drood is a special book that will stay long in the mind and thoughts of the reader, long after the last page has been turned, as he or she contemplates the meaning of Drood and what Dickens was really trying to do with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 23rd 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Dan Simmons check out BookBanter Episode 4.