Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer: C-

It’s possible that this review contains spoilers for FlashForward the TV show, but unless the show plans to alienate viewers by being really, really boring, I rather doubt it. Still, proceed at your own risk.

flashforwardFrom the back cover:
A scientific experiment begins, and as the button is pressed, the unexpected occurs: everyone in the world goes to sleep for a few moments while everyone’s consciousness is catapulted more than twenty years into the future. At the end of these moments, when the world reawakens, all human life is transformed by foreknowledge.

Was that shocking revelation a peek at the real, unalterable future, or was it only one of many possible futures? What happens when a man tries to change it, like the doctor who has twenty years to try to prevent his own murder? How will the foreknowledge of a part of “then” affect the experience of the “now”?

I expect that this book is seeing a resurgence right now, with people curious to see how it compares to the action-packed show that began airing on ABC this fall. Actually, though, there’s not much similarity between the two properties. The TV show retains the basic idea of a phenomenon that causes all of humanity to catch a glimpse of their future, a character who sees nothing at all and begins investigating his own murder, and the name Lloyd Simcoe, though it’s (seemingly) been applied to a very different man. All of the rest—the myriad debates on theoretical physics, lengthy and detailed descriptions of scientific research facilities, the questions of culpability—has been expunged, and it’s a decision I fully support.

I am far from knowledgable about science, so you won’t get any arguments from me on the feasibility of events and their explanations as they appear in the novel. Even if the science is dodgy, I accept it as poetic license necessary to get the protagonists to ponder certain questions. On one topic I do feel qualified to call foul, however, and that’s the deplorably facile depiction of relationships. I’ll give you an example. Lloyd’s fiancée, Michiko, has a daughter who is killed when the flashforward occurs. Never do we actually see Lloyd experiencing grief. No, he just thinks a lot about how much he loved and how grieved he is to lose “little Tamiko.” He never simply calls her by name; it’s always “little Tamiko.” Funny how adding one word can make a person sound so insincere.

Which leads me into my second gripe: the author seems to have a disdain for non-beautiful women. At first, I thought it was just Lloyd. In his vision twenty years hence, he’s lounging in bed with a woman in her sixties. His 45-year-old consciousness immediately dubs her a “hag” for having had the temerity to age and later, he describes the gait of a heavyset woman as a “waddle.” A couple of other guys eventually get in on the act, though, with one describing a young woman’s 40-year-old future self as “hardly a hag” (as if it were possible for a 40-year-old woman to be one!), which he intends as a compliment, and another insulting older women again with the term “crone.” The one female character of any significance, Michiko, is beautiful and allegedly brilliant, though we never see her actually do anything brilliant. Instead she cries a lot and tries to convince Lloyd to marry her even though his vision shows him with someone else.

About the one part of the novel that’s genuinely interesting is the investigation into a murder that hasn’t happened yet. It’s not that Theo, the scientist who didn’t see a vision, is a particularly compelling character, but that the dash of mystery provides welcome respite from dry technobabble and Lloyd’s point-of-view. Unfortunately, the dead weight of the rest of the novel begins to drag even this storyline down and somehow manages to make what should be an exciting moment—a chase scene involving guns, bombs, and hovercarts—into an interminable scene of excruciating dullness.

All of the various plot threads wrap up neatly at the end, and I won’t spoil it by revealing how or why the flashforward occurred. I will say, though, that I will be very, very surprised (and also very bored) if the TV show uses the explanation given in the book. If all the science bored even a nerd like me, it’s definitely not going to play well with the American public at large.

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