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FlashForward
Robert J. Sawyer
Gollancz, 320 pages

FlashForward
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won several Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula and Hominids won the Hugo for best novel. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: WWW: Wake
SF Site Review: Mindscan
SF Site Review: Relativity
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hybrids
SF Site Review: Hominids
SF Site Review: Flashforward
SF Site Review: Frameshift
SF Site Review: Calculating God
SF Site Review: Factoring Humanity
SF Site Review: Illegal Alien
SF Site Review: Frameshift

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kit O'Connell

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When a book is re-released as a tie-in (showing not the original cover artwork but a teaser for a TV series or movie), it all but guarantees that readers will compare the book to the new work inspired by it. When FlashForward by Robert J. Sawyer arrived in my mailbox, I was especially eager to accept the cover's invitation to read "the novel behind the hit new TV series." I watched much of the recent television series FlashForward (currently on hiatus). I found the concept behind the series as intriguing as I found the execution maddening. As a writer myself, there is little more frustrating than seeing a brilliant concept wasted.

What did I find so intriguing? Both versions concern a unique large-scale disaster: two minutes when every human being on Earth simultaneously falls unconscious. Obviously, there is immediate devastation as millions die from falling, car crashes, botched surgery, and so on. Beyond setting up an intriguing science-fictional disaster scenario, however, Sawyer added another twist: those who survive awaken with a vision of their own future (in a shared human vision of a moment either six months or thirty years ahead, depending on whether you're watching TV or reading the book). Not only must those who remain bury their dead and heal their injured, they also have to deal with a profound metaphysical shock, one that raises complex issues of free will and temporal logic. Not only that, but a portion see nothing at all, implying they will be dead by the time the day of the visions arrives.

What I found incredibly frustrating about FlashForward, the television series, was the way it took this fantastic concept and buried it in a slightly futuristic procedural police drama about the brave FBI agents who investigate the crisis. The initial twenty minutes of the show -- along with occasional other sequences such as a slow-motion set piece accompanied by Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" playing on a victim's headphones -- did a fantastic job of depicting the devastation such an event would cause. All too often, however, the FlashForward is relegated to the background, depicted merely as a few damaged buildings (just how many planes would really hit metropolitan skyscrapers in two minutes of unconsciousness?) while the characters played out uninteresting personal drama. Even worse, the deeper metaphysical issues of what it means to see the future were rarely played out to their full potential.

Perhaps it's to be expected, but the two versions of the story have almost diametrically opposed strengths. I actually found the initial moments of the disaster poorly executed in Sawyer's book. The action felt either campy or too distant, by turns. In what seems like mere moments after the FlashForward itself, two of the main characters (scientists Lloyd and Michiko) are able take a stroll to the nearby school attended by Michiko's daughter without much incident in their travels. The first part also suffered by being the most dated portion of the book: it seemed like characters spent far too much time struggling with VCRs and fax machines.

But Robert J. Sawyer's FlashForward excels in bringing us into the philosophical sides of the disaster's aftermath. Characters feel far more real than their television counterparts; we follow a number of scientists working at CERN's Large Hardron Supercollider as they attempt to simultaneously understand their own role in the event as well as their own visions of the future. Many of these conflicts are reproduced on television (with more photogenic FBI agents and doctors replacing scientists) but are populated by such stock characters that we never learn to care about them. Not so with the book, where I genuinely wanted to see the nerdy scientists become happy and successful.

Despite being a static work of fiction, there are vivid moments which linger with me. Images of an entire world at rest while attempting to deliberately recreate the FlashForward event are haunting and unique. An action sequence late in the novel involving a middle-aged Nobel laureate, a terrorist, a bomb and some hovercrafts was every bit as harrowing to read as anything I've watched recently. We receive tantalizing glimpses of a future three decades hence and much of it is compelling.

In fact I'm not sure how I feel about the book's third and final FlashForward attempt (and the second deliberate one). Sawyer's speculative near-future was interesting and I wanted to see more of it. What we're given instead is thought-provoking in its own way, but also takes the story in an unexpected and (perhaps for some) unsatisfying direction. I was also unsure how I felt about the way the book handles mechanical and electronic recordings of the event, during which all cameras and instruments cease to function without a human consciousness to observe them; I understand how Sawyer used quantum physics to make this argument but the TV show had some damn cool footage of the unconscious masses that are lacking from the book as a consequence.

Although uneven, the book was a more rewarding experience for me than the television series. If you enjoyed FlashForward on television, you should probably read the book as it delves far more deeply into many of the issues raised by its core concept. If you were frustrated by the TV show as I was, then Robert J. Sawyer's FlashForward will probably come as a welcome relief in its far more successful exploration of the implications of a shared vision of the future.

Copyright © 2010 Kit O'Connell

Kit O'Connell is a writer, geek and Voluptuary living in Houston, Texas. Kit's poetry has appeared in Aberrant Dreams and Oysters and Chocolate. He can be found online at approximately 8,000 words, his homepage.


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