by Robert J. Sawyer



319pp/$23.95/June 1999

Cover by Drive Communications

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

When science-fiction authors want to tackle the questions of historical determinism and free will, they frequently do so by turning their attention to alternate history. In Flashforward, Robert J. Sawyer has decided to look the other direction for his starting point. In 2009, a freak occurrence permits the entire population of Earth to suddenly see a two-minute period of time in their own lives which won’t occur for another twenty-one years. At the end of the two minutes, people return to their own normal consciousness and a state of world-wide emergency.

Sawyer spends the first part of the novel exploring not what happened, but how people reacted to the event. While many people were grateful for their glimpse at their own future, others were disheartened to discover that they would not achieve their desires within the next two decades. The two CERN scientists who believe that their experiment precipitated the event react in very different ways. Theo Procopolos discovers that his lack of any vision is due to his future murder and he tries to solve the crime twenty years before it actually happens. His partner, Lloyd Simcoe, is terrified by the thought that the woman he was with in the future is not his current fiancée. Simcoe’s parents had a messy divorce and he has no desire to go through the same experience. To make matters worse, Simcoe’s fiancée’s daughter, Tamiko, was killed during the event by a car which ran out of control.

Simcoe’s reaction is to assume a fatalistic views of the world. By doing so, he is able to assuage his feelings of guilt over Tamiko’s death. At the same time, it makes him despondent over the fact that he knows that in twenty years he will not be with the woman he loves. Without any real evidence, he champions the idea that the future events which were seen can not be changed. Although there are cases of people dying who had visions of themselves, Simcoe points out that there was no confirmation that they really had visions rather than simply claiming to have visions.

Although parts of the novel seem almost Luddite in tone, practically crying out that "there were some things man was not meant to know," Sawyer’s characters never adopt that point of view. Faced with a disaster, they strive to understand why it happened, even going so far as to attempt to repeat their experiment. Although the universe may be a scary place with pitfalls for the unwary, it is important to continue to try to understand how the universe works and why it functions the way it does.

As always, Sawyer’s writing is clear and his characters are fully formed. They interact with the world and each other in realistic ways. Upon learning that he will be killed, Procopolos becomes paranoid of his associates, wondering if his partner would kill him in a fit of professional jealousy, or whether it would be a family member. He attempts to track down anyone who saw his obituary, trying not only to discover who his murderer is, but also to find out whether he married, had kids, or received a Nobel Prize.

Flashforward is a quick read which tackles many philosophical questions about responsibility, causality and human nature.  Although Sawyer provides many answers for his characters, those answers won't necessarily all work for the reader.   Instead, the reader will find themselves considering Sawyer's solutions and thinking about their own opinions long after they've put the book back on the shelf.

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