Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter of Reading #1: Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

The Winter of Reading Series is one part commentary and one part analysis. Each post includes both a review of a book that I've recently read and, perhaps more importantly, the positive and negative aspects of the writing and the story within. The goal of this series is to learn lessons that will help make myself, and anyone reading this, a better writer and storyteller! Enjoy...

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

Flashforward is a near-future science-fiction tale that blends the human stories of authors like Asimov and Philip K. Dick with high-concept science and philosophical dialogue. It is the first novel that I've read of Sawyer's, who is a very successful and well-known Canadian sci-fi writer, so I was eager to give him a try. I had also heard of the recent TV series, also called Flashforward and based on the concepts in the book, and so I already had a basic idea of the premise. Read on to hear my verdict...

What would you do if you had a 2 minute preview of your future? What would that insight mean for you in the present day? Whether good news (a successful career, an unexpected relationship) or bad (a broken marriage, your own death), how will this information change how you act today? Should you take it as fact, as a future that is set in stone, as the main character, Lloyd Simcoe does? Or is the future whatever you make of it, free to bend and change according to your free will? And what if this future insight wasn't just given to you - but to everyone else on the planet?

I could go on forever! And that's what was most intriguing about this novel: the philosophical ideas, questions, and dialogue that the premise brings up - and which every single human being in the story struggles to deal with - really captures your imagination. It makes you think about what you would do given information about your future, and how you would let that influence your life. Is that information a gift? A curse? Or does it even matter at all? Whether the future is set or not becomes one of the key storyline threads of the novel. And although time-travel conundrums and psychic insight have been a part of many stories, never have I read a story in which that future insight affects everyone on the planet.

If there's one thing that this story lacked, it's tension. Philosophy and human relationships aside, you never truly feel like the characters in the story are in any real danger because of the Fastforward, or that the insight into the future has significantly changed the course, safety, or trajectories of their current, present lives. It is not until the final chapters of the book, when the story jumps ahead 20 years into the future and one of the main characters tries to avert his foretold murder, do things really get interesting - but by then, it's too late. The TV Series - which diverges significantly from the setting of the book - at least builds tension from the start by making the source of the Flashforward a mystery and putting the cast in constant danger, which ends up working very well.

Key Positives:
+ Strong premise that puts a unique spin on a familiar concept - and fully explores every side and possible outcome of such a scenario
+ The range and variety of characters provides a cast that everyone can relate and connect with, without including too many characters
+ The level of science and knowledge that is sprinkled throughout is very interesting as well (everything from the history of the Large Hadron Collider to Quantum Physics), and never out of place

Key Negatives:
- Lack of tension throughout the novel (except in the final chapters) meant that it was wholly reliant on the reader's interest in the concept to keep the pages turning
- There was also a lack of action - too much of the text was focused on somewhat dry descriptions (and often, discussions), rather than things that were actually happening
- Many of the threads, ideas, and storylines that were introduced in the first half seem unresolved by the end - other than the murder plot, no other character's story comes to a satisfying resolution

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