Review of Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer
by Robert J. Sawyer
I do not believe in free will. But more on that later.
Flashforward is in every way what you'd expect from a story about glimpsing the future. It raises questions about free will, determinism, and the nature of consciousness and time itself. However, Robert J. Sawyer has gone one step further and added to that a humbling sense of moral responsibility. The flashforwards are a global event experienced by all of humanity, but were caused by a human experiment and ended up causing, in turn, damage and extensive loss of life.
I suspect that Flashforward will always have special significance for me. Firstly, it was written in 1999 but set in 2009. Sawyer makes several guesses about future facts, products, and fashions, many of which turn out inaccurate ("no on under thirty wears blue jeans anymore" and the "Windows 2009 three dimensional desktop" are my favourites). If you take a step back, it's kind of meta, in a way. Sawyer's writing a book about seeing the future that's set in the future, so he's essentially envisioning the future in order to do this. And since we didn't experience a flashforward to 2009 ten years ago, he has an excuse for getting some of the details wrong. Secondly, Flashforward features a real life particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that was supposed to be fully operational this year.
Various setbacks mean that the LHC, while it has conducted some proton collisions and is officially the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, hasn't yet conducted the experiments designed to detect the Higgs boson. However, that is one of the primary reasons for constructing the LHC, and Sawyer gets that part of the science right. It's far better than a certain book's abuse of creative license. By no means does this mean that the LHC's lead nuclei collisions will cause a flashforward, so don't grab your protest signs just yet….
Indeed, one reason I so admire Sawyer's work is his ability to incorporate real, cutting-edge physics into his stories in a believable manner. And I appreciate his attempts to educate his readers about physics. It's books like Flashforward that make physics accessible, and so they should be commended. Of course, such books run the risk of becoming too didactic, and unfortunately, there are moments in Flashforward where the plot grinds to a noticeable halt as Sawyer explains physics, using his characters as flimsy mouthpieces for various theories.
Ultimately, the book never does make up its mind about what sort of universe we occupy. We just get theories. Which, I suppose, is fair enough—we'll probably never know the answer in reality. Still, one of the benefits of fiction is that it can be more certain than reality. Sawyer presents the "block universe" eternalist model as the "accepted" model of the flow of time by physics, when it isn't the consensus, but then goes and demonstrates that the future is not fixed by killing off a character who's supposed to be alive during the flashforwards. That is, unquestionably, the central aspect of this premise, and I'm not sure Flashforward deals with it adequately.
Me? I don't believe we have free will, but I don't think the universe is deterministic either. Rather, my consciousness is, at its most fundamental level, the result of interactions among subatomic particles, which obey probabilistic models of quantum mechanics. So the universe is random, as is my consciousness, but my thoughts and behaviour are just the result of this randomness. Not that it matters; for all practical purposes, we need the illusion of free will since there's no way to predict the future, as the future is not fixed.
If you can forgive the book for its somewhat heavyhanded but indecisive approach to the physics behind the plot, then you're in for a treat for most of the story. There's genuine and worthy conflict in here, beneath the layers of exposition. Lloyd Simcoe and his fiancée have to decide whether to go through with their marriage even though his flashforward shows him married to another woman. Lloyd's partner, Theo, is distraught that he had no flashforward, and when he learns he's going to be killed mere days before the events depicted in the flashforwards, he sets off on an investigation into his yet-uncommitted murder. Everyone begins to realize that they're in danger of putting the present on hold because of what they saw (or didn't see) in the future.
This is corroborated by the twenty-one year jump at the end of the book, taking us to the year seen in the original flashforwards. And it's this part of the book, more so even than the heavy exposition earlier on, that I suspect will rankle people. Sawyer begins to summarize the events of the lives of the characters in the twenty-one years since we saw them, and it's tedious. It's as if he spent the entire novel building up to this point but had no idea how to end it properly, so the last part feels hastily written and tacked on to the end as an afterthought. I'm sure that's not the case, but the fact that it reads as such is bad enough.
Consequently, I didn't find the ending satisfactory; it almost cheats all of the suspense created by the first flashforward by skipping over the climax and going straight to the resolution. There's a little bit of a posthuman, entropic perspective jammed into the last chapters that I found incongruous with the rest of the story.
There's a lot to like about Flashforward. Sawyer writes with a very wry tone, including tongue-in-cheek stories about what people saw in their flashforward that pertains to real-world companies and events. And it makes you think more about physics and philosophy and the implication of the search for scientific progress. Still, as I focused on for most of the review, Flashforward has serious flaws. Sawyer has done much better, so I don't recommend this as a first book to anyone new to his work. For Sawyer fans, it's probably a "must read", but it won't be "most memorable".