Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer (ISBN 9780812580341)
It is Tuesday 21 April, 2009 and Dr Lloyd Simcoe is preparing to run an experiment which will result in everyone on the planet blacking out simultaneously….
Right, if you’ve seen the TV series with Jospeh Fiennes then put it out of your mind. The theory is the same but the story is less world conspiracies and more theoretical physics. Now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get on with the review.
Lloyd Simcoe and his research partner Theo Procopides are physicists searching for the elusive Higgs Boson particle by using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The only problem is, when they press the button to start their experiment everyone on the planet blacks out for two minutes. During the blackout billions of people experience visions of their lives 21 years in the future; their Flashforwards. But some people didn’t. Some people like Theo Procopides.
And this sets out the basic, yet brilliant, premise for the story. What would you do if you knew exactly what you would be doing 21 years in the future? What would you do if you knew you were going to be dead then? And is the future set in stone or can it be changed?
Sawyer explores this theme of the immutability of the future through his main characters Lloyd and Theo. Lloyd, who is engaged to fellow scientist Michiko, has his vision showing him in bed married to another woman whilst Theo’s is of nothing due to his forthcoming death two days before the date seen by people in their Flashforwards.
Lloyd’s belief in the fixed nature of the future plays out wonderfully with his relationship with Michiko. Here is the woman that he loves and wants to marry with all his heart and yet his head tells him he will be married to someone else who he hasn’t met yet. The past cannot be changed in Lloyd’s opinion therefore neither can the future. Why get married if you know it isn’t going to be forever?
Twenty-seven year old Theo is not prepared to accept that the future is fixed and desperately searches to find the cause of his death and how he can prevent it. This is the main story for me as it provides a mystery to engage the reader further which delivers action and tension throughout. It becomes an obsession to him, after all it’s his life and death, and there are good reveals as we go along.
Throughout the book there’s lots of moral and political issues around the ethics of what has happened and this is definitely one of those books to spark major debates amongst friends. Weighing the deaths of those killed due to plane crashes and similar during the Flashforward against the advantages of seeing the future is, for me, the most difficult issue to rationalise and yet Sawyer deals with it well. The clever interweaving of positive and negative sub-plots for secondary characters mixed with a good understanding of the political world we live in is the key to making this work.
Sawyer sometimes goes into too much theory around the physics of time but that’s my non-scientifically minded take on it. Someone with a scholarly passion for this field might get more from it. Saying that, it did get me thinking about, and questioning, the laws of physics and the varying theoretical debates interlaced throughout the book.
For me, there is a marvellous section towards the end of the book which goes very Arthur C Clarke by propelling us into a vastly future world. I loved this with it being so vastly different to anything I’d previously envisaged and I’m sure will appeal to the many geeks out there.
Overall, Sawyer has written a great book which makes a complex scientific debate accessible and, more to the point, entertaining. I cared about the characters, I loved the cynicism layered throughout and I knew the future yet still wanted to find out what was going to happen.
4 out of 5
(3 out of 5 if physics is really, really not your thing)
Review by Phil Ambler