Fiction Reviews


(1999/2009) Robert J. Sawyer, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 319 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09101-6

This is the original 1999 novel on which the TV series (2009) is loosely based. It is also the first time to my knowledge that this novel has been published in the British Isles.

At the moment probably most of you are more familiar with the TV series, which as I write (autumn 2009) has barely started its first season's run. So you need to know that there are some fundamental differences between the TV series and this, the original novel, though the basic premise is the same.

The novel begins with one of those SF predictions that actually come true, in that the opening scene is CERN set in 2009 (coincidentally this year) and they are about to try a high energy experiment for the first time. Now remember that Rob was writing this back in 1998 (for 1999 publication) and somehow he picked the year 2009 for which CERN was due to run a major particle collider experiment as part of the search for the Higgs boson. You may recall that in reality the collider was due to fire up in 2008 but that a malfunction postponed this to 2009 so bringing our reality in line with Sawyer's fiction.   If this 10-year prediction was not enough Robert Sawyer goes on to predict the current (2009) Pope's name: he correctly predicted what name the next pontiff would take!

Meanwhile, back to the plot at CERN mission control…   Then as the experiment fires up everyone seems to blackout but with visions of the future 21 years later… All this happens within the first 50 pages of the book, so none of the afore constitutes a spoiler.

Soon after it becomes apparent that the 'flashforward' incident was global, though the exact cause is in doubt. The implications of the flashforward soon start to be discussed. The 'Mosaic' project is set up to correlate people's visions so as to try to produce a coherent forecast of the future. One character (a CERN scientist) who does not have any visions of the future realises that he must be dead in 21 years time and finds out (through someone's vision of reading the story in a future paper) that he was (or is going to be) murdered and so he sets out to see if he can find out who is his killer-to-be.

Though Sawyer has filled out his novel, as is usual with his books, with characters of different backgrounds in different circumstances, they are presented in a matter-of-fact way. It is these backgrounds and circumstances that define the characters and not what they say and the novel's narrative drive: you very much read a Sawyer novel for the story and concepts and not the writing. Not that there is nothing wrong with that; Sawyer does good old-fashioned adventure but with established and new SF tropes all covered with a veneer of genuine science for cred value.

Sawyer's story soon sees considerable discussion of the nature of the Universe (single or multiple possible futures), free will and the related science. This last (again as is typical with Sawyer) is well researched and the plot's pace is brisk. There are also numerous throwaway ideas with some chapters headed up by three or four disparate media clips such as: lawyers have a boom trade due to people re-writing their wills; a record number of patents are applied for due to people getting ideas from their visions of the future; and the Vatican reserving judgement as to whether the flashforward classifies as an official miracle!

By now you will realise that there are marked difference between the Sawyer novel and the 2009 TV series of the same name. Yes, the basic premise (an artificially induced, global flashforward takes place) is there in the series, also a project mosaic is set up to try to piece together a picture of the future, and one of the young characters does not have a vision so suspects he will be killed. But there the similarities end. In the TV series the protagonists are FBI agents (not CERN researchers), the flashforward is of 6 months (not 21 years) hence, CCTV was still working during the flashforward showing someone still walking about (not showing just static). And, as is all to often with TV series, the story arc is dragged out to maximise the number of programme episodes hence income for the makers (and so does not have the pace of Robert Sawyer's story-telling). I am not sure I like TV producers mucking about with books, taking liberties to such a degree. Having said that there is no way that Sawyer's 307 page novel could stretch to a 13 part series let alone a few seasons (as is planned): though a four- or six-part miniseries could well have been made to work.

The other thing you need to know about Sawyer's novels is that often there is a puzzle for the reader to solve. Indeed there is in this novel with the game of guess-the-potential-killer. Now detective stories vary and with some – such as Agatha Christie – it is almost impossible to guess who dunnit but you marvel when it is revealed as to the crime's ingenuity. With Columbo you know who does it but it is how the detective will find a flaw in the killer's alibi that is the draw. With Sawyer you can work out who the killer is long before the book's end which itself has a nice little twist but the joy here is finding out whether or not you can pick up early on on a number of potential outcomes within the logic of Sawyer's SFnal set-up and then narrow these down.

So there you have it. For me Sawyer's writing comes very much in the category of light reading and I do at times wish that he was more gifted, rather than functional, with words. I say this, not because I have a problem with light reads but because I find that many of Sawyer's novels have excellent SFnal premises with enough solid science research to give his fiction a sound, hard SF edge, of such a quality that it is just not matched by his more pedestrian prose. Yet I find his sense-of-wonder and his ability to create an adventure a little addictive. So if you enjoy briskly-paced, light reads that has a good (if not excellent) use of SFnal tropes, and all lubricated with a dollop of science, then Flashforward (as with many of his other novels) could well be your cup of tea.

Jonathan Cowie

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