Book Review: Flashforward (1999)


I was first exposed to Flashforward as a TV series being rerun.  I didn’t recall having heard of it before, but the premise was intriguing.  The first episode immediately hooked me with a city-wide event causing everyone to black out at the same time.  Characters frantically trying to rescue motorists, planes going down, surgeons collapsing onto their wide-open patients – these things tend to grab the attention.

The scope escalated quickly. The event was quickly determined to be world-wide rather than city-wide, and it was discovered that somehow everyone in the world had a vision of a moment of their own future.  Every person saw the same day and time a few months away. The list of questions expanded rapidly from “What happened?” to include “Will it happen again,” “Can we stop it,” and “How do we prepare,” as well as, for those who saw an unhappy future or even no future at all because they would be dead by that day, “Is the future immutable?”   

Unfortunately, the series had its issues – such as life returning to normal nearly immediately after all of the chaos and death and being incredibly narrowly focused overall, only showing the visions of a small group and their reactions rather than a broad picture of the world. It ended abruptly:  The original cause was, if not understood, at least possible to stop. The attempt to prevent it failed, though, and a second event occurred, causing people to glimpse a moment years into the future this time.  That was the season finale, and the contract was not renewed. But, despite its problems, the premise was brilliant.

The opening credits referenced the book, written by Robert J. Sawyer, and I immediately added it to my list.  I’m not going to talk about how long it took me to get to it, but I did read it over the summer.

My initial impressions were good, but tempered.  I generally dislike an opening that has a lot of description (telling rather than showing), even if I understand the desire to set the scene before the action starts.  But despite my initial misgivings, it won me over quickly.  The book, too, opens with a scene of everyone passing out, though in this case it’s inside a secured scientific facility and the news of catastrophic events takes time to filter in.  What I really loved, though, was the description of the visions as the character being inside their own body but unable to control it.  All of the senses were active, so people could feel, smell, and taste, but they couldn’t direct what they were doing.  This was something television couldn’t show.

I really enjoyed the bulk of the book.  There were definitely differences from the series.  The show had added an epidemic of ravens or crows that had fallen from the sky during the first event, a conspiracy to hide the cause and create these events for some kind of financial gain, and a few people who had remained conscious through it.  Unfortunately, the series never entirely reached explanations for those effects, and they were not part of the book, so I’ll never know those answers.  It had also changed around many characters and drastically shortened the period between the event and the date seen in the visions.

The book, however, gave insight into character reactions, including the guilt of a main character who worried that he might have caused the event (and thus thousands of deaths) and the desperate need of some to find answers for their visions or understand what happened. One plot point involved the anger of a man who lost his wife in the first event and believed that if he could stop a second one, planned for the exact time of the visions, the first one could never have happened because the two events would no longer be connected – and therefore his wife would still be alive.

It also gave a bigger overview of the world’s reaction as people tried to identify and contact people they had seen in their visions for one reason or another.  Eventually, this led to a piecing together of a picture of the future world, which was just as reported on, if not more so, than current events.  Sawyer considered things such as how people would react if they knew who would be president in the future, what kind of financial decisions would be made if people knew about future trends, whether people who were engaged would get married knowing they would be divorced, and problems with trauma to children who saw themselves working in future careers that dealt with unpleasant situations.  One person became extremely religious because he saw in his vision that he would become extremely religious, while another was absolutely determined that his future could not be true.

There were definitely things I didn’t like, of course.  The first was a reference to a “Windows 2009 three-dimensional desktop,” which I found threw me out of the story for a moment.  I took a lesson from this that, when creating a story dealing with a relatively close present and a more distant future (if I were ever to write such a thing), it is better to leave those types of projections out of the present and only add them for the future. There were one or two things that felt logically inconsistent, but they were small and I’m willing to ascribe them to errors in my own memory.

The big negative for me was the ending.  To have the main character granted a form of immortality by an unassuming, if wealthy, businessman who appeared in the story only briefly in earlier chapters was off-putting.   It didn’t feel connected to the original story. I think it was just too much to introduce such a large plot element so late in the timeline. It also almost felt unresolved.  Since the circumstances of the event could not be replicated a third time, the event just settled into history.  It seemed anti-climactic for the people of Sawyer’s world, too – the vast majority of people alive at the time of the second event (carefully and extensively publicized for safety) would not be alive as far into the future as the visions showed, so they simply passed out for a few moments and saw nothing. My reaction is similar to the response I have to many horror movies, really. The build up is so large and interesting that the explanation for the events can’t seem to live up to the expectation that’s been created.

Overall, though, the book kept me reading. It was able to answer the questions about what happened, whether it could happen again and how to prepare, and whether the future was immutable, which the series did not do (though perhaps would have with more time).  It personalized the story, but also included a world view of the fallout such an event would have on everyday lives, and it was fascinating to see how carefully the author had considered those effects. I find the premise even more brilliant for the wider descriptions. I don’t know that it necessarily ranks on my list of favorites, but it was a fun read and I learned from it.

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