Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Flashforward - Robert J. Sawyer

With the TV show airing Sept. 24th at 8pm (or Sept 25th at 8, as ABC has decided to air the premier twice) I decided to read the book. The trailers look amazing. The premise is interesting. So I wondered where the story came from.

The book was originally published in 1999, with the original experiment that is believed to have caused the flashforward happening on April 21st, 2009. It's odd reading a science fiction book, looking to the future, about a future that's just passed. Sort of like reading 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2008 and wondering how humans failed to make all that amazing science come true.

One of the main differences between the book and the show is the time span of the flashforward. In the show it's a mere 6 months in the future that the world glimpses. In the novel it's a little over 20 YEARS. Which caused problems for me. The willingness of people to fundamentally change their lives due to a glimpse of 2 minutes of an (in my opinion) uncertain future 20 YEARS AWAY seemed rather farcical. How can 2 minutes show you enough to tell you your life will be entirely bad/good to the point that you'd need to radically change how you live, etc. now?

*** Minor Spoilers Ahead ***

With a few exceptions. Obviously if you learn that you'll be murdered, as Theo does, you'll want to learn how and by whom. But in general, the number of people going out of their way to affect their futures based on a short glimpse seemed strange. Any number of things could happen to cause those events - and people probably wouldn't consider even a small portion of them (like how you assume you know how a person is about to die in the TV show DEAD LIKE ME and then something totally ridiculous happens that you'd never could have foreseen).

One character commits suicide because he sees himself working at a restaurant in 20 years. That's it. He decides he failed in his dream of becoming a novelist and can't live with that. I was left wondering how that brief glimpse of the future proved he failed. A lot of novelists have day jobs to pay the bills. Getting published is not the same as becoming rich and famous. It seemed that most people came up with one interpretation of their visions and couldn't conceive of any others.

I was also disturbed by the scientist in charge of the experiment's determined belief that the future could not be changed. That whatever people glimpsed, that's what would happen. The idea of free will, of personal accountability, was missing. (On the other hand, I loved the explanation of WHY he was so bent on holding to that viewpoint.)

The ending left me a little bemused at how various characters lives turned out by 2030. Each seemed to get what he/she expected. Those that believed the future was immutable got the futures they saw, those that believed they could affect their futures managed to change them.

In the end, I enjoyed the book more because it made me question my own possible reaction should such an event ever occur than because the book was a scientific possibility regarding our future. In other words, it read more like philosophy than science fiction (though the scientific explanations for the flashforward were based on real science).

Based on what the book managed to do, the TV show has the potential to be a real SF hit.

Check out the official website: http://flashforwardtv.com/ where I got the information about the double airing of the pilot. It also has links to more trailers.


Kirstin said...

Just MHO, but here goes . . .

The guy killed himself because he wasn't successful enough to not have to wait/bus tables. If you knew that's what you'd be doing in 20 years, how would it affect you?

And the part about there being no free will was:

1) delved into by lots of characters

2) firmly rooted in real-world ideas on theoretical physics.

As far as I remember the book, no one changed their futures to be different from their visions. Am I wrong in this?

And the good science fiction is philosophical. You should know that, working in a bookstore. If you don't, then read the Hugo winners and the other top award winners in the field--stat!

Jessica Strider said...

Well, that's the problem with only having one interpretation. Maybe he wasn't working because he wasn't successful. Maybe he was working because he needed to get out of the house once a week and interact with people. Maybe he needed inspiration for a character and so took the job for a month to see what working in a restaurant was like. Maybe he was working that day on a dare because he'd become friends with the owner who said he was 'too high and mighty to work a REAL JOB'. There are lots of reasons someone could be doing something for 2 minutes. Maybe he forgot his wallet that day and needed to work off his tab. Who knows. Deciding that he would be unsuccessful based on such limited information seemed ridiculous. Which is the problem I had.

1)I know lots of characters examined the argument. I focused on Lloyd's explanation as his was the one the other characters based their own on.

2) That may be. I'm not disputing the science, I'm merely surprised that so many people would agree with it. I wouldn't. And that's my problem with the book. The book itself was good. I simply would have acted differently from the characters portrayed. I'm not saying the characters were wrong. People act ways I don't understand/like all the time. This was merely my reaction to the book. I thought more people would ignore the visions considering they would take place too far in the future for them to affect their present.

Theo manages to not get killed by the shooter at the end of the book. And his brother kills himself, changing his future. Others are mentioned but Lloyd dismisses the evidence because the visions were 'subjective' (ie, the details of the changes couldn't be verified).

And Sawyer states that the reason Lloyd is so adamant that the future is immutable is because that would absolve him of responsibility for performing the experiment and (unwittingly) causing the deaths of lots of people. I believe some things can't be controlled and therefore he wouldn't have been held accountable anyway, but guilt is a strange thing - it's hard to avoid it unless you have a rock solid reason to believe you're in the right.

I've always found fantasy to be more philosophical than SF. Not to say SF can't make you think, but I tend to read more fantasy because it holds my interest better (hence my Medieval Studies degree). SF as a whole tends to be hit and miss for me.

The point I was making in my post was that if I'm reading science fiction I expect to have more of a 'wonder' factor regarding the science and what humans can achieve. This book - due to the proximity of its happenings to the world today - didn't have that same feel to it. Which again, isn't a criticism of the book. It's merely a different aspect of SF. One that doesn't appeal to me as much as others do. Hence the science didn't 'wow' me, but I liked how the book made me think. Seeing different points of view can be a good thing. Even if the disagreement remains at the end.