flashforward

Better hope you were watching the Lottery at the time.

“A slice through spacetime…”

The future is unknowable to us, which is many ways seems ridiculous. It’s like we’re walking backwards down a corridor – we can see everything behind us but nothing in front of us. But what exactly is the future? Time is a human construct – animals have no concept of minutes, weeks or years – and while we can remember the past, we can never know the future. Does it even exist? After all, to people in the future, we are living in the past. Is all of history happening at the same time, or is it entirely mutable, subject to change on our whims?

Flashforward is a novel written in 1999, set in 2009, and with flashes into a future of 2030. Notable science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer penned this one, which means there’s bound to be some hard science here, as well as a liberal sprinkling of religion. The book was actually the starting point for the recent TV series of the same name, but aside from sharing a concept and a couple of character names, the two are entirely unrelated.

In 2009, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is readying itself for a new test to find the Higgs boson particle. At 17h00 precisely, the machine is turned on and at that very exact moment, Lloyd Simcoe, one of the leaders of the project, finds himself in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, with an unfamiliar woman. He has no control over his body and panics as he wonders who this woman is – she’s white, unlike his girlfriend Michiko Komura – before seeing himself in a mirror. He is an old man, perhaps twenty years older than he was a few seconds ago. After two minutes in this strange environment, he wakes up again on the floor of his lab. It quickly transpires that it wasn’t just he who had a vision. Everyone in the room did. Alarms begin to sound throughout the building and they soon discover that the problem isn’t limited to the room, the building, the compound, the country or even Europe. Every single person on the planet blacked out for just under two minutes.

The immediate effect is terrifying. The death toll is huge – large numbers of cars drove into one another, planes crashed, machinery malfunctioned, people fell down stairs or drowned. All cameras stopped recording for those two minutes as well. Discussing what happened, it appears that everyone had some sort of vision, excepting Lloyd’s colleague and friend Theo Procopides. He saw nothing, merely a jump cut in time. As the people of CERN begin to discuss what happened to them, it appears that they have all just glimped the future. All except Theo. This can only mean one thing – at this point in the future, Theo is dead.

Reports come in from all over the world as people pool their knowledge and seek to find out if what they saw is going to come true. It is established that everyone saw the same future, and like a mosaic, everyone shares their findings. Some people saw a date, a time, revealing the flashforward to have shown everyone in the year 2030, twenty-one years hence. With the survivors confused and many baying for blood, the scientists at CERN have to work out if they were responsible and what actually happened. Theo, meanwhile, recieves a call from a stranger who informs him that in her flashforward, she was reading that Theo had been murdered. He begins to become obsessed with changing the future, while Lloyd is convinced that it is set in stone.

The concept is really nice, here, and the story plays with the idea of free will. Is the future they’ve seen something that is guaranteed to happen, whether people choose it to or not, or can they meddle with it, change the events the way Scrooge changed his future in A Chritsmas Carol? Should Lloyd and Michiko get married if they aren’t together in two decades time? It deals neatly with paradoxes (i.e. two people seeing one another in the future, and then arranging to meet in the present, thus causing their future relationship) and although the science in some places is incredibly dense and long-winded, it’s still not a particularly difficult read.

The visions of 2030 are quite interesting, predicting a monarchy-free Britain, Desmond Tutu as Prime Minister of South Africa (renamed Azania), China as the only communist country left, an African-American President, women ordained in the Catholic Church, ozone depletion to the point that everyone must wear hats and sunglasses whenever outside, hovering cars, a ban on nuclear weapons, a cure for AIDS, Bill Gates losing his fortune, India establishing the first permanent moonbase, among others. There’s also some nicely frivolous additions, such as Donald Trump building himself a pyramid in Nevada, Pepsi winning the cola wars and the USA finally going metric.

But what I found more interesting was Sawyer’s vision of 2009. Having been written in 1999 when we still had dial-up and the LHC only just beginning to be constructed, 2009 still seemed quite futuristic. Although there are no flying cars by that point, Sawyer envisioned basic virtual reality, that bookstores printed books on demand, and there’s absolutely no mention (of course) of any technology beginning with a lower-case i. Weirdly, he does mention Pope Benedict XVI, who didn’t actually become Pope until 2005.

All in all, it’s an interesting diatribe on free will, a lovely look into a potential future, as well as a genuinely scary notion of the whole world being affected and disabled by something unpredictable. Towards the end, I began to get annoyed, but that was merely for personal reasons of storytelling preference and the use of a concept I have little time for, but generally a very, very good book.

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