Monday, July 07, 2014

Flashforward by Robert J Sawyer

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I first became aware of this book through the ABC’s TV show of the same name.  Disappointed that ABC has put it on hiatus for several months, I decided that I would use the time to at least read the book.  This way, I could see how the show held up to the book.

The book starts with Lloyd Simcoe and Theo Procopides conducting an experiment with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.  They want to find the Higgs boson, which theoretically gives mass to all particles.  Everything is controlled perfectly by machine.  Nothing should go wrong, but something does.

Just as the clock strikes 5:00 p.m. local time, everyone passes out.  Lloyd sees himself lying in bed with a woman that looks unfamiliar.  When everyone wakes up, most of the people had some sort of vivid dream.  Theo seems to be the only notable exception, which bothers him.  He passed out at 5:00 and woke up a few minutes later with no gap in consciousness.

It turns out that the entire world passed out at exactly the same time.  About a third of the world’s population was sleeping at the time, but there were a lot of people driving, on a plane or undergoing surgery.  This meant that a lot of people didn’t survive.  Everyone at CERN assumes that the experiment was the cause of the accident.  Even though there was no way that he could have known, Lloyd feels guilty.

The first part of the book deals with the fallout and potential ramifications of what happened.  What, exactly, happened?  All security footage shows static, so there’s no way to know what happened during the blackout.  Also, what happened to the experiment?  Again, there’s no record of anything happening.  CERN’s director is worried about lawsuits, so Lloyd agrees to hold off on any press conferences.

People start talking with each other and soon the world realizes that they’ve gotten a glimpse into their futures.  A project called Mosaic is formed, allowing people to post what happened.  First, the exact date that people got to see is established.  People got to see approximately 20 years into the future.  South Africa will be known under a different name in the future.  There will be an African-American president.  No female president will have been elected, but the Catholic Church will have ordained women.

One of the big discussions among the scientists is the issue of free will versus fate.  Theo believes that the universe is determined and the flash forward reinforces that.  It does raise a problem for him, though.  How can he go through with his marriage to a woman that he knows he won’t stay married to?  How will the marriage play out, if at all?

Theo has to think that there’s a chance at changing the future.  He posts his story and asks if anyone has news on him.  It turns out that he will be murdered, but details are not forthcoming.  He has to think that he might live.  After all, all it would take to change the future is for some landmark that still exists two decades hence to be taken down.  People do try, though.  Stock markets are closed for this very reason.  People even get the idea to try and put together winning lottery numbers.

It seems that there is also a bit of self reinforcement.  Knowing that China will still be communist in the future quells all resistance.  (One thing that wasn’t mentioned was risk compensation.  People that know that they’ll be alive in 20 years may be more prone to take risks.)

But why be given a vision if you weren’t meant to do anything about it?  Theo’s brother realizes that he won’t be where he wants to be in 20 years.  This causes him to wonder what the point of going on is.  He tells Theo that millions of people must be going through the same thing, wondering what the point of going on is if they don’t have the family or career that they want.  It will be hard for all of these people to wake up every morning knowing that they will all eventually fail.

Yes, they do try the experiment again.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away major details.  For those that have seen the TV show thus far, don’t worry.  The TV show seems to be tackling the idea from a different angle, focusing on the investigation rather than the actual event.  I don’t think the TV show will ruin anything for those wanting to read the book.

I feel that the book is much better than the TV show.  Still, it's a shame it didn't get renewed.

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