Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Provocative questions about FlashForward

by Rob - March 11th, 2011.
Filed under: FlashForward.

The members of the Yahoo! Groups-based Classic Science Fiction Message Board discussed my novel FlashForward, which was the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name, as their February 2011 modern book-club title. The group discusses one classic (more than 30 years old) and one modern book each month. (The group is open to new members, and in June 2011, their modern pick will be my Calculating God.)

After they were done, they sent me three questions about my novel and the adaptation of it. The questions were so provocative, I thought I’d share them — and my answers — here.

1) How do you really feel about how ABC mangled your story? I’m sure you’re pleased to get such world-wide attention, but your story as written was great and their rewrite took out all the dazzling science. Lost proved there is an audience for a story based on far-out philosophical and religious ideas, but evidently ABC didn’t think the masses could handle philosophical explorations based on physics?

David S. Goyer, Jessika Borsiczky, and Brannon Braga were wonderful people to deal with. When they got serious about wanting to adapt my novel for television in 2007, we had an amazing meeting at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, and they did something few producers would do. Before I’d signed over the rights, they outlined the changes they felt needed to be made for the show to work for an American audience: much shorter flashforwards, a US instead of European setting, and a focus on cops, doctors, and lawyers — the only professions Americans will watch on TV — instead of physicists. And I said it didn’t matter to me if they changed any of those things, so long as they were true to the central philosophical underpinnings of the book: a rational, thoughtful exploration of the question of fate vs. free will.

And, at the outset, I think we really did have that; the pilot episode, “No More Good Days,” was magnificent. Brannon left us after the pilot to work on 24, and David bowed out partway through our first — and, as it turned out, only — season, and, yes, I do think the show lost some of its focus. Part of it was the burden of the conspiracy plotline that had become front and center.

All terrorists are fungible: it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to assassinate a US presidential candidate, as in the first season of 24, or trying to engineer a global blackout, as in the first season of FlashForward, once you’ve gone down the terrorist route, you’re stuck telling the same sort of stories — a point driven home quite dramatically by the fact that the same actor, Michael Massee, played the bad guy in both those shows, actually: he was our Dyson Frost, playing cat-and-mouse with Mark Benford, and he was Ira Gaines, the guy playing cat-and-mouse with Jack Bauer in the first season of 24. You could have swapped many of Massee’s scenes between those two shows and philosophically, it would have made very little difference.

I was originally to write the sixth episode of FlashForward, then the eleventh, then the seventeenth, and finally it ended up being the nineteenth, and that was quite telling. David and I agreed early on that I’d do an episode that played to my strengths: the physics and philosophy of what consciousness displacement through time actually meant. But as the conspiracy angle just grew and grew, actually getting to those questions kept getting pushed off more and more.

My first draft of “Course Correction” really dealt with a lot of that stuff, but by that point we were also so burdened with a checklist of loose ends that had to be tied up that there was really very little latitude for anything but crossing items off that list.

And when it came down to the philosophical issues, we really were starting to go off track by that point, and in one of the later episodes we actually had a character say, “It’s not fate vs. free will — it’s fate and free will.” That is, we no longer had a philosophical vision, and instead just wanted to please everyone; heaven forbid we should actually come down on one side or the other of a contentious issue.

Meanwhile, as our ratings continued to slip — and they did almost every single week — the TV show that actually embraced the lives of physicists was going through the roof, having its breakout year: The Big Bang Theory. It turned out, in fact, that US audiences would hugely watch bright people as long as they were quirky, charming, and witty — and I do think FlashForward really distinguished itself from other chase/conspiracy shows whenever Jack Davenport as Lloyd Simcoe and Dominic Monaghan as Simon Campos were on the screen.

2) In your novel, during the original flashforward, why wasn’t anyone reading or seeing a news story about the original flashforward? (News agencies love to do 20-years-later type of features.) Also, why wasn’t anyone watching or reading a story about the upcoming attempt at a creating a second flashforward? Surely that kind of thing would have been mentioned in Theo’s obituary.

Well, that’s the point. They weren’t doing that because the original global blackout interrupted the deterministic flow of time by eliminating qualified observers to collapse all the potential quantum realities into one actual reality; the visions people saw in their flashforwards were of the timeline as it would have unfolded had the flashforwards — and the discontinuity in consciousness — not occurred.

That went right out the window in the TV adaptation — and I pointed this out to Dave and Brannon as soon as I read the draft of the pilot — because they had cameras recording what happened during the flashforward, and at least one qualified observer — “Suspect Zero” — awake through it.

Setting aside the ridiculousness of Janis Hawk finding in a matter of hours the one and only security-camera video in the whole world of someone being awake during the global blackout, it also meant there was no philosophical underpinning anymore for why the timelines diverged. I tried to argue in the writers’ room, later in the series, that since we’d thrown out my version of the logic from the novel, we had to go back to Mark Benford having written on the desk calendar page in the pilot, “Who else knows?,” and make that a coded message to himself in the past — but that was never picked up on.

3) In Theo’s flashforward, he experienced darkness to represent his death. There was no vision of any afterlife, either Heaven, Hell, or reincarnation. Surely this would have sparked a major discussion and debate among the various religious leaders on its significance. How would you have approached this if you could have pursued this rabbit trail?

I’d already written The Terminal Experiment, a novel about the nature of the putative afterlife, and won awards for it, including the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award for best novel of the year and Canada’s Aurora Award. So, I didn’t want to do that again, especially so soon — The Terminal Experiment came out in 1995, and FlashForward came out in 1999.

And, as you say, it’s a rabbit trail. But in the context of FlashForward, it’s one that’s easy to dismiss. As I write this today, an earthquake just occurred off the coast of Japan. Where is God in all that? Why isn’t he intervening? Well, if you believe in God, he’s right there, right now, but we just can’t see him or comprehend his logic. And if you don’t, well, you don’t, and there’s nothing to explain related to him and today’s events.

So, someone has no flashforward because he or she is dead, and sees nothing? Well, if you believe in an afterlife, all you have to do to comfort yourself is say that there’s a barrier between this realm and that one, and the flashing-forward effect can’t cross it. There’s nothing that those disposed to believe in life after death can’t explain away, including the complete lack in our day-to-day lives of any credible evidence for its existence; what happened to Theo in the book wouldn’t be a game-changer for them because nothing can be a game-changer for them; they’re immune to evidence-based reasoning on that issue.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

6 Responses to Provocative questions about FlashForward

  1. Episode one was great, as was the novel which I couldn’t pt down. I do think you are correct that we are so mainstreamed that anything intellectually challenging has to be simplified to a state that can be spoon fed to the audience leaving only comedy to hold a physicist front and center.

    That said, one of my peeves about television is that once they cancel a show they almost never wrap it up for those still watching. It should be mandatory to have a final episode.

    Thanks for the book and show. I enjoyed the possibilities….

  2. Thanks for giving our message board a plug. I really appreciate it.


    Your answer to question #2 only confused me more. At the end of the novel the guy who killed Theo in the original timeline (the one seen in the flashforwards) is a man whose wife died during the first Flashforward. And after he kills Theo he may or may not have originally blew up the collider before the second attempt at creating a flashforward. This ending seemed to me to tie the original visions to the flashfoward event and not be visions of a reality where the flashfoward never happened.

  3. Hi, John. I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. But, in any event, you’ve read the novel much more recently than I have — I haven’t actually read it myself since 1999 (when I proofread the typesetting). I’m off to catch a plane right now, so can’t go and re-read the ending, but I think the logic I proposed holds up (and I suspect I’d have heard lots of complaints long before now if it didn’t — and I haven’t). ;)

  4. “…they’re immune to evidence-based reasoning on that issue.”

    I’m not sure that’s the phrase I would use. I’d say that people who are 100% certain that there is an afterlife would consider anything serving as evidence to the contrary to be irrelevant. Because they’ll gladly accept evidence that proves there is an afterlife, even though (from my perspective) that makes as little sense. (Witness the article in today’s Times about the book “Heaven is for Real,” which claims to present evidence that an afterlife exists. They’re happy to accept that “evidence,” even though a faith-based perspective should not look for evidence in either direction. Obviously they haven’t heard of Susan Blackmore’s NDE studies.)

  5. I went back and re-read the ending. I guess I made the mistake of believing some of what Rusch was saying. I knew he was crazy, but I’d thought there was some glimmer of truth mixed in there.

  6. Hi Rob
    Enjoyed your books I’ve read so far, thanks for many hours of thougthful and entertaining reading. Started late so not competely caught up with your writing output yet, but I’m sure I will, then wait for new books one at a time like other favorite authors.
    Of course Flash Forward TV wasn’t your book but it was still fun to watch and pickup the connections and ideas with your book that were there. You may have been asked many times already, but any chance you might pickup TV’s version of the story line and write it to a more satisfactory conclusion?
    Never wrote a fan letter before, this is really a thank you note
    Charlie, Katie, Kim, James-all Rob Sawyer readers & all watched the show

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