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Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0765311089
Date: 03 April, 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: April 2007 Robert J. Sawyer Interview (SFRevu) / Show Official Info /

Rob Sawyer offers an interesting insight into the realities of cosmic communication and life extension in his new book Rollover. If a race is technologically advanced enough to be able to send, receive, and translate communications from races light years distant, isn't it reasonable that they might be expected to have achieved sufficient life extension technology so that the original sender is around long enough to actually hold a conversation? It's a good idea, but for Sarah Halifax, who decoded the first alien transmissions almost forty years ago, it's an idea ahead of her time. The aliens don't know that though, and she has to race against time and aging to crack their reply transmission. Rob has put together a fascinating human drama, where joy and tragedy take human form, rather than apocalyptic ones. All in all, it's a "skytop" story, worth reading by genre and mainstream readers alike.

Rollback misses being a "first contact" story by thirty eight years, but by interstellar communications standards, that's an eye blink. Not quite so for Sarah Halifax, the SETI linguist that decoded the first transmission from the stars at the start of her career. Now Sarah finds herself looking pleasantly backwards over a life in science with a lot of good work and some significant recognition behind her, and ready for whatever comes after life on this mortal coil.

What she's not expecting is that while her husband Don and she are enjoying a quiet 60th wedding anniversary, they'll get a long distance call that will turn their lives on end. Well, not a call, exactly, but a reply to the reply that her team had sent decades before to the aliens at Sigma Draconis…and could she accept the charges? It's not so much a matter of paying for the message, as the SETI effort is now being funded by a Cody, a "wealthy industrialist," but cracking the code one more time. The original message may have seemed obtuse, veering off from expected mathematical terms into ethics and philosophy, but the new message appears to be actually encrypted, and the founder of the robotics revolution, SETI's benefactor figures that she holds the key to decrypting it.

The catch is that doing so may well take more time and energy than she has left. So the answer, made possible by the march of technology, is to rollback the years by giving her an "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" rejuvenation treatment. Now Sarah hasn't gone through six decades of marriage to skip out on her husband Don now, so offers Cody a deal, buy a treatment for Don as well, or deal.

Cody goes for it, as he's got more money than Paul Allen did before he kicked (it's the future, ok?) though he's not all that happy about buying another fifty years of life for a retired radio station engineer. But then their plans go awry, and the treatments don't go as planned, leaving Cody out a lot of money, and the octogenarian couple out of synch.

Though the book cover gives away the problem they face, I'm going to hold off, and let you come to grips with it yourself. It's half the story, and well told, but I'll leave you to find out on your own. It does set things up very nicely for the author to explore the practical problems of rejuvenation, especially when you're not one of the rich elite that he presumes will be the early adopters of these techniques.

The other storyline is about Sarah's efforts to crack the encryption, which you may find as interesting as the human drama she's part of. She's been given an assistant by Cody, a top of the line humanoid robot which makes the story a bit reminiscent of Asimov's classic short story, "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (1951) in which a woman is given a robot as a domestic helper, and ends with the telling line, "A robot can't fall in love...but a woman can." (feel free to correct me on this quote...I'm stunned to find I don't have a copy on my shelf. - Ern). Not that Sawyer goes there, but the resonance is clear.

The rejuvenations story is mostly about Don, and his coming to grips with youth. He's a likable guy, a bit out of his time, and without the sort of life work that Sarah has to keep her going. In addition to the other challenges the author heaps on him, he has to deal with all those hormones running rampant through his system, which broaches the question of how much of who we are is a function of the hormonal soup and physiological responses tied to our biological clock? Do we ever actually mature, or do we just become passive and afraid? In Rollback the author begins the dialog we'll undoubtedly be having on this subject in years to come.

If you want another take on the process and consequences of reversing the aging process, I'd recommend Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, which we reviewed nearly a decade ago, you know, when we were very young ( Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling SFRevu 10/1997)

Like Tom Hank's girlfriend in Big, I'm not all that sure I want to be young again, but I enjoyed Rob Sawyer's exploration of the question in Rollback.

Our Readers Respond

From the Author: Robert J. Sawyer:
    My personal goal for my writing is to combine the intimately human and the grandly cosmic -- to find a story that works on a small, human scale and also invokes that sense-of-wonder you can only get in SF. I like to think I accomplished that sort of fractal view of reality in Rollback. Too often, I think, SF leaves people emotionally uninvolved. Certainly, I want people to think -- but also to feel: to laugh, and cry.

    People outside the field sometimes ask me whether I find writing SF limiting, but, as all who read the genre know, the exact opposite is the case: no field is wider open to experiments in style and content, nor does any field have more variety in subject matter. I'm not just happy to be a science fiction writer; I'm honored to be one -- it's the most interesting kind of writing one can do, and the SF reading audience is the brightest, most passionate, most supportive one in all of literature.

    All best wishes!

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