Sunday, November 20, 2011


Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765311085

Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message is received and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too . . . if she lives long enough.
A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback—a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do again what she’d done once before: figure out what a signal from the stars contains.

My Thoughts:

Robert J. Sawyer expertly explores ethical dilemmas and alien contact in his intelligent, highly readable novel Rollback.  It is 2048. Astronomer Sarah Halifax, who had been one of the leading astronomers at SETI and the one person who translated the first message from the Draconians in 2009, is now 87. When the Draconians send an encrypted reply, wealthy industrialist Cody McGavin offers Sarah a rollback - a rejuvenation procedure that will result in her being like a 25 year old physically - so she can help decipher the second message. Sarah demands that the procedure also be given to her husband of 60 years, Don. The procedure works for Don, but, sadly, not for Sarah. 

While coping with her physical frailties, Sarah ponders the key to solving the encrypted message from the Draconians. At the same time Don struggles with being essentially an 87 year old man with the body and health of 25 year old. While their bond of 60 years continues, Don has to face some tough moral choices while Sarah is working, hoping to solve the puzzle before her death.

Sawyer succeeds in Rollback because he takes a couple themes - rejuvenation and contact with aliens, concentrates on the big picture and the questions that might arise, and then reaches a conclusion in a story that doesn't demand a sequel. Even though this is an alien contact story, it's really mostly a story about moral dilemmas and choices. The narrative mainly focuses on the effects of the rejuvenation for Don and the choices challenging him. One of the opening quotes is from Jonathan Swift, "No wise man ever wished to be younger." But is that true? And if you were to suddenly be returned to a young adult at age 87, how would you cope? What choices would you make?

I have one problem with Rollback. Honestly, the young Don got on my nerves a bit. Even though he is now physically 25, he still is 87 and has still been married to 60 years to Sarah. I would have thought he'd be more in touch with many of the life lessons he must have learned in that time. I think the main root of any problem I have with the story is that it is definitely told from a male point of view - and I am not male. So, while the ending of the story Sawyer is telling didn't work quite as well for me, a case could be made that Rollback will work for the majority of the targeted readers of science fiction who are male.

All of that is likely a minor quibble with what is a very enjoyable, intriguing, provocative novel. Sawyer is an accomplished writer, he knows how to tell a story, and he has all the awards to prove it.  
Highly Recommended


It had been a good life. 

Donald Halifax looked around the living room of the modest house that he and his wife Sarah had shared for sixty years now, and that thought kept coming back to him. opening

 “Everybody, everybody!” shouted Carl. He was the elder of Don and Sarah’s kids and always took charge. “Your attention, please!” The conversation and laughter died down quickly, and Don watched as Carl raised his own champagne flute. “I’d like to propose a toast. To Mom and Dad, on their sixtieth wedding anniversary!” pg. 16

 “Well,” said Sarah, sounding as though she couldn’t believe that she was uttering these words, “Lenore says a reply has been received.” 

“What?” said Carl, now standing on the other side of her chair. 

Sarah turned to face her son, but Don knew what she meant before she spoke again; he knew precisely what she meant, and he staggered a half-pace backward, groping for the edge of a bookcase for support. “A reply has been received,” repeated Sarah. “The aliens from Sigma Draconis have responded to the radio message my team sent all those years ago.” pg. 18-19

On March first, 2009, a radio message had been received from a planet orbiting the star Sigma Draconis. The world had puzzled over the message for months, trying to make sense of what the aliens had said. And then, finally, Sarah Halifax herself had figured out what they were getting at, and it was she who had led the team composing the official reply that had been sent on the one-year anniversary of the receipt of the original signal. pg. 20

"....we think the message is....encrypted. Not just encoded for transmission, but actually encrypted - you know, scrambled so that it can't be read without a decryption key." pg. 24

"But rejuvenation, well, that's like a code rewrite - it's a real fix. You don't just look young again; you are young." His thin eyebrows climbed his wide forehead. "And that's what I'm offering you. The full-blown rejuvenation treatment." pg. 41

"I'm not regressing, am I?"

...."I'm so sorry," she said, very softly.

"I knew it," said Sarah. "I - in my bones, I knew it." pg. 55

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