Review: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

Rollback by Robert J. SawyerRobert J. Sawyer is a multi-award winning Canadian author who needs little introduction. Rollback, his 17th novel, originally published in 2007, is set mainly in Toronto in 2047. There are also substantial sections set in 2009, when the first extra-terrestrial message is received on earth, and during the years leading-up to the arrival of that message. Key to both periods is Dr Sarah Halifax, radio astronomer and tenured professor at the University of Toronto. In 2009 Sarah decodes the alien message and is instrumental in compiling earth’s reply – the heart of message from Sigma Draconis is an 84 question multiple choice ethics test.

38 years later, just as Sarah and Don are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, a second alien message arrives. Cody McGavin, a Bill Gates type entrepreneur, is a major philanthropic donor towards SETI research. He believes that any alien civilisation humanity encounters is statistically likely to have had advanced technology for much longer than our species and therefore will have attained immortality through scientific means. Such a civilisation will be peaceful, or else it would have already have destroyed itself. Humanity will therefore has much to learn about how to solve its own problems from contact with such an alien race, and such aliens being immortal, McGavin believes interstellar conversations, over however long a period of time, would be between individuals rather than species. McGavin considers Sarah is personally vital to the conversation begun with whatever being on Sigma Draconis sent to the first message, and so offers to fund a multi-billion dollar ‘rollback’ for her. Essentially resetting her genetic clock to age 25, with complimentary restorative surgery. Sarah agrees on condition the billionaire pays for Don to also receive a the treatment.

Only around 200 people have previously received a rollback. The procedure is relatively untested, and in Sarah’s case something goes wrong. A cancer treatment she received decades previously means that the rollback does not work for her, while Don is soon an 87 year old man in a healthy, attractive 25 year old body.

Rollback proves to be significantly more about the consequences of being given a second life, and of Sarah and Don’s unique new circumstances after 60 years of devoted marriage, than it is about the ramifications of the second alien message. For much of the novel the alien message is little more than McGavin’s MacGuffin. Indeed, that part of the plot is pushed into the background until the final quarter of the book, with the eventual outcome outlined in a 9 page epilogue. This is regrettable as the resolution feels rushed, massively condensing potentially enough material for a whole second section as long as the current novel. Perhaps the best solution would have been for Rollback to end without the epilogue, with a sequel of equal length to follow. As it is the book takes a quick trip through A for Andromeda territory, the conclusion coming across as startlingly optimistic, domestic and naïve.

For much of Rollback we follow Sarah and Don in 2047. Or rather, we mostly follow Don. The couple’s plight is well-imagined and illustrated with telling incidents. The unfolding narrative is often poignant, yet one can not avoid feeling there is a large element of male wish-fulfilment fantasy here. Virtually the first woman Don meets after his rollback is Lenore, another astronomer, who proves to be the love of his second life. Unfolding events are bittersweet and in places moving, but it is all far too easy. Sarah is still 87 in every respect and Don and Lenore aren’t. From the description Lenore looks like the young Nicole Kidman and enthusiastically shares many of Don’s interests, from Scrabble to vigorous sex. It’s about as likely as receiving a message from the stars.

There are other problems. Along the way there are some interesting speculations, but apart from the development of rollbacks for the select very rich and some advances in robotics, the world of 2047 is too much like today to convince.

Sawyer also loads his arguments. Just one example being that Sarah deduces from the interstellar ethics quiz that the aliens will conclude that those who fall on the ‘pro-choice’ side of the abortion debate will be more likely to value alien life, because they have risen above the simple biological imperative to reproduce their own genetic material. This patently simplistic argument suggests everyone on the ‘pro-life’ side of the debate only makes choices through genetically determined instinct rather than by rational consideration and moral principle. It is woolly thinking in a book which is ultimately so comfortingly cosy as to feel like a very old fashioned slice of SF. Rollback entertains in an unchallenging way, but fails to convince and it is ultimately forgettable.


This above is a revised version of a review which originally appeared in Vector #254, Nov/Dec 2007

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