Reviewed: June 25, 2007
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
320 pages, $29.95
between human and alien species has been the theme of many a science fiction
novel. In some of these encounters, such as War of the Worlds, or the
Alien and Predator movies, the meeting doesnít come off very well. Others, like
ET or Close Encounters, assume a more positive experience. What these have in
common, however, is the assumption of a face to face meeting, which, given the
distances involved, is probably not very likely.
Robert Sawyer gives us another scenario, one in which messages are exchanged
across the boundaries of space as two species attempt to understand each other.
The concept makes sense. Anyone that weíd be interested in talking to would
probably approach the situation the way we have, sending out probes and radio
messages blindly into the void to see what comes back.
ago, in the near future time frame of Rollback, we received a message.
The inhabitants of a system we called Sigma Draconis, located 18.8 light years
from Earth, had rung us up for a chat. Dr. Sarah Halifax was the brilliant
astronomer who decoded the message and assembled as the data needed for the
reply. The Draconis got it, read it, and sent back a reply of their own.
Thirty-eight years later itís time to decode their new message and respond. Who
better to undertake this task than the woman who made it all possible in the
The problem with
that logic is that Sarah is 87 years old and not at all likely to be around for
the next part of the dialogue. Enter Cody McGavin, quadzillionaire
industrialist, who is committed to this project and wants to make sure that
Sarah will be there to receive the next message as well. How? Well, thereís a
very new, very expensive process for human rejuvenation. The slang term is a
rollback. It resets your DNA to a predetermined age and that, along with some
organ replacements and some cosmetic surgery, you end up rebooted.
Sarah holds out for
both herself and Don, her husband of 60 years, and McGavin agrees to foot the
bill. The problem, which is revealed early in the novel, is that the process
works for Don and not for Sarah. She finds herself in a race against time to
figure out what the Draconis has sent. Don finds himself coping with the
reversion to age 25, with all the hormonal urges that implies, and with the
pain and guilt feeling himself become younger while Sarah approaches her final
Much of the story
is told from Donís point of view, as he deals with his emotional turmoil,
temptations of the flesh, and the need to become a productive citizen once
again. Don is essentially a very nice man who tries very hard to do the right
thing, and itís really easy for us to forgive him even when he slips up.
Sarah is devoted to
her husband† but doesnít expect him to
be perfect. Wearing herself out in an attempt to beat her bodyís deadline,
Sarah uncovers the Dranonisí surprising solution to the desire to communicate
across the vastness of space.
was the content of the Draconiís original message, which has more to do with
moral and ethical issues than with cultural artifacts or scientific theories.
We learn all about this in flashbacks, which are essentially Donís memories.
Rollback has a lot of
things going for it. Sawyer has come up with a new twist on the first contact
story, a romance across the ages, a surprisingly lovable robot, no violence and
not a single villain. While not everyone does the right thing at all times in
the book, everyone who messes up has reasons for what they do.
Sawyer is Canadaís
most lauded SF writer, having won nearly every major genre award there is to be
found in North America as well as in a number in other countries. He was
recently awarded an honorary doctorate at Laurentian University in Sudbury, the
city in which parts of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy were set.
Sawyer will shortly
be arriving in Dawson City with his wife, poet Carolyn Clink, where he will be
Berton House Writer in Residence from July through September.