Reviewed: June 25, 2007
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: TOR Books
320 pages, $29.95

First contact 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 doesn’t 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.

In Rollback 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 we’d 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.

Thirty-eight years 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 it’s time to decode their new message and respond. Who better to undertake this task than the woman who made it all possible in the first place?

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, there’s 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 months.

Much of the story is told from Don’s 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 it’s really easy for us to forgive him even when he slips up.

Sarah is devoted to her husband  but doesn’t expect him to be perfect. Wearing herself out in an attempt to beat her body’s deadline, Sarah uncovers the Dranonis’ surprising solution to the desire to communicate across the vastness of space.

Equally surprising was the content of the Draconi’s 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 Don’s 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 Canada’s 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.