by Robert J. Sawyer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Rollback, Robert J. Sawyer takes two science fiction themes, first contact and immortality, and combines them into a story. While the first contact aspect of the story is important, the real issue Sawyer tackles is immortality, in this case caused by the titular process. A rollback reverts a personís body to a period when they were young and increases their expected lifespan by a similar number of years.
The book focuses on Don Halifax, an octogenarian living with his wife of sixty years. There is nothing particularly notable about the couple at first glance, but his wife, Sarah, is credited for deciphering the first message received from an alien race thirty-eight years earlier. As the couple celebrates their anniversary, word arrives that the aliens have responded to the reply message the Sarah coordinated. Cody McGavin, a billionaire with an interest in extraterrestrial intelligence, is convinced that the aliens are specifically trying to carry out a conversation with Sarah and offers to pay for Sarah and Don to have the rollback process, so sheíll be around in another 40 years when another response is received.
Things donít go entirely right and Don finds himself dealing with a wife his own chronological age who is much older than he is physically. Sawyer does a good job showing the maturity and commitment of their relationship even as Don and Sarah realizes that his physical age (and mental acuity) are those of a man more than fifty years younger. Most of the book deals with this dichotomy and the manner in which Don comes to deal with it, not just in his relationship to Sarah, but to everything in the world around him.
Although Sarah and Donís relationship is of primary concern, Sawyer also shows Don interacting with the world around him, and discovering new joy in his regained youth. Donís realization that he can return to work, or his reuniting with long lost friends proves as problematic as his relationship with his wife. Similarly, new relationships with people who appear his own age present Don with a completely different set of problems, but ones which he is going to have to learn to cope with.
In fact, Sawyer spends so much time on the age reversal part of the novel, the first contact part of the novel falls into a distant second place. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, after all, there a myriad novels which look at first contact. However, Sawyer does introduce ideas about first contact which would certainly be interesting to see fleshed out. In fact, he could write another novel looking at Don and Sarahís ties to the first contact side of the story with the aging issue in the background for an interesting diptych.
Sawyer, like Asimov or Card, has a clean style which, for the most part, obscures the authorial voice. While some authors feel the need to impress the reader with fancy stylistic devices, Sawyer would rather the reader be able to fully enjoy the story being told. The only place the authorís voice really intrudes is in pointing out small details which demonstrate Rollback was written by a Canadian rather than an American, but even there its use is understated.
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