Review | Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer


by Robert J. Sawyer

Published by Tor

330 pages, 2007

Buy it online





Second Chance

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

Picture this: a science fiction novel that takes a couple fascinating ideas, explores them, using them to tell a story and then ends. No sequel, no trilogies, no epics.  I’m so happy.

Rollback is a dynamite science fiction novel that examines some major themes -- great and small -- and contains them within 313 pages. Hot dog. I’m not a big fan of ongoing epics or 600 page novels. I’ve read some trilogies, of course, and I’m a big fan of series books in the mystery genre. But sometimes, I  just want to read a book that tells a story; a single story that ends when it should end. Don’t you?

In Rollback we get the big story -- communications with aliens -- and a smaller one -- life extension. Neither is a simple idea; yet the more complicated one is that of life extension. Both are told cleanly, intelligently and woven together well.

Sarah Halifax is an aging woman of massive accomplishment. Close to 40 years ago, she was the person who decoded the first-ever radio message received from aliens. We replied.  Now, a second message has come. Sarah, now 87 years old, simply cannot function at the level she did 38 years before. 

Then she receives an astonishing offer from one of America’s richest men; he will stake her to a rejuvenation treatment. Yes, they’re available but are so monstrously costly that they’re completely unavailable for the vast majority of people.  But Cody McGavin can afford it.  He can even afford to offer the treatment to Don, Sarah’s husband.  She essentially demands this, saying she would not want to live on alone -- they are simply too important to each other. They have, after all, been married for 60 years.  She loves Don and he loves his wife.  McGavin agrees and both undergo the process.  Unthinkably, the treatment works on Donald but fails for Sara. Don becomes younger and younger while his wife struggles with fatigue and all the tricky issues of aging. 

The moral dilemma here is fascinating and challenging.  Sawyer sees the issues clearly and there is little pathos and lots of “what if.” While I didn’t quite buy why it didn’t work (and thought he might have spent a little more time on this), it’s a minor glitch in a well-designed plot. Don rediscovers energy, sexual drive, exercise and vitality while Sarah feels understandably denied, perhaps betrayed and is trying not to make it an issue. She still faces the massive challenge of understanding the reply by the beings on Sigma Draconis. And now she doesn’t have a lot of time.

I found Don a little hard to take. His behavior, while understandable, was still reprehensible at times. His rediscovery -- especially of sexual function -- seemed juvenile and didn't consider the others in his life or the consequences of his actions. Yeah, yeah, he’s 30 and his wife is in her 80s; get over it. You don’t get to act irresponsible just because once you were young and irresponsible.

I’m uncomfortable with the conclusion I drew: that both Don’s behavior and the book’s ending came from a specifically male point of view, but I admit it and can’t shake it. Mind you, the ending is appropriate for the story. I’m not saying that Sawyer made a mistake, it’s just that I kept coming to different conclusions and expecting different things and believe that had Sarah been the one to undergo successful treatment, while her husband’s had failed, it would have changed a great deal of the story. But Sawyer didn’t write that book, so I’ve got to look at what there is, not what I wish for.

I found the communications part of the story intriguing, beguiling and not so complicated with science and/or technobabble that I didn’t get it. It was a wholly satisfying story from a writer who’s gathered quite a number of awards throughout his career. I appreciated the pacing in Rollback. Sawyer has a good sense of story and told this one well. | August 2007


Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.