Rollback: A surprisingly moving and humane story

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF reviews Robert J. Sawyer RollbackRollback by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a very reliable writer. His books rarely blow you away, but they’re always thought provoking, well crafted and very readable — and Rollback is no exception. In this novel, the SETI effort finally pays off when a message arrives from the distant star Sigma Draconis. Professor Sarah Halifax is instrumental in decoding the message and composing a response, but because the star is over 18 light years removed from Earth, it’ll take nearly 40 years before a response can be expected.

At the start of the story, the now 88 year-old Professor Halifax is informed that a new message has been received. A wealthy benefactor offers her a “rollback” procedure, which is basically a rejuvenation process that will turn her biological clock back by about 50 years. This way, she can help compose a response and still be around when the “Dracons” answer. Professor Halifax agrees but demands that her husband Don (who is the point of view character for 99% of the novel) also gets the procedure. Unfortunately, when they both get the very expensive treatment, it only works for Don, who begins to rejuvenate, while his wife Sarah remains elderly.

All of this happens in the first few chapters. After this, the book turns into a surprisingly moving and humane story about how to deal with being young again when the love of your life is still elderly. It’s a well-told story, at times very emotional, at others funny, and realistic to the point of making you dislike the main character.

The main problem with the novel is that Robert J. Sawyer occasionally writes very clunky dialogue: his characters sometimes sound as if they are reciting essays at each other. Still, he is very deft at throwing in pop science facts and cultural references, so you often end up feeling as if you are learning something while reading.

At only about 300 pages, Rollback is a fast read, at times very moving, and always entertaining. If you’re not familiar yet with the works of Robert J. Sawyer, this is a great place to start.

(2005) Publisher: Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message is received and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too… if she lives long enough. A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback — a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for SFF reviews Robert J. Sawyer RollbackSarah, leaving her in her eighties. While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do again what she’d done once before: figure out what a signal from the stars contains.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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