Rollback (Robert J. Sawyer)

So many people on this site are reading science fiction that I’ve been peer-pressured into it! Actually, I noticed last year that the blind spot in my reading was science fiction, so I’ve tried to redress this. Also, trying to revise my novel, I’ve decided I need to read idea-driven fiction that retains a strong narrative drive, and SF appears like a good hunting ground for such beasts.

Rollback is a great example — no antagonist, no life-or-death scenario (aside from the threat of death by old age), just a simple concept fully realized. Here is the basic idea, redacted from the author’s website: 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 Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.

Sawyer spends most of the book exploring the age disparity and Don’s personal issues coping with the rollback. Sarah, for the most part, occupies herself with decrypting the second alien message. The big danger in a book like this, which focuses primarily on characters and their personal issues, is that the science-plot will be underdeveloped — that the message, once decrypted, will be lame. It’s not. It’s brilliant. Even if it wasn’t, Rollback would be impressive because it’s a slow-paced page-turner. Not much happens — but you can’t wait to see what happens next! It’s a smart and enjoyable book, with a real “holy sh!t” moment (when you discover the contents of the alien message).

Sawyer’s a bright star of Canadian SF, and it’s nice to see an internationally successful author who’s not tripped up by the insane notion that books have to downplay their Canadian content in order to be “acceptable” elsewhere. If anything, Sawyer’s books are aggressively Canadian. The characters work at Canadian companies (Don worked at the CBC before retiring), discuss Canadian politics, and even reminisce about Rocket Robin Hood.

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