Review of Robert J Sawyer’s “Rollback”


For several years now, I’ve been a member of the Board of Directors of Harbourfront Centre, one of (if not the) largest public arts centres in Canada.  One of our more high profile endeavours is to yearly host the International Festival of Authors.  And one of my favourite privileges as a Board member is to attend the Festival’s opening cocktail party.

The Festival attracts the top fiction writers in the world.   The party is always a veritable who’s who of the literary world.  Authors are typically an insecure lot, so I almost never crowd them or dominate their time. Instead, I like watching them get their due attention from the fawning hordes of young readers who have managed to get a ticket to the party. In my experience, writers are often shy and solitary; it’s nice to see them revel in the flesh with people who appreciate what they do.

Every year, though, there’s always one or two authors who wander about the room anonymously, and I take joy in pressing their flesh and striking up friendly conversation with such individuals.  One year, the author who was not being recognized by any of the self-proclaimed literary fans was none other than Mr Robert J. Sawyer.

Robert Sawyer is a Canadian treasure.  The first Canadian winner of the coveted Hugo award –science fiction’s Oscar– he nonetheless does not receive the respect or recognition that he deserves.  Full disclosure: many years ago, one of my stories was published in an anthology along with one of Sawyer’s stories, back when both of our careers were young.  He went on to literary greatness.  And me… well, I run this website 🙂

At that particular cocktail party, I had a lovely intimate conversation with Mr Sawyer and his wife.  I was not surprised to find him to be a charming and down-to-Earth fellow.  We discussed mostly his book, Calculating God, which was important to me, since it was one of the only science fiction books that I had managed to get my sister to read.

Sawyer’s books are folksy, local and intimate.  They tend to feature recognizable, ordinary protagonists who are very much set in the real, modern world. In Calculating God, the hero was a worker in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, a place I know quite well, having written much of my doctoral thesis in its (now discontinued) members’ lounge.  And in Rollback, the protagonists are an elderly couple, Don and Sarah, who also live in Toronto.

His books are very Canadian, with many specific references to Canadian (mostly Torontonian) places.  They are also very real and contemporary, with references to recognizable pop culture, such as CBC radio shows and quotes from Seinfeld.

Personally, I’m not a fan of anchoring fictional narratives to real life pop culture.  The act tends to remove me from the world of the story, and definitely serves to limit the book’s chronological relevance.  It’s unlikely anyone will get the Seinfeld references in 20 years, for example.

Rollback got my attention right off the bat.  Don and Sarah reminisce about their first date together, which was near the time of his 26th birthday. They had gone to see a movie together, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Now, I read Rollback on my birthday weekend, a time when my own girlfriend had promised –after months of pestering– to watch a certain movie with me.  Which movie? Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Coincidence? I think not.

Here’s the lovely premise of Rollback.  Some years ago, a message was received via radio telescope from an alien civilization in the Sigma Draconis system.  It took the SETI genius of one of the protagonists, Sarah, to decode the message and to formulate the correct response.  Since Sigma Draconis is 18 light years away, it takes 36 years, round trip, for a response to come back.

When the reply does arrive, our protagonists are in their late 80s and conscious that they are nearing the end of their romantic life’s journey together.  But the Draconis message is encoded, and it is believed that only Sarah can figure out the code.  She may not have enough years remaining in her lifespan to do so.  Thus, our heroes agree to undergo a new procedure of biotechnological rejuvenation, a “rollback” of the years, to return them to their 25 year old physical selves.

A lovely premise.  In less seasoned hands, the story would have devolved into a nonsensical Hollywood-style action film with nefarious corporate agendas, secret government conspiracies, or –worse– some deus ex machina ending involving the message from Sigma Draconis.

Instead, in Sawyer’s cottage-side imagination,  this is a tale about growing old, the nature of mature love, and to some extent morality.  The book is marketed as an exploration of the pitfalls of potential immortality.  And sure, some of that is examined.  For instance, does an 89 year old with a 25 year old’s body still receive a pension and a senior’s discount? How does he re-enter the work force when his experience is out of date? Is it ethical for him to enter into sexual relationships with people genuinely 25 years old? How would he interact or relate to such people?  Has he prepared himself to be younger than his own grown children, to see them grow old and die?

For me, though, the most interesting parts of the book were in decoding the message from Sigma Draconis.  It seems the first message was not a treatise on physics or the properties of the known universe.  Rather, it was an ethics survey, as if the aliens were mostly curious about how human beings go about making ethical decisions in a universe of moral grays.  I have introduced several examples from the book into dinner party conversations; they always end up stimulating discussion over aperitifs.

Rollback is a quick and lovely read that I think would be accessible even to those not naturally predisposed to science fiction.  Pick it up!


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