Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: "Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer

I picked up Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback on the strength of two things: 1) the author’s pedigree (he’s won the Best Novel Hugo and Nebula awards) and 2) the fascinating premise. The book takes place far in the future when mankind has received a second transmission from Sigma Draconis. Sarah Halifax, the woman who decoded the first message is now 87, and so a rich benefactor offers to pay for a “rollback procedure” – medically improving the body so that you’re physically 25 again – so that she can continue the correspondence with our neighbors 18.1 light years away. Sarah agrees, but only if her husband Don is rolled back as well. Unfortunately, the rollback only works for Don, and the couple has to deal with the implications of their 50-year age gap as Sarah works towards deciphering the second alien message.

While Rollback was a good book – I plowed through its 300-something pages in less than a week – I was a bit disappointed that Sawyer spent so time focusing on Don. Entire chapters cover the challenges of dealing with his new youth – of being an old mind in a young body. Sarah’s predicament as an 87-year old working to decrypt the alien message - to me, the more interesting scenario - felt like an afterthought. In the end, Rollback was an interesting story, but I was hoping of more of an examination of how aging scientists would cope with challenges.

For me, the highlights of the novel were the examinations of first contact theory, even if the characters didn't so much talk to each other as much as promote theories. Still, I liked the discussions about what Sigma Draconis culture would be like. Forgive the long quote, but it will give you an idea of what these sections of the book is like:
“The aliens have an obligation to let us know they’re there. …Because they’d be an existence proof that it’s possible to survive technological adolescence—you know, the period during which you have tools that could destroy your entire species but no mechanism in place yet to prevent them from ever being used. … [one] solution is that time-honored sci-fi cliché, the hive mind. … you all think with one mind. Of course, if you do that, you might even lose any notion that there could be other individuals out there. … There’s another solution too. Absolute totalitarianism. Everyone’s still got free will, but they’re constrained from doing anything with it. pages 53-4
He continues this interesting line of thought by offering another way to survive technological adolescence: by refusing to evolve as a species through a lack of procreation, etc. that Sarah calls “transcend[ing] Darwin.” In the end, the novel neatly wraps itself up with some touching pictures of mortality and a continued picture into what life will be like several hundred years from how. It’s an entertaining little self-contained book that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in first contact, even if it didn't blow me away.

Cross-posted on Reading, Writing and Red Sox

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