Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer (Hard Science Fiction, Mild spoilers)

This is Sawyer's latest, and was officially published earlier this year. I picked it up in hardcover when Rob was on his book tour and stopped here in Kitchener, and got my copy autographed.

This novel deals with a couple of topics, and it's neat to see how Rob puts the different ideas together into one plot. The title, "Rollback," refers to one of the main ideas in the novel. It involves rejuvenation technology, which makes it possible to take an elderly person, in their eighties, and physically restore them to a state of health of a twenty-five year old.

Sound hard to believe? Don't be so sure. Fact is, geneticists now think they've found out some of the main causes of the aging process. Not only that, but experiments along this line have already been done with lab mice, with very encouraging success. This book may be science fiction today, but for how much longer before it becomes fact? It's very likely that will happen, possibly within the next twenty years or so.

Now, in this book, Rob has applied this technology to a particular character. Don and Sarah Halifax are a married couple who have just celebrated their sixtieth anniversary. About forty years previously, Sarah had been involved in decoding an alien message received from another world. Actually, she was the key person who figured out how to interpret the message. But it takes a long time to hold a conversation with people from another planet. A reply is sent, but it's not until decades later, when Sarah is in her eighties, that the next message from the aliens gets to Earth.

But this message is encrypted, and unreadable.

Enter Cody McGavin. A billionaire interested in SETI, McGavin wants Sarah to work on decoding the latest message, since she figured out the first one. At this age, though, Sarah's not sure she's up to it, so McGavin offers to pay for her to have a rollback. McGavin is one of the few people who could afford to make such an offer, because it's relatively new and costs a huge amount of money, making it a privilege for the very wealthy only.

Sarah agrees, but on one condition - she insists that McGavin also pay for Don to have a rollback. After all their years together, she won't face this new stage of life without her husband coming with her.

McGavin agrees. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the rollback works for Don and fails for Sarah. People from Rejuvenex, try to find out why, and think it might have something to do with treatment she underwent years ago for cancer.

But now, after all these years together, suddenly Don and Sarah are separated by a big gulf - he experiences a second youth, while she moves inexorably further into old age.

Being rejuvenated might sound like a wonderful thing - and it has fantastic potential. But it's not all easy or fun for Don, especially since he is the only one among his family and friends to have had it. Some people resent him for his good fortune. He has emotions and experiences that make him feel guilty, especially when he finds himself attracted to younger women, while still married to Sarah.

As it happens, Sarah does still try to work on decoding the alien message. Now, it turns out that the first message was, in part, a survey, asking questions about a great many topics, and part of the reply Earth sent was responses of a sample of people to the survey questions.

So, how does all this tie together? Believe it or not, by the end, these different strands of plot converge beautifully. I don't want to give it all away, but I'll give you a hint. The responses to the first message have something to do with decoding the second. But, what the second message turns out to contain involves something that will require a serious commitment to follow up on. A commitment Sarah, at her age, can't make.

But Don can.

Amazingly, the end of this novel brings together seemingly different plot strands in a way that seems perfectly natural, and flows easily, without feeling at all contrived. And, even though some of the ideas have been explored in science fiction before - halting or reversing ageing, decoding messages from aliens - Sawyer brings these ideas together with some new, creative twists that make this novel a nice variation on these ideas. And the characters are very likable and engaging, the prose clear and lucid, and the whole book is just a wonderful pleasure to read.

I couldn't help but notice the way this book contrasts Rob's previous novel, "Mindscan." That novel was about uploading human consciousness into android bodies. So if you were old and/or sick, you could have your mind copied into an android and live forever. As a result, two people separated in age by many years, suddenly find themselves brought together when they become uploads. Their own families and friends become uncomfortable around them, and they become each other's new best friends. They never would have become involved before, with such a big gap in their ages. But in "Rollback," we have the opposite side of the coin, and Don and Sarah are now separated in a way, after many decades of life together. And in both novels the change comes about as a direct result of using a new technology that can drastically change a person.

Of course, in "Mindscan," the original human being is sent to a place called High Eden on the moon to live out the remainder of their natural life, while all rights of personhood are transferred to the upload. He he he...I guess if Don and Sarah from Rollback had decided to formally separate, maybe Sarah could have gone to high Eden and hooked up with Jake Sullivan, the protaganist from "Mindscan," and maybe Don could find a nice new uploaded girlfriend like Karen Bessarian, except the uploaded version of her was already dating the uploaded Jake Sullivan...

Not that both novels take place in the same imagined future - or do they? Technically they don't, but I do suspect that Sawyer wanted readers to consider the parallels and contrasts between the two novels, because he put a few things in "Rollback" that seem to be little references to "Mindscan." Like, the name of the company that does the rollbacks is called Rejuvenex, a similar name to Immortex, the company from "Mindscan" that offers the uploading process. And, there's a scene in "Rollback" in which Don's at a bar with some new friends and orders a drink, an "Old Sully's Light." If I recall correctly, Old Sully's was the name people in "Mindscan" used to refer to the varieties of beer produced by the company Jake Sullivan's family owned.

I guess it's pretty obvious by now I'm a big fan of Mr. Sawyer's novels...we'll, they're good!

His next one is going to be called "Wake," and is the first part of a trilogy about the world wide web gaining consciousness.

On a personal note, some of the things in "Rollback" paralleled some personal experiences for me in recent years. It was just a few years ago my grandparents celebrated their sixtieth anniversary, for example. But I wish there was such a thing as a rollback now, because sadly my grandmother is no longer with us now.

Still, for all the problems Don goes through and how saddening parts of the novel are, it does end on a positive, hopeful note, and I liked that, too.

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