Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

Rollback combines medical advances and alien contact to tell a decent human story

rollbackRobert J. Sawyer’s Rollback (2007) takes a couple of familiar science fiction tropes and blends them together into a well-told human story. One is the discovery of (and communication with) alien life via signals received from a distant star. The other is the concept of radical life extension, in the form of a complex (and unthinkably expensive) medical procedure, the “rollback” of the title. This is the story of two people, a husband and wife, who find themselves at the intersection of these two astonishing discoveries, and the way their lives are changed by them.

The two central characters are Don and Sarah Halifax. Sarah is a SETI researcher who decoded the first alien communication received in 2009, and led the endeavor to compose and send a response. Now, in 2048, a second alien message has arrived, but this one is mysteriously encrypted, and no one can figure out how to crack it. At this point Sarah, who is now 87 years old and nearing the end of her life, receives an unusual offer from a rich businessman with a keen interest in SETI. This man wants Sarah to work on decrypting the message, and to send another reply, but he also wants something more; he wants her to be around when the next message arrives. And since the aliens are 18-point-something lightyears away, a full round of communication takes roughly 37 years; unfortunately, Sarah will be long dead by then. So he offers to buy her a rollback — an amazing new procedure costing several billion dollars that, after cleaning and purifying the body at the cellular level and making important genetic and chromosomal changes, leaves the recipient’s body in the state it was at approximately the age of 25, giving another six or seven decades of life (at which point the person could conceivable get another rollback).

Sarah will only accept if her husband Don gets a rollback as well, a condition the rich industrialist reluctantly agrees to. Sarah is eager to decrypt the message and learn more about the senders, and they both look forward to a second life, a chance to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and to continue their successful 60-year marriage. However, tragedy arises when it becomes clear that, while Don’s rollback went smoothly, Sarah’s didn’t “take.” Due to some complication, it just didn’t work. Much of the story concerns the very end of her life, her success with decrypting the message, and her bittersweet knowledge that her beloved husband will get another life, but that she won’t get to share it with him.

This human tragedy is handled with genuine feeling, both from Sarah’s perspective, and from Don’s as he experiences conflicting emotions — guilt over his rollback working, grief over the impending loss of his wife, the euphoria of his new youthfulness, more guilt over the sexual urges that come with it, and feelings of uselessness as he no longer has the skills to get a job in the modern world. He also has to deal with the envy of his friends and acquaintances, and dash their desperate hopes when he explains he has no secret connections to get them a rollback as well.

Aside from the human story, it’s also interesting how Sawyer handles the matter of the aliens and their communications. I especially liked his thoughts on the purpose of such a communication, and his distinction between telling and asking:

“What a ridiculous notion, that beings would send messages across the light years to talk about math! Math and physics are the same everywhere in the universe. There’s no need to contact an alien race to find out if they agree that one plus three equals four, that seven is a prime number, that the value of pi is 3.14159, et cetera. None of those things are matters of local circumstances, or of opinion. No, the things worth discussing are moral issues — things that are debatable, things that an alien race might have a radically different perspective on. Ethics, morality — the big questions. And that’s the other thing, the other way in which we were totally wrong about what to expect from SETI. Carl Sagan used to talk about us receiving an Encyclopedia Galactica. But no one would bother sending a message across the light-years to tell you things. Rather, they’d send a message to ask you things.”

That’s an interesting view on the subject, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily the only reason aliens would want to communicate. Nevertheless, that’s what Sawyer’s aliens are interested in. The first message they send turns out to be a questionnaire on moral and ethical issues, to be answered by 1000 people and sent back. The answers to the questionnaire have an impact on the second message, but I’ll leave that part for you to discover on your own.

The book switches between different time frames, mostly centered around 2009 and 2048, and along the way we get numerous glimpses into the characters’ lives at different points in their careers. There are many intriguing conversations between Don and Sarah and others, on topics like evolution, quantum physics, philosophy, social issues, and so on. They are also science fiction fans, and often make reference (Don especially) to various movies and tv shows, from Star Trek to Lost in Space to Contact. That last one is actually one of my few gripes with the book. At one point Sawyer has his two main characters engage in some light bashing of that movie, and by extension Sagan’s book, generally calling it implausible and tainted by Hollywood. And since I’m one of the many, many SF fans who love that book and movie, well, hey, that’s just not cool. It’s hard to be sure whether or not this is a case of Sawyer talking through his characters, but it did seem that way.

My other gripe is that the book ends in a very naive fashion, completely ignoring the tendency of governments to sweep in and take control of anything deemed important; the way government steps aside to let a few ordinary individuals control an extremely important resource is not very realistic.

Other than that, though, the book is well written, and contains plenty of stop-and-think moments, convincing characterization, and depth of feeling. I also think Sawyer does an excellent job with the robots in the story (manufactured by the rich industrialist mentioned above) and their behavior. A satisfying read, certainly.

“Science fictiony ideas” can motivate physicists

Theoretical physicist Ben Schumacher recently gave a lecture (described in this story) in which he points out the motivational value of science fiction, saying, “Plenty of really interesting research has been motivated by science fictiony ideas.” Elaborating this point a little more:

Even the most outlandish science fiction stories can spur very real questions for those probing the mysteries of our universe [….] Stories about time travel, flying faster than the speed of light and other supposedly impossible things have long captivated physicists, he said. While most spend their careers studying possible things, there’s value in researching the stuff that falls on the other side of the laws of physics, said Schumacher, who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.

One example he uses is the way that Carl Sagan’s book Contact inspired real research into the possibility of wormholes. Motivated by Sagan, physicist Kip Thorne and others at the California Institute of Technology did research that indicated, at least, that the laws of physics don’t absolutely rule out wormholes. But even if they don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the idea was a waste of time:

“It may be there are no such things as wormholes. But if there were, we now understand what the implications would be,” Schumacher said.

Another example is discussed in an article by physicist Paul Davies (How to Build a Time Machine):

Time travel has been a popular science-fiction theme since H. G. Wells wrote his celebrated novel The Time Machine in 1895. But can it really be done? Is it possible to build a machine that would transport a human being into the past or future? For decades, time travel lay beyond the fringe of respectable science. In recent years, however, the topic has become something of a cottage industry among theoretical physicists.

His article delves into the theoretical details, and it’s fascinating stuff. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even if time travel ultimately turns out to be impossible, physicists could possibly gain some insights into what is possible by way of grappling seriously with the question. And that in itself would be something for science fiction to be proud of.

[Interesting aside: Davies has also been (still is?) chairman of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup. Which means that in the case of a plausible signal, he is called in to advise and consult. Awesome — why can’t I get a job like that?]

And just to drive home the importance of science fiction to physicists, I found this interesting:

At least 10 physicists and technicians from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., regularly attend science fiction conventions.

I’d sure go hang out with a bunch of sci-fi-loving physicists, sounds like a blast to me! :)

The voice of that SF master, Stanislaw Lem

hmvMy experience with Stanislaw Lem’s work has been limited so far, but the few times I have read one of his books I’ve gotten the inescapable impression that I was reading something written by one of science fiction’s true masters. Lem’s writing is full of philosophical depth and intellectual intensity; and there are emotional tensions in his characters that can be uncomfortable at times, but that let you know you’re reading about a realistic person with realistic struggles. By the time you get to the end of a Lem novel, your brain will have gotten a serious workout; you will have thought and you will have felt, and you will have loved it. Lem is just that good.

His Master’s Voice is a novel from 1968 that definitely fits the above description. The basic theme is a Lem trademark: the impossibility (or near impossibility) of communication with alien life. That’s an assumption I happen to disagree with, but that in no way lessens its value as one of a multitude of viewpoints to consider. Lem goes against the general trend in science fiction, which is overwhelmingly optimistic about alien communication. I tend to share that optimism, but nevertheless I think Lem’s opinion serves as a useful counterpoint to the majority view and provides some needed perspective. After all, that widespread optimism is also based on assumptions, and who knows if they could turn out to be wrong?

The basic plot concerns an alien signal that is picked up; it is unknown whether it was intended for Earth, or if it was merely intercepted on its way somewhere else. A research group, half-jokingly called His Master’s Voice, is formed to study and try to decipher the signal. The group consists of a wide variety of specialists: mathematicians, physicists, biologists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and representatives of any other discipline you can name. The project is kept strictly secret and controlled by the military. The story is told through the eyes of one of the lead mathematicians, writing a memoir of the project years later.

The book touches on a great many scientific, philosophical, and political issues, and really says much more about our modern world than it does about extraterrestrial contact. One of the tensions among the project members is the “two cultures,” the divide between the social sciences and the physical sciences; the members of the project almost naturally sort themselves into these two camps, referring to themselves as “elves” and “dwarves,” respectively. Lem lays some well-deserved (in my opinion) criticism on the soft social “sciences” and their defensiveness when anyone intrudes on their territory, their “Mystery of Man” as Lem puts it; he also has some comments about the influence of Freud. But the tensions are not limited to soft vs. hard science. Lem portrays science as a whole as not quite the idealistic model we tend to see it as.

Another of the big issues is the relationship between scientists and the government/military. The main character muses frequently on the morals and responsibilities of scientists, and chafes under the military’s domination of the project and scientists “renting out their consciences.” At one point Lem makes an analogy with pigs that are trained to search for truffles, and refers to “scientist-pigs” who are likewise trained to search out new weapons technologies for their governments. Lem is definitely not one to hold back his opinions!

Yet another major theme is the modern world’s relationship with technology and how it has changed our lives for better or worse. Lem refers to our time as an….

… era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress….

And he questions the need for that never-ending technological progress, always churning out new gizmos and racing to provide the latest, fastest, newest versions of old ones:

Thus the means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values.

What I’ve said so far gives only the barest taste of the depth of this novel and the wide array of topics commented upon therein. It’s a very serious look at many of the complexities and ugly realities of our modern society. The basic thrust of this book is that maybe humanity isn’t as mature or advanced as it likes to think it is, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding ourselves before we can ever hope to understand life from other worlds.

And that alien signal? It never does get deciphered. The task turns out to be beyond our abilities:

The hypotheses popular before the existence of the Project seemed to me incredibly shallow; they ricocheted back and forth between the pole of pessimism, which called the silentium universi a natural state, and the pole of mindless optimism that expected announcements clearly and slowly spelled out, as if civilizations scattered among the stars would communicate with one another like children in kindergarten. Yet another myth has bitten the dust, I thought, and yet another truth has ascended overhead — and, as is usually the case with truths, it is too much for us.

His Master’s Voice is simply one of the best “signal from an alien species” novels, and stands right alongside such classics as Gunn’s The Listeners and Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan’s classic tale of first contact

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie,” and usually it’s true; because no matter what the quality of a book is, Hollywood is usually all too willing to lower it by several notches in order to make a movie that appeals to the masses. In the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact, however, I have to say both the novel and the movie are of roughly equal quality, and high quality at that. Which is fitting, since Sagan wrote in the Author’s Note at the end that the initial version of the story was conceived for film, and the novel grew out of that.

I’m not going to delve much into the plot; I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should), and it doesn’t differ from the book in any extremely major ways. (As far as I can recall — it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie.) The biggest difference I can see is that the movie had one person using the Machine, while the book had five people who went on the journey. Also, there was of course a greater level of scientific detail in the book. But that’s to be expected; it is, after all, Carl Sagan we’re talking about. And I don’t recall the movie including the part about messages buried inside the transcendental numbers, although I could be wrong. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve substantially gotten the essence of the book. Of course that’s not to say you shouldn’t also read the book. On the contrary, it would be well worth your time.

When I reviewed James Gunn’s The Listeners a while back, that other classic of first contact via radio astronomy, I said I had the feeling I’d like Sagan’s novel better. And in fact, that’s the way it turned out. Sagan’s book has many of the same strengths as Gunn’s, but without some of the weaknesses of that other novel. For one thing, Sagan’s Palmer Joss character was a far more interesting religious adversary than Gunn’s Jeremiah. For another, Sagan gave a much more convincing portrayal of the political situation surrounding the scientific ones. However, I have to wonder if Sagan was paying homage to Gunn with this passage, which strongly echoes the plot of The Listeners:

“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”

I will say, though, that on the level of pure writing style, Gunn outdoes Sagan. After all, Gunn is a professional fiction writer, while Sagan was of course a master of a different kind of literature — inspiring non-fiction books about science and reason. Actually, I couldn’t help but notice how his love for reason and rationality shines through even here, in his single foray into fiction. As part of the background world of Contact, he pokes fun at some of our species’ silly and illogical forms of news and entertainment, for example referencing the “now defunct National Inquirer,” and commenting thus on the world of television:

Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled.

Coincidentally, that fits in perfectly with a recent discussion I started on the very same topic.

Sagan’s fictional world of television also has some glimmers of hope, though, including:

[…] Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at local, state, and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly debunking of what were said to be widespread predudices, propoganda, and myths.

It was passages like these, just as much as the story of galactic travel and alien contact, that made me realize just how much I miss Sagan and wish he was still around.

The Listeners, for anyone who’s listening

James Gunn’s The Listeners, published in 1972, is a fictional tale of a SETI-style program to search for transmissions from intelligent alien civilizations. I have always seen this book described as almost a sister to Carl Sagan’s Contact; and I wish I could provide some comparison, but I can’t since I’ve never read the latter work. I have seen the movie version though, and if that’s any indication, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would prefer Sagan’s novel over Gunn’s — although final judgment must be reserved until I’ve actually read both. However, this is not to say that Gunn’s novel isn’t worthwhile as well. It is, but in different ways than I was expecting.

When I picked up this book, I was looking for a scientific adventure. I expected to read about scientists engaged in an magnificent enterprise, explaining all the technical details, experiencing the excitement of discovering an alien message, applying their intellects to deciphering it, and so forth. I was eager for an in-depth look at how science would deal with this situation and use all its resources to solve the puzzle. And all of this was there, but it was too generalized to be very satisfying. The way the signals were detected and analyzed, the way the alien message was deciphered…. it was all too facile, too slick. The results were simply given to the reader, but the process behind them was largely glossed over.

Instead, this book puts much more of its focus on the social issues surrounding the scientific ones. What kind of people would devote their lives and careers to a search that may never turn up anything and may ultimately be pointless? How would such a program continue to get funding after years of no results? And if, against all odds, it does turn up evidence of alien life, how would the people of Earth react? Would we be able to deal with it? Would it make us feel larger, or smaller? Would it be a benefit, or a curse?

I believe when judging a book, the author’s intent should always be taken into account, and I suppose Gunn’s intent is right there in the book’s title: he’s concerned not so much with the listening but the listeners. It’s less about the actual signal itself, and more about those (the species and the individuals) searching for it, and why. It’s more about the personal and the social than the scientific. So even though I would have preferred more of the science, I can see where Gunn is coming from here and respect it. He does a decent job of pointing out the sacrifices made by people who are devoted to important jobs, the need for effective leadership, the tensions between science and religion, and our never-ending need to ponder our place in the universe.

And yet, I found some of his applications of these personal and social factors to be laid on a bit thick, or lacking in believability. For instance, the cult of personality surrounding the Project’s director; everyone worships him as if he’s the only person in the world who could have done the job. And the seemingly hereditary nature of his position that is later held by his son and grandson — not very realistic, that. Also, I thought the first director’s problems with his wife and her suicide attempt, his later problems with his son, the President’s problems with his own son, and a certain journalist’s inner demons and bitterness about his career, were a little on the overdramatic side, and unnecessary.

One thing that was utterly brilliant, though, was the alternating chapters that consisted entirely of quotations from various real-world scientists, philosophers, authors, poets, priests, and the like, all relating in some way to the possibility of the existence of alien life, all tackling the concept from different angles. These chapters were my favorite part of the book, actually. Among those quoted were such figures as Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nikola Tesla, Immanuel Kant, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Theodore Sturgeon, H.G. Wells, A.E. Van Vogt, and C.S. Lewis. Gunn’s reputation as not only an author but also a scholar of science fiction shows here; the snippets from older sci-fi literature describing various aliens were amusing, but more seriously I think they were meant to represent how the average person may conceptualize aliens.

Another thing I liked was how Gunn showed just how ignorant people can be about scientific issues, or indeed about any kind of important world issue. For example: after the alien signal is discovered and has appeared all over the news, one woman has her tv viewing interrupted by a pollster asking what she thinks about it. Irritated, she replies that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about and just wants to get back to watching her show, ironically a sci-fi show called “Station in Space” (a forerunner of DS9 perhaps? lol). In another instance, one guy asks his friend if he’s seen the message from another star. His friend replies that he thinks the scientists made it all up, since there could be no life on a star! Yes, Gunn hits the mark on this score; that kind of stupidity really does exist, unfortunately.

Bottom line here, this was a decent book that did some things well, others not so well, could have been a lot better, but was worth reading all the same.