Robert 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.