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REVIEW: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

REVIEW SUMMARY: Thoroughly entertaining (and accessible) science fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The SETI scientist who decoded and responded to the first-ever alien transmission is asked, 40 years later, to receive a rejuvenation operation to decode the encrypted reply.


PROS: Thought-provoking sf; likable characters; intriguing first-contact story; moves fast; one of those books you can’t put down.

CONS: Perhaps too many anachronisms.

BOTTOM LINE: A book that has mainstream appeal but is also a great read for fans of thought-provoking science fiction.

Robert J Sawyer’s Rollback embodies the things I like about science fiction: thought-provoking concepts, interesting extrapolations and a strong set of main characters. The characters in this near-future story are Sarah and Donald Halifax. It’s 2048 and nearly 40 years have passed since Sarah, who worked for SETI, decoded and alien transmission from the Sigma Draconis star system and sent a response. Now, the aliens have sent their own encrypted reply and Sarah, who is now 88 years old, is offered the chance to lead the project by a headstrong millionaire. The only way this can be done practically, though, is if Sarah receives a rollback, a brand new rejuvenation technique that can only be afforded to the rich and powerful – like a certain headstrong millionaire. Sarah agrees to the rollback only if her beloved husband Don is also given one. Don’s rollback is successful; Sarah’s isn’t. And therein lays the basis for some truly engrossing human drama.

Rollback is a fast-moving read that’s equal parts first-contact story and rejuvenation exploration. The initial contact with aliens is seen through flashbacks and it’s interesting to see how the original message was decoded. There are similarities to Carl Sagan’s Contact in many respects, even to the point where Sawyer has Sarah and Don acknowledge as much. (There’s also a comment about the movie being more tolerable than the book, which I found to be amusing and true.) The content and motive of the alien communication turns out to be a great springboard for philosophical discussions on morality and ethics, man’s place in the universe, abortion, and more. There are several stop-and-think moments.

The rejuvenation aspects of the story, while technologically sound, focus more on the human effects than the technology and it’s these passages that make Sarah and Don two of the most likable characters I’ve come across. They are faced with some interesting situations thanks to Sarah’s botched rollback. Don is essentially granted a second adulthood while Sarah is nearing the end of her life. Don will not only outlive his wife, but his grandchildren as well. The rollback technique, still in its infancy, offers a great backdrop to explore social mores and human behavior issues, which Sawyer does to good effect.

All through this, he gives us the story with characters that are totally realistic. I have to admit, there was one point in the book where I became so annoyed at one character’s behavior (annoyed because it felt like someone I knew was making a huge mistake) that I had to walk away from the book. Few books have ever caused me to react like that.

About the only downside I can cite – and it’s a minor one that I’m willing to forgive because the rest of the book is so strong and utterly engrossing – is the liberal placement of anachronisms in the book. True, Sarah and Don were born in 1960, so the pop culture references of today are part of their lives; and Don’s own observation of himself being an anachronism is an interesting parallel…but do we really need two references to Pamela Anderson? (Geek that I am, I was totally loving the Star Trek references, though. And eagle-eye readers will note that Don quotes his favorite unnamed science fiction author by reciting something that Sawyer himself once said about virtual reality being nothing but air guitar writ large. Indeed!)

Rollback succeeds at being the kind of book that can attract a wide audience. It’s got mainstream appeal but is also a great read for fans of thought-provoking science fiction.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

8 Comments on REVIEW: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. Read this in Analog and really enjoyed it. The review is spot on, but maybe more enthusiastic than my own reaction. Sawyer never fails.

  2. Yup, Sawyer is consistently reliable and one of the best SciFi writers around!

  3. Reliable is a great word to describe Sawyer’s work. Always entertaining, though rarely mind-blowing. I just put in a reserve for this novel at the library because of this review. 🙂

  4. Cliff Dunbar // February 4, 2008 at 10:58 pm //

    Note: Spoiler in fourth paragraph.

    When I practiced Aikido, it was considered rude to compliment a sensei on his class. A student could say, “I really enjoyed your class,” or “I really liked your class,” etc., but never anything like, “That was a good class,” or “You did a good job teaching that technique”. The reason is that the lowly student is not qualified to comment on the teacher’s technique or how the teacher taught the class. The only thing a student could comment on was how he or she felt about the class.

    I feel the same way when I consider my reaction to Sawyer’s work. I can tell you that I enjoy his stuff but there are times when I feel humbly unqualified to make any comment on it. The fact that I keep reading his novels should speak for itself.

    However, in every book of his that I’ve read, there is always at least one little technical detail that exasperates me. In Rollback, the detail concerns the domestic robot. Why would someone need to go to the trouble of faking a maintenance visit to retrieve the robot’s memories? This could have been done wirelessly, without anyone even noticing. That the robot has wireless capabilities is implied during its initialization routine, for example when it pauses for a moment and then says it knows how to make a fire. Where else is it getting this information from other than some external database? And how else could it be accessing that database?

    Other than this (perhaps trivial) detail, I found the novel to be well put together, and another fine example of the deep characterization seen in all of Sawyer’s works.

  5. Bernard Blais // March 20, 2008 at 11:58 am //

    Agreed on all the comments. A thoroughly enjoyable read. One other technical detail that nagged me: the fact that, in 2048, an “advanced age” is still just 88. From the start I thought that was wrong… by the middle of the 21st century, I would have expected people to age systematically to 110+ years, hence their “88” is what our “70” is today.

    It’s so easy to criticize 🙂

    This novel remains a 10 thumbs up in my book.

  6. Andy Wong // June 1, 2009 at 9:16 pm //

    I really enjoy it. I would like to learn morn.

  7. Actually I cannot understand in many sentence but I’ll try to grasp the meaning from the context.

    I hope that I can enjoy novel in English.

  8. I listened to the book complied by si-fi audio, not the biggest fan of the narrator george k. wilson. I enjoyed the two part plot lines. Its a good novel.

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