June 30th, 2008

Sawyer is another one of those authors who’s been around for quite a while, winning the Nebula and the Hugo and the Campbell award, and yet somehow I’ve never read one of his books.  But Rollback is nominated for a Hugo, and thus I have read it, and am pleased to have done so.  It tells the story of Don and Sarah Halifax, one of those rare couples that manages to stay together into their eighties, but have lived lives that were largely unexceptional in other regards.  On their 60th Wedding Anniversary, in the year 2048, the one truly exceptional thing from their life came back to throw them into turmoil. Sarah, it turns out, is a famed SETI astronomer, a title she earns in the early part of the 21st century when she discovers the key to translating the first (and, thus far, only) alien message SETI had received.  The alien message was clear in its request for a response, but because of the signal’s origin many light years away it would take decades for any dialogue to make the round trip.  Those decades have passed, and on the Halifax’s anniversary, the second message was detected.  Unlike the first, though, it wasn’t just transmitted…this time it was encrypted in a code, a code that one eccentric, mega-rich SETI enthusiast believes can only be decoded by Sarah Halifax. But even in the mid 21st century, eighty is old, and Sarah surely can’t have much time left.  For the mega-rich, however, there’s a new option: The Rollback procedure.  Through surgeries, cloned organ replacement, and genetic therapy, the aging process can be reversed, and the human clock reset to the mid-twenties.  Sarah agrees to the procedure, but only if her husband, Don, gets one also.  Now, to this point in my review you might have guessed that Sarah was the focus of this book, but it’s really Don’s story, as the Rollback fails…not for Don, but for Sarah.  Don finds himself transformed into a hale young man, married to a very old lady.  What does a retired film and audio editor do with a new youthful life…with his time…with his libido?  And will Sarah have the time and energy to decode the alien message before her health finally fails? Sawyer does a very good job of addressing these questions, spinning a character drama of the level that is more often seen from mainstream fiction, using a device that only the genre could provide.  The question I kept asking myself, though, was “doesn’t this seem awfully familiar?”  There’s been a lot of excellent fiction addressing age reversal, lately, including last year’s Hugo Winner, Rainbows End, and (of course) Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels, yet another response to the “graying” of our society (and, perhaps especially, of SF fandom?  It’s on my mind, certainly).  It’s clearly possible to do something special and original with material others have already addressed, but I’m not sure Sawyer managed to do so, here; to the point where I would say this book’s chief weakness is in its predictability.  The prose is compelling, gripping even, which is remarkable in a talky, contemplative book that lacks action sequences of any sort, but certain romanticized elements were underanalyzed, and I felt the light and hopeful ending was a poor match to the gravitas of the story overall.  This is a good book, and I will be looking to add more Sawyer to my shelves on its merits, but it will not be getting my vote for the Hugo this year.

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