Saturday, February 9, 2008

Book Review: "Rollback" by Robert J. Sawyer

Published 2007 by Tor Books
ISBN 978-0-7653-4974-3
Author's web site:

When it comes to Science Fiction, I'm a fan of the old masters and it takes a lot for me to risk reading a new author. There's a lot of mental energy required to get into a novel, and I really hate finding I can't finish a novel and have been wasting my time. I'd much rather reread a old novel by an author I know.

About a year ago I read a novel by an author new to me -- Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan -- and really enjoyed it. Then somehow I forgot to follow up and read more of his work. I've been traveling recently and the day before I left on a recent trip I happened to see a lecture on television by Sawyer on Science Fiction writing. It jogged my memory to look into more of his books. The next day while at the Ottawa airport I took a look in the gift shop and, despite only having a small selection of best seller books, his most recent book Rollback was there, so I eagerly picked it up.

Sawyer and I have a number of things in common: he was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada and now lives in Mississauga (just outside Toronto). I grew up Mississauga and now live in Ottawa. He and I were born within a year of each other. He is also a huge fan of Star Trek.

His books take place in the near future, say from the present to a hundred years from now. He has a rule that any historical facts in his books prior to the publication date are true. Many of the events happen in Canada and mention Canadian people, places, and events. Real people are mentioned. It's great to see a plug for some Canadian things - too many American writers seem to think everything happens in New York or Los Angeles.

If the two books I've read so far are representative, he puts a lot of himself in the books, and the lead character is someone you can identify with (certainly I can). The characters are well-developed, the plot is exciting and unpredictable, and he puts both humour and emotion into the story.

But getting back to Rollback, without revealing to much of the plot, the story revolves around Don and Sarah Halifax, a couple in their late eighties. Thirty-eight years previously, the SETI project received a message from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. Sarah, a SETI astronomer, was key to the decoding of the message. A reply was sent from Earth back to the aliens, who live in a star system 19 light-years away. Now, thirty-eight years later, a second alien message has been received, but it is encoded. Sarah, now retired and in failing health, could be key to decoding the second message, but may not live long enough. A billionaire philanthropist (no, not Bill Gates) offers to pay for Sarah and Don to undergo a "rollback", a new and incredibly expensive medical procedure that will rejuvenate them back to a biological age of 25, so Sarah can continue her research.

Sawyer uses the medium of science fiction to explore social issues. In Rollback ethical and philosophical issues such as birth control, capital punishment, the aging population, and racism are presented as the plot unfolds. But he doesn't preach to the reader -- he gives the reader the opportunity the think about the issues for themselves, possibly in a new light.

If I had to find some criticisms, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, or perhaps it was simply my disappointment that the novel was over after enjoying such as good read. There are some similarities to his previous novel Mindscan, which is about an aging man who has his consciousness copied into a mechanical body, and it explores some of the same issues.

I read Rollback in a hotel room, airport departures lounge, and on an airplane flight from New York to Ottawa. All in all the book is highly recommended (and you don't have to be a Canadian to enjoy it).

Now I'm off to the pick up his two previous books.

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