by Robert J. Sawyer

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2007
Printing: February 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-4974-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 313

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Finally, a Robert Sawyer novel that I liked. I admit to a sinking feeling and an annoyed sigh when I saw yet another Sawyer novel on the Hugo shortlist, and this year I almost decided to skip it and not read the full slate of nominees. But I'm glad I didn't; Rollback isn't a first-rate novel, but it was entertaining and I'm happy to be able to say something positive about Sawyer's writing.

Sarah Halifax was an astronomer and the most famous person involved in SETI. Thirty-eight years ago, she successfully decoded the first alien message from Sigma Draconis, and was central to putting together the official reply. Now, she's retired and aging, looking back from the end of a long life and celebrating her sixtieth wedding anniversary with her husband. The round-trip time to Sigma Draconis has come and gone without a reply, and the original message and reply are now all but forgotten. But in the middle of the party, word comes that a reply has finally arrived, one that starts with a detailed description of an encryption algorithm and then a block of encrypted data in an unknown key.

Rollback is told from the perspective of Sarah's husband Don, a former radio engineer with no personal claim to fame, just a long-time devoted husband. Both he and Sarah, at the age of eighty-seven, are winding down their lives. But with the arrival of the new message, a millionaire patron of the SETI project has a pet theory that such communications may be viewed by the aliens as personal rather than between planets, and he is determined to give Sarah the time to decode the new message personally. He's willing to fund an experimental and hideously expensive medical "rollback" for Sarah to reverse the aging process and return her to the age of twenty-five. Sarah refuses to undergo the procedure without Don. And then it works on Don, and doesn't work on her.

There are two main plots in Rollback: the SETI story of the original message, response, and the decoding of the new message; and Don's experience with his successful rollback and its failure for his wife. Of these, the first is by far the best. Sawyer changes the normal perspective on SETI stories, for the better, by putting the first message and response in the past and looking at the beginnings of dialogue instead of the well-worn first-contact scenario, but still gives the reader the fun of the original discovery by telling it in flashback. At least from my mostly ignorant perspective, his description of a possible language and communication style for an extraterrestrial message is both plausible and intellectually interesting, and the intention of the alien communications is both enjoyably mysterious and reasonable when finally revealed.

Those who have read my review of The Terminal Experiment will know that I have a low opinion of Sawyer's ability to write likeable characters, and he still has problems that show up in the second plot. Don is incapable of honest and open communication even with a woman to whom he's been devoted for sixty years, which is not entirely unrealistic but which makes it difficult to care about him. I also don't like Sawyer's focus on tawdry sexual reactions as a characterization technique, and it's ironic to see a prosletyzing SF writer turn to the stereotype of mainstream fiction for interpersonal conflict. But despite that, Rollback is a vast improvement over everything by Sawyer I've previously read. I could have done without some of Don's stupid choices, but he struggles realistically with the consequences of his actions and with the shock and discontinuity of suddenly being young again. This part of the plot wouldn't have carried the story for me, but Sawyer handled it well enough that it didn't ruin the more interesting SETI parts.

Sawyer still lacks the subtlety and technical competence for me to consider him a first-class writer. The encryption key for the alien message became obvious around page 100, or about 140 pages ahead of when the characters figured it out. The two sides of the plot entwine but don't thematically connect very well. And I still have my usual complaint about Sawyer's cliche-ridden, predictable writing style (the first few chapters were particularly bad), although at least his dialogue is better.

But despite Sawyer's weaknesses, Rollback still works. He throws in enough red herrings and false fronts that I enjoyed the SETI search despite knowing part of the result (and he got there with only a mild bit of cheating), and I didn't guess the content of the message in advance. The emotional conclusion of Don's story is satisfying and worthwhile. The overall quality of Sawyer's writing is poor, but at least it's well-paced and makes the book a fast read, and it's not as bad as The Terminal Experiment or Hominids. Since one is constantly filling in the ends of sentences with the rest of the cliche, Rollback is easy to read at skimming speed. I comfortably finished it in an afternoon, and that's often a feature in a book. It didn't outlast its welcome or wear out my interest in its core idea.

If Rollback were a bit better-written at the mechanical level, I'd recommend it for someone looking for light science fiction fare. As is, it falls short of a recommendation, but neither is it a waste of time. It's a solid SETI concept novel that could use better characters. Pleasant, if not exciting, weekend afternoon reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-05-30

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