Review: Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

2 07 2008

Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer (blog, website) tells the story of elderly Sarah Halifax, a former Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher, through the eyes of her husband of sixty years, Donald. At the height of her career, Sarah broke a code sent by an alien species to earth, figured out what it said, and then sent a message back. Nearly forty years later, earth receives another message from the aliens, but this time encrypted. Despite knowing the previous code, the message still comes out as gibberish. Many eyes are on Sarah to break the encryption, even though she is in the last few years of her life. When Cody McGavin, a billionaire roboticist offers to pay for a costly life-lengthening medical procedure known as a rollback, Sarah agrees on the condition that Cody pay for Donald’s treatment as well.

When things go wrong with Sarah’s rollback, it becomes a story of a couple deeply in love faced with an oncoming tragedy that nothing in the world can possibly avert. Between flashbacks and conversations, Donald tells the story of his relationship with Sarah, as well as her first triumph translating the alien language. The characters are relatively predictable, which is in line with the other Sawyer book I’ve read, Hominids (which was so bad… yet it won a Hugo, wtf?)

Deftly woven into these interactions and memories are discussions of the SETI program. Rollback is nearly an elaborate essay or fictional case study of the characteristics of a SETI astronomer. It makes some thought provoking, keen observations and speculations about intelligent life that is interested in finding other intelligent life. They’re certainly things that I’ve never considered before—I recommend reading the book if only for that reason. I would entertain the argument that the emotion is wrapped around a fascinating essay on SETI psychology.

Rollback is definitely the most thought provoking of the three Hugo-nominated books I’ve read thus far. It definitely seems the most science bound of the three I’ve read. In addition, it entertains questions of ethics and morals as well as personal responsibility. It is one of the only books I’ve read that’s made me think so much about mortality. The plot, while not complicated or really as good as either Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union or Scalzi’s Last Colony is designed to pull the ol’ heartstrings, and sometimes it’s a bit heavy-handed. This book might make you cry if you get emotional about people in love and people dying and songs like Sufjan Steven’s “Casimir Pulaski Day”:

If you like that sort of thing, you should read Rollback.

If you like cool discussions of SETI psychology and don’t mind emotional stories at the same time, you should read Rollback.

If you’re slogging through the Hugo nominees because you were too busy to read them sooner, you could also read Rollback because it’s quick, but you won’t miss anything huge if you don’t. It’s better than Hominids, and can certainly stay in the running with the other two, but it’s not my favorite.

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