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Rollback

by Robert J. Sawyer

In Rollback, bestselling Toronto science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer explores both the nature of time and the questions surrounding the scientific ability to fundamentally alter the human lifespan. In the process, he also delves deeply into the strange territory of the human heart.

It’s 2048. Scientists have just received a new radio signal from Sigma Draconis. (A previous one arrived some 38 years earlier, it taking 19 years for such signals to travel the distance between Earth and the distant star system.) The world looks to Dr. Sarah Halifax, who decoded the aliens’ first message and crafted humanity’s response, to crack the new code and to continue her correspondence with this new life form.

Unfortunately, Sarah is 87 years old. Even if she does manage to crack the alien code, she will not survive to see the next stage of communication.

Science steps in in the form of a “rollback,” an expensive combination of surgery and genetic tweaking that restores a person’s physical age to their early twenties. The process would allow Sarah to continue her work for more than a hundred years. She agrees to it, with one condition: her husband Don must be offered the same rollback. Don’s rollback is a success, but Sarah’s procedure fails. As Don struggles to adjust to his renewed body, Sarah scrambles against time and her own mortality to decode the alien message.

While Rollback is inarguably a thought-provoking novel of ideas, it is also, at its core, a fundamentally human story: what is a lifetime? How do we measure a human life if it is potentially limitless in duration? As always in Sawyer’s work, the human costs of scientific progress take the foreground. Don must grieve not only for the unavoidable loss of his beloved wife, but for aspects of his own life. The rollback forces him to live a bifurcated life, as a healthy young man with the experiences and psychic scars of more than 80 years of life.

The repercussions of the rollback surgery are genuinely surprising, but rooted firmly in the skillfully crafted and realistic thoughts and emotions of Don and Sarah. The alien-encounter plotline takes a backseat through much of the book. When the plotlines converge late in the book, it is a reminder of why Sawyer is one of our most highly regarded writers of speculative fiction, able to handle the demands of the heart and the cosmos with equal skill.
– Robert J. Wiersema, author of Before I Wake (Random House Canada).