In the early years of the 21st century Earth received its first message from space, from Sigma Draconis, and Canadian astronomer Sarah Halifax was the first person to uncode the string of bits and bytes. Thirty-eight years later our reply arrives, this time deliberately encrypted.
Sarah may just hold the key once more. But Sarah, like her husband Don, is eighty-seven – however keen she is, her strength and ability are fading, and she could well die before figuring it out. An academic and a retired audio engineer, the Halifax’s are comfortable but far from wealthy; when North America’s richest man, industrialist Cody McGavin offers to pay for Sarah to be ‘rolled back’ – a new and hideously expensive series of treatments that literally rollback the years, restarting the clock anywhere from the early twenties up – so she can work on the message, Sarah only hesitates long enough to make sure Don is also treated. After a couple of decades of slowing down, preparing for age and death, the couple who’ve just celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary are looking at the pleasing prospect of sharing another sixty years, or more.
But although Don’s treatment is successful, Sarah continues to age normally – the result, it turns out, of experimental oncology in her thirties. Now Don, as in love with his wife as ever, must face the prospect of the rest of his life without her, outliving his friends, his children, and defunct in a world that has continues to change since he retired.
And the Dracon message is still waiting.
I have been looking forward to reading this ever since Amazon alerted me to its release earlier this year, and was delighted to find it in my local library – as is evident from this blog, I love Sawyer’s writing, and Rollback is no exception. Sawyer is not content to simply create a vivid and interesting universe, but also writes to allow insight into the human condition, and creates intricate and significant philosophical questions. In Rollback these deal with both the personal and with wider aspects of how our decisions affect us all. Don has conflict between his loyalty to his beloved wife and the awaking needs of not only his youthened body but also the rest of his post-Sarah life, guilt over benefiting from the rollback when it failed for Sarah, dawning awareness that the story arc he expected for his life has been wholly disrupted without warning, and must deal with the impact of receiving rare and massively expensive treatment only as an adjunct (rather than having some claim on it as a result of his own labour or worth). For Sarah, who must see her husband grow daily stronger as her own abilities decline, her preoccupation is more concerned with her far-away pen pal, and when she does manage to read the message she must make hard decisions about the best way to follow the Dracon request the message contains.
Sawyer writes all his characters with great humanity – in the past this has included the Parallax Neanderthals and the Quintaglio saurians. In Rollback, one of the most moving actions is performed by a robot, whose sacrifice had me quite choked (though I was also sleep deprived, and shed a tear while reading a passage on space shuttle tragedies. Sawyer’s characters are moral actors without sacrificing their reality, their rootedness in the world, or their individuality. This lends a depth to writing that already has original plotting, intriguing scenarios and engaging writing. His characters live. – Alex