(2007) Robert J. Sawyer, Tor, £5.50, US$6.99, Can$8.99, pbk, 320 pp, ISBN 978-0-765-3-4974-3
Set both in the mid-twenty-first century and in the near future (2009) this is a first contact story, a theme Sawyer has previously explored with Illegal Alien (1998) and Calculating God (2000); even his 'Neanderthal Parallax' series (see Hominids and Humans) were first contact of a sort with the aliens being Neanderthals from a parallel Earth. So it is all familiar territory for Sawyer.
Sarah Halifax is a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) scientist who deciphered the first alien message detected and who helped craft the reply. Thirty-eight years on, and now retired, she is content with life, her husband and grandchildren. But then a reply from the aliens 18 light years away is picked up and none can decipher it. A multibillionaire steps in deciding that Sarah is the only one up for the challenge and offers her a new and very expensive rejuvenation process. This is needed if she is to live to see through the dialogue across 18 light years. She accepts but on condition that her husband has it too…
As with other of Sawyer's novels this story has two parallel tales told in alternating time periods: the mid-twenty-first century, when the aliens reply to the humans' own message is detected, and the near future (2009) when the first message is detected. Why Sawyer set part of his tale so near in the future that it can be soon dated puzzles me a little but maybe he is signalling that he predicts we will detect an alien biosphere real soon now. (Though of course in reality this will probably be spectrographically and not by message.) Whatever, this does not detract from the plot. Then there is the 'rollback' rejuvenation strand to the novel and here all the antiagethetic issues are briefly explored. How will friends and relations take the news? What do you do with a new lease of life especially (and after years of retirement) when your life skills set is a generation out? How would you feel having to go through some of life's trials again? And then of course there is what will life be like in the mid-twenty-first century?
This is an engaging read and it will no doubt have popular appeal. In no small part this is because Sawyer writes economically. He is not a great one for descriptive prose, nor in conveying emotion in any evocative way. On the other hand he does cram in a lot of passing observation and this, combined with the novel's twin plot elements and dual time periods, means that there really is not much space left in 320 pages for much fleshing out. Consequently we have an easy-to-read page-turner that will pleasure more casual as well as dedicated genre readers alike. Having said that the latter, while enjoying the book, may find little memorable meat within, though the former will be attracted by Sawyer's straightforward style and here I am sure that Sawyer must have a following beyond the die-hard SF community. Indeed his uncomplicated style has lent his books to translation beyond English where he has been nominated for and won genre prizes for best foreign novel in a number of countries.
I am not going to comment on the exobiology, he makes some interesting points, one major error (which I can't forgive) and some debatable ones (which I can). There is little point commenting because you do not read Sawyer for the science or sense of wonder (unless you are a non-SF reader dabbling in the genre), rather with Sawyer you know you are going to get a page-turner adventure albeit somewhat middleweight, and which (on that level) will not disappoint. (Just don't get upset with the science protagonist failing to understand what Carl Sagan's novel Contact was actually all about, though the protagonist's criticism of the film of the book was justified.)
So am I being harsh? Well (naturally) I do not think so. I have said that this is a sound adventure and that it has a certain broad appeal. Yet Rollback has been nominated for this year's (2008) Hugo Award. Now I did feel that his Calculating God -- which was also nominated for a Hugo -- deserved to win over the novel that did get it that year as that year's 'Best Novel' Hugo (defined section 1.2 of the WSFS constitution as the 'SF Achievement Award') was won by a children's fantasy book; which though excellent in its own genre had zero SF content. (Yes, I know works of fantasy are eligible for Hugos and this makes sense for science fantasy where the line is blurred, but no way can works of pure fantasy be considered works of SFnal achievement.) Of course Sawyer did win a Hugo in 2003 despite being up against some really brilliant SF rivals on the short list. Whether or not you think this was deserved due to that novel's excellence, or because having been nominated for a Hugo a number of times before it was 'his turn', I leave to you to decide. One factor affecting how this novel, Rollback, will fare in this year's Hugo stakes is that it has the advantage in that it was previously (2006/7) serialised in Analog, so voter familiarity may count. But at the end of the day I guess what I am saying is that Rollback, while being a very sound Sawyer read and being a very solid SF yarn, does not push my envelope either stylistically or conceptually. Having said that, there is no reason why all SF novels should push boundaries. Indeed, if more straightforward and popular works bring new readers to the genre then that is no bad thing. I enjoy a good Sawyer read but I cannot quite seem to work up the same enthusiasm that Hugo voters (largely North American Worldcon goers) do. So maybe the fault is with me? Get the book and see what you think. Are we talking about a thoroughly sound SFnal read or is it SF achievement? I think only really you should decide that for yourself.
Stop Press: The 2008 Hugo Award winners were announced and Rollback was a runner-up.
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