Review of Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

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If you enjoy reading science fiction stories where the big scenarios are played out on an everyday human level, then Sawyer is your man. This novel interweaving the two big subjects of alien encounters and rejuvenation is centred on a long, happy marriage between two likeable, highly intelligent people.

Dr Sarah Halifax decoded the first ever radio transmission received from aliens thirty-eight years ago. Now, a second message is received and Sarah, aged eighty-seven, may hold the key to deciphering this one too – if she lives long enough.

rollbackA wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback – a hugely expensive rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on the condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. That process works for Don making him physically twenty-five years again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between them and his wife, Sarah, heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.

The relationship between these two is poignantly portrayed as the rollback levers a chasm between Don and Sarah, despite a lifetime of closeness and shared memories. The original message from the aliens that Sarah decoded turns out to be interestingly different – leading to a lot of speculation as to why they sent a message in that particular format. Sarah battles with ill health to try and unravel their answer which they’ve encoded – again.

There is a lot of flashback to particular points in the Halifax marriage, so we get to know these two characters throughout their lives. Sawyer depicts both protagonists with sensitivity, drawing the reader into their awful dilemma. I found it a moving and riveting read most of the way through.

However, you may have sensed a BUT, and you’d be right. The trouble with this book is the ending. I think that Sawyer also got very involved with these two characters – to the detriment of the book. Without giving any spoilers, the ending is plainly unrealistic. I cannot see any way that Gillian’s siblings would be able to wander freely amongst the public – unless the human race has a wholesale personality transplant sometime in the near future.

Does with mean that Rollback should be avoided? No. If it hadn’t been for the Epilogue, this book would have earnt a 10 from me. The rest of the book is strong enough to weather Sawyer’s inexplicable slide into sentimentality – but I do recommend that you give the Epilogue a miss…
8/10

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