Re: Rollback

Robert J. Sawyer has some useful things to say about promoting your work. After all, the guy who snagged sfwriter.com for his website must know what he’s doing. But maybe he’s a little too good at promoting himself.

When I heard him interviewed on Dragon Page Cover to Cover, I was intrigued by the opening dilemma. Sarah Halifax, a brilliant astronomer who deciphered the first communication from the stars is an old woman when the aliens answer. They want to talk to her, and she is offered a “rollback” to rejuvenate her so she can decode the answer. She agrees, only on condition that they also rollback her husband, Don. While his rollback works, hers fails. It sounded like a great concept: interstellar contact crossed with personal tragedy.

Unfortunately, the execution of Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer leaves something to be desired. I couldn’t believe it when I flipped open the book and found a page where two paragraphs start with “She looked stunned,” followed by “She looked stunned, then frowned.” Despite the clunky prose, it was a fast read; I whipped through it in about four hours.

There are some cool ideas. Alien contact. Aliens who expect to have the same pen-pal. The moral questionnaire to screen for a suitable foster parent. Bio-engineering alien ambassadors. However, I’m bugged about the god-fearing, anti-abortion subtext.

The whole book feels like a thinly disguised essay on “What if we contacted aliens and they wanted to talk about morality?” In fact, most of the conversations were essays about morality. It could have been interesting, but once I realized what the book was about, I knew it was only a matter of time before they discussed the Trolley Problem as if it were some earth-shattering moral dilemma. Yack. The conversations that involved planning followed two patterns.
Pattern 1:

A: Here’s what we’re going to do.
B: OK

Pattern 2:

A: Here’s what we’re going to do.
B: I don’t think so.
A: I don’t care. We’re doing it anyway.
B: OK

Thus, over the course of the book, Sarah’s conversation with the aliens follows Pattern 1.

A: Here, take this survey.
B: Okay.
A: We like you. Here’s the instructions for making one of us.
B: Okay.

And that’s it? No questioning of either request? No requests of our own? No world-wide debate over whether we should cooperate? It doesn’t make sense.

I didn’t get much human feeling for any of the characters. It doesn’t help when characters in the next century dwell on cultural references of this one. I liked Sarah the most, but we see very little of her. She does get the two best scenes in the book, when she makes her breakthroughs in talking to the aliens.

Don is an ass. He took up most of the book proving that youth is wasted on the young. No wait, he accomplished so little, he also proved that youth is wasted on the rejuvenated young, too. And he never seems to pay a price. Maybe there’s a bit of guilt when he sleeps with his new girlfriend, Lenore, but really all he has to do is outwait Sarah. And then he and his new family close the book by standing around her tombstone and talking about how wonderful she was. Double yack.

This story could have been so much better.

Tomorrow: A standalone that doesn’t quite stand alone.

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