July 21, 2008

Book review: "Rollback," by Robert J Sawyer

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Rollback, by Robert J Sawyer
Rollback (book; 2007)
By Robert J Sawyer
Tor / ISBN: 978-0-765-31108-5

Regular readers know that July has been somewhat of a special month for me, in that I was accidentally able to get ahold of eight out of the twelve science-fiction novels nominated this year for either the Hugo or Philip K Dick award, and have been reviewing all of them here throughout the month; today's review is the seventh in that series*, in fact, with only Adam Roberts' Gradisil still to go (which is phenomenal, by the way, and right now is tied in my head with Ian McDonald's Brasyl as my favorite of the eight; but more on that in a few days). Today I'm reviewing the latest by Robert J Sawyer, an industry veteran who is one of the few proud holders of the "SF award trifecta" (the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell awards, that is, considered by most fans to be the three most important awards in the industry); it is my first book by him, frankly, the Hugo-nominated Rollback from 2007, and I have to admit right away that I found it kind of a mess, unfortunately turning by halfway through into an unreadable mess, now making me wonder if his entire career is maybe a bit overinflated, or if he just happened to turn in a subpar book here in particular.

See, it's about this old couple, right? And nearly half a century ago, the wife of this couple happened to be the first person on the planet to figure out the meaning behind the very first message ever received from extraterrestrial intelligent life, and the person who led the team who put together a response to send back to these aliens via radio wave. (And yes, right in the manuscript itself, Sawyer addresses the fanboys who are tempted to shout, "Dude, that's the same storyline as Carl Sagan's Contact!" Which of course is part of the problem; if your project is so similar in storyline to a more famous one that you actually have to address it in your own book, that's a sign that you should rethink your premise to begin with.) They've been waiting 25 years for the response to even get to this foreign planet, and then another 25 years for whatever response the aliens might have of their own; and sure enough a new response has just been received at the opening of the novel, but with the couple now too old and frail to be working on a response team again full-time.

In steps this eccentric trillionaire entrepreneur, then, who simply must have the brilliant woman on the team trying to figure out why the aliens have responded the way they have; so much so, in fact, that he is willing to pay the billions of dollars needed to have the woman's entire physical body "rolled back" to a state of youth, through an ingenious combination of surgery, therapy, genetic manipulation and other near-future medical subjects actually being worked on by doctors of today. Oh, and her husband gets rolled back too, because she insists on it. Which is where the big problem comes; because apparently the experimental nature of all this was never fully emphasized to the couple, with the husband's rollback procedure "taking" but hers failing, leaving her as the same 80-year-old as before but him now a strapping lad of 25 with bulging muscles and a perpetual erection. And thus do conflicts arise between the two; and thus does the husband suddenly encounter unexpected instances of ageism in society, ala Black Like Me; and thus does the woman keep working on figuring out why these space aliens have sent back as their response what seems to be a round of the party game "Scruples," a bunch of ambiguous questions about human ethics for which the team doesn't quite know how to respond.

It's not too bad a premise, I suppose, although treads heavily on the same "We Can Make A New You" ground already made famous by such so-called "Web 2.0 writers" as Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross; the biggest problem, though, is that Sawyer just never manages to pull the entire thing together into a cohesive, entertaining story, but instead presents us a bunch of parts pulled from all over the place, that reflect the fact that they were pulled from all over the place. Like, Sawyer has a bad habit here of falling into that trap so many "near-future" authors fall into, of overexplaining the real technology behind their near-future speculations, of citing actual authors and articles within the text and turning the whole thing more into a Wikipedia entry than a gripping novel. At the same time, though, Sawyer makes beginning writing mistakes when addressing the subject of this husband actually "rolling back" to an earlier physical state; throughout the manuscript, Sawyer seems to argue that even the man's mindset would revert back to that of a horny, immature 16-year-old, simply by reverting his body to such a state.

That really bothered me about this book, to tell you the truth, that instead of Sawyer exploring the fascinating issue of putting all the wisdom and experience of a 80-year-old into a 25-year-old's body, he instead relies too much on this reverted teenage mental state to provide all the drama inherent in the plotline. In fact, the moment I stopped reading was the moment this rejuvenated male decided to have an affair with a college student, knowing full well how devastated his 80-year-old wife was over this entire situation in the first place, but not caring because of currently having the righteous boner of a sex-starved undergraduate. It really bothered me that such a character would so carelessly throw away half a century of marriage with a woman currently on the brink of mental collapse as it is, merely because he wants some quick sex with some anonymous 20-year-old. That's not only inconsistent with what had already been established about these characters and their relationship, it's insulting to the natural intelligence of the reader; and Rollback is unfortunately full of such moments, dozens of them that will make the smart reader pause and say, "Now wait just a freaking minute here, Robert J Freaking Sawyer."

You know that part in the early-'80s Disney movie Tron, where Jeff Bridges discovers that he can hold one of the otherworldly ships together just through his mind alone? But he gets in a busted ship that keeps threatening to fall apart on him? And he keeps throwing his hands out in the air and wiggling them, as if to say, "Hold together, damn you, HOLD TOGETHER"? Yeah, that's how I felt when reading Rollback, a collection of interesting ideas that unfortunately never does coalesce into an enjoyable reading experience. I'm certainly willing to give Sawyer the benefit of a doubt here, since this was my first book of his, and to assume for now that this is merely one clunker out of an otherwise outstanding career; unfortunately, though, it's a clunker nonetheless, one I'm surprised got nominated for the Hugo in the first place.

Out of 10:
Story: 4.5
Characters: 5.6
Style: 7.6
Overall: 6.1

Read even more about Rollback: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Other nominated books now reviewed: Charles Stross' Halting State; Jon Armstrong's Grey; Sean Williams' Astropolis: Saturn Returns; Ian McDonald's Brasyl; M John Harrison's Nova Swing; and John Scalzi's The Last Colony. Are you a little sick of science-fiction yet? Don't forget that the Hugo winner will finally be announced on August 9th in Denver, at the Worldcon fan convention which actually sponsors the award.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:53 AM, July 21, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |