You have to be a certain age before you will consider whether you want to be young again and live your life again. Sarah and Don are octogenarians and, after a full and contented life with children and grandchildren, have options to change their lives that we rarely dream of. However, Sarah, Dr. Halifax, is not just anybody. She is a well-known scientist who, back in 2009, had deciphered the first message from Sigma Draconis, a star system some nineteen light years away from Earth. Now, thirty-eight years later, the response to Earth's message is received and nobody can break the encryption code. Can Sarah do it again and will she live long enough to make it happen?
Cody McGavin, chief of a robotics company and always on the lookout for new technological discoveries is one the richest people around. He is convinced that Sarah is vital to decoding the message now and also for future message exchanges with "her Dracon pen pal". It is 2048 and, thanks to a process of DNA resequencing and some other "tuck" jobs, it has become possible to literally roll back a person's biological body to the prime of their life, around age 25. The procedure is experimental and only for the super-rich, like McGavin himself. He is willing to pay for Sarah to have this chance at another lifespan. It's not something she accepts lightly, insisting that her husband of 60 years, Don, is included in the offer. They both undergo the procedure which is successful for Don but not for her.
While in Sawyer's previous bestseller, Mindscan, life could be extended thanks to copying a complete brain map onto the bionic body, in Rollback advances in medicine are the solution. Here the ethical question is not so much who is the real person, but how do you harmonize an octogenarian brain with a 25-year old physique? Can you relive your life without stumbling over history? How do grandchildren deal with a grandfather who is much younger than their own parents? How do friends and former colleagues react? And, above all, how does this gap influence the relationship between husband and wife? Can it survive at all?
Leave it to Robert Sawyer to pack his speculative fiction with deep philosophical questions and topics for debate. Rejuvenation is but one of these. If humans can recreate themselves to live, maybe forever, are humans in fact playing God? How do people and societies cope with that? Cosmic communication is another major theme. The first message that Sarah had decoded was in effect a detailed questionnaire about Earth's peoples' perspectives on life and society. Why do they want to know? What do you tell aliens about human society? Do you tell the truth or do you present Earth in the best light possible? How to answer moral and philosophical conundrums? The range of the Dracons' questions probe deeply into the human psyche, testing its integrity.
The narrative moves between timelines of 2048, to previous milestones in the couple's life, mostly through Don's pondering his memories. There was Sarah's work with the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project that led to the first transmission from Earth into the universe. Her discovery of the code that deciphered the Sigma Draconis message and the complex organization of the reply. Don, a TV and radio producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was a good and patient dialogue partner for his wife. Through their conversations, played back in Don's mind, the reader can follow multiple strands of arguments about the worth of SETI, astronomy, genetics and more.
Sawyer has referred to Rollback as a "phi-fi" novel - a philosophical novel. The book's events are strongly anchored in current scientific knowledge. It speculates on possible future scenarios in fields like medicine and inter-stellar communication. Yet, this is also very much a human interest story. Sawyer has created memorable characters and realistic environments in which their lives unfold. It will fascinate the fan of Sawyer's sci-fi books as much as the general reader who is interested in a well written story that raises questions some of which we might pose ourselves already today. [Friederike Knabe]