on 10 February 2014
In 2009, I read my first Robert J. Sawyer novel—Calculating God (2000)—which I enjoyed for its plethora of science yet panned for its stereotypes and a laundry list of annoyances: “near-millennial pop-culture references, science fiction trivia, extensive homage paid to the late Carl Sagan and facts surrounding the real Royal Ontario Museum”. Little did I know, Rollback would gather these same elements around an entirely different plot; yet, regardless of the who, what, when, where and why of the plot, the entire novel feels like a paint by numbers novel—a pushover, an easy read.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens thirty-eight years ago. Now, a second message is received, and Sarah, not eighty-seven, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too… if she lives long enough.
A 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. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five 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 him and his wife, Sarah heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.”
It has long been thought that the first message from an alien race would be the passing of information vital to bootstrap the human race into technological perfection, to provide all of humankind’s questions with a simple yet benevolent heaven-sent answer. However, the first message was anything but.
March 1st, 2009: Earth’s first reception of an alien message via SETI. The enormous packet of data sent from Sigma Draconis II is encoded by a decimal number system, which is gradually decoded by numerous experts around the work. The first part of the message establishes a common grammar for the second part of the message which defeats the world’s greatest minds… until Sarah Halifax stumbles upon the answer to the deciphering while playing Scrabble with her husband; the feat wins her brief worldwide fame. More importantly, the resulting information is discovered to be a survey of eighty-four question regarding morals and ethics:
"A series of questions, most of which are multiple choice, laid out like a three-dimensional spreadsheet, with space for a thousand different people to provide their answers to each question. The aliens clearly want a cross section of our views, and they went to great pains to establish a vocabulary for conveying value judgments and dealing with matters of opinion, with sliding scales for precisely quantifying responses." (100)
Of the 1,206,343 anonymous responses to the questionnaire via internet, 999 are randomly selected to be sent back to the alien source with the inclusion of one additional response: that of Dr. Sarah Halifax. The 18.8 light-year distance to Sigma Draconis II means that humanity will not receive a return signal for at least another 37 years. Meanwhile, the humans go about their terrestrial lives doing terrestrial things such as playing Scrabble, watching Seinfeld and buying DVDs of old Canadian TV series.
February 2nd, 2048: Earth’s second reception of a signal from Sigma Draconis II. Sarah Halifax, celebrating her sixtieth wedding anniversary at the ripe age of eighty-seven, is called on to decipher the message yet again. The bulk of the message is unreadable yet is confirmed to have been sent by the same aliens which sent the initial message as they used a unique identifier, a fact kept secret from everyone on Earth. Cody McGavin, the superbly wealthy business owner and financer of SETI, calls upon Sarah because he believes that the enormous distance of signaling between civilizations is not a conversation between the same civilizations, but between individuals: the one alien and the one human transceivers. To facilitate this belief, opposing Sagan’s rhetorical question “Who speaks for the Earth?” (144), McGavin offers the most sacred of gifts to Sarah: near immortality.
The gift of near immortality comes in the form or a “rollback” procedure, from the Rejuvenex company, which starts “with a full-body scan, cataloging problems that would have to be corrected: damaged joints, partially clogged arteries, and more” (58) and entails a repair to their DNA, with “trillions of somatic cells” being repaired while “lengthening the telomeres” (59). The procedure costs billions of dollars and only a few wealthy people could afford the process of restoring their body clock to the age of twenty-five or so.
With the passing of their recent sixtieth anniversary, Sarah and Don look forward to spending another sixth years of marriage together. With the procedure complete, Sarah and Don notice no immediate effects but the checkups performed by Rejuvenex’s doctors reveal that, while Don’s rollback is progressing nicely, Sarah’s own rollback hasn’t started, leaving her at the physically frail age of an octogenarian yet her mind is still sharp as a tack.
Without the buzzing susurrus of his body’s aging pains, Don’s rejuvenation unveils the cobwebbed senses of youth: vim and vigor, hope and ambition, and, most notably, the stirring juices of sexual attraction—the feeling of being attractive and attracted. Unable to squelch his new-found stallion lust with his fragile wife, Don finds ample opportunity at the university where Sarah used to work. His errand of fetching her “contact” papers allows him to contact a particularly pulchritudinous redheaded graduate student who lures him into her bed… without a sign of physical struggle or mental anguish.
Ignorant of his trysts yet slowly realizing the ramifications of his rejuvenation, doddering Sarah eventually falls and can’t get up because philandering Don isn’t there to assist her. She asks filthy rich Cody McGavin, of McGavin Robotics, for a robot assistant to help her at home while Don is dipping his wick elsewhere. Able to cook, serve, chauffer and ambulate Sarah, the robot, which they name Gunter, becomes an essential part of their family. They invest their trust in the machine which is concerned for their well-being and is always hovering around Sarah to facilitate her every whim and aid in her memory.
Meanwhile, Sarah toils at home trying to decipher the recent signal from Sigma Draconis II. Across the world, those with original copies of the transmission are correlating that data with the recent set and even amateurs are taking futile stabs at cracking the code. She thinks, perhaps, that one set of answers from the original questionnaire may unlock the transmission, but the eighty-four sets are unable to unscramble the code; attempting to unlock it with all possible variations of answers from the questionnaire would result in 2 × 10^39 unique answer sets, which is even beyond the capability of supercomputers in the year 2048.
Increasingly physically feeble, Sarah expends her last joules of might to decipher the code, alone in her strife at home and together with symposiums online. Revitalized with youthful vigor, Don is also gifted with age-old wisdom thereby questioning his own impetuous actions; his love for Scrabble and women one-third of his age is eclipsed by his lifelong dedication to his dear wife, Sarah.
I have given thought about what the first, brief message from the stars would be:
Mars: “Mars needs women.”
Tau Centuri: “Hello?”
51 Pegasi: “Attachment not found.”
Vega: “Erectile dysfunction?”
Capella: “We request The Beatles.”
Aldebaran: “This statement is false.”
Altair: “What was I gonna say?”
Popular held opinion, as mentioned in Rollback, is that aliens will bestow great knowledge to us because of their advanced capabilities and age-old benevolence, a belief once held by Carl Sagan: “Carl Sagan used to talk about us receiving an Encyclopaedia Galactica” (100). Instead of answers, the aliens of Sigma Draconis II send questions, questions of personal moral depth, all of which can be accomplished by the lengthy primer which stems from mathematics. It’s a bit beyond my mind or belief how you go from “[Question] 2+3 … [Answer] 5” (73) to “Is it acceptable to prevent pregnancy when the population is low?” or “Is it acceptable to terminate pregnancy when the population is high?” or “Is it all right for the state to execute bad people?” (101).
I can briefly suspend my belief (as a SF reader, this is rather precursory) for the message, but the reply to our answers is borderline absurd. The surprising content of the message may first be wow but the ramifications soon dissolve the initial excitement to turgid interest and finally to the novel’s epilogue with either flaccid disinterest or rigid revolt… the epilogue is pretty, pretty cheesy—barely able to stomach as a matter of opinion.
Referring to the “near-millennial pop-culture references, science fiction trivia, extensive homage paid to the late Carl Sagan and facts surrounding the real Royal Ontario Museum” mentioned in the introduction, let me outline these eccentricities and others exhibited by Sawyer in this novel, eccentricities which make the novel irksome, painful to read. All these whims coalesce into one broad category of indulgence:
(a) The book feels cheesy, hokey or emphatically sarcastically cute. Passing whims include: the chimes of Window’s OS opening theme, visiting outdated websites (Slashdot) on said computer, remembering television shows of Canada’s past, buying DVDs of said television series, recollecting a favorite Seinfeld episode, buying VHS and DVD movies, mentioning the difference between Contact the book (1985) and Contact the movie (1997), listening to an iPod, naming a robot from a memory of Lost in Space (1965-1968), remembering watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, playing The Sims game, mentioning a fictional glass artist who has the same name as the book’s dedication: Robyn Herrington, etc.
(b) Carl Sagan is mentioned seven times (pages 30, 55, 100, 103, 106, 144, 243), which is strange because he isn’t a character in the novel. He may be one of Sarah’s influences and one-time personal colleague, but why must he be so prevalent? I don’t know why Sawyer is so obsessed with Sagan; he may have been a great scientist and intellectual, but how does one find the gall to include the man in such a mediocre novel?
(c) The gall/cheese factor is ramped up when Don says, "One of my favorite authors once said, 'Virtual reality is nothing but air guitar writ large'", which is actually a quote from Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment (1995).
(d) Then there are a few hiccups which have no referential point and even after research, I can’t pin down the reference; for example: “Pauli's turned out to be a seafood restaurant, and even though Don loved John Masefield's poetry, he hated seafood. Ah, well; doubtless the menu would have some chicken or steak” (44). I thought maybe I had missed something or had Sawyer simply stuck this in the story to be cute… well, on a short Twitter exchange, Robert J. Sawyer, himself, said, “Masefield wrote ‘Sea Fever’, which didn’t put the matter to rest. It must be another one of those “cute/clever” eccentric additions of Sawyer’s which he thinks is pretty keen to include in his novel but really adds zero value to the story… perhaps, negative value.
Aside from the numerous eccentricities which distract the reader more than entertain the reader, the novel is a no-brainer: predictable twists and predictable characters. Including working full-time and two 8-hour periods of sleep, I finished this book in a matter of 47 hours… not because it was engrossing, captivating or intellectually stimulating, but because it read easily (more easily that A. A. Attanasio’s Radix , rather). You could say, it read so easily that it was void of any engrossment, captivation or intellectual stimulation; “very readable” does not equate to “very good”.
I guess if you want to read a quick book on a long flight and suffer indigestion from the book’s content rather than the plane’s food, this might be for you. Or, if you savor pop culture references and meaningless eccentricities, you might enjoy every other word of this novel. I’m sad I still have Sawyer’s The Hominids in my bookshelf… it might receive an early, thrusting boot from my collection if it anything like this cheese platter called Rollback.