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on 12 October 2008
Sarah Halifax has the knack of de-coding Alien transmissions, but since those transmissions are 38 years apart she goes through an age rejuvenation program known as ROLLBACK.
And as a bonus she gets the authorities to put her husband on ROLLBACK too.
Sadly, only Don's is successful, and suddenly Sarah remains in her eighties whereas Don is now physically a 25 year old.

Sawyer's Hugo and Nebula award winning novel unwraps the almighty problems that gradually evolve between the couple, with the paramount importance of answering the alien message always hovering in the background.
An entertaining read, and an absorbing introduction to an alien concept - it was a worthy start to my holiday reading.
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on 30 April 2007
One of science's more frustrating endeavours has been the quest to find other intelligent species. Dolphins and whales communicate with squeaks, while chimpanzees and orang utans use tools for various purposes - usually dinner. This is doubly tantalising - humans aren't all that unique, but neither of these lifeforms offers much in the way of philosophical dialogue. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence was founded a half-century ago to search elsewhere for somebody to talk to. The search was among the stars.

In this well-conceived and executed tale, Robert J. Sawyer has speculated on the possible results of "listening in" on the Cosmos. A major problem in interstellar communication is that distance equals time. If a planet circling a star 18.8 light years distant wants to chat, it's 37.6 years between responses. SETI had triggered a "first contact" which was translated by Canadian astronomer Sarah Halifax and a reply transmitted. Now, nearly four decades later, whoever lives near Sigma Draconis has answered back. For some reason, the "Dracons" have encrypted the message. Sarah is in her eighties, yet it's clear that she's the best candidate to deal with the new message. At her age can she cope with the intense labour involved in the exercise?

Help is at hand from the science studying aging. An entrepreneur interested in SETI has agreed to fund the means to extend Sarah's life so that she can work on the encrypted message. Sarah, and her husband Don will have their aged bodies "rolled back" to a more youthful physical age. It's like starting life over with almost endless possibilities. The "rollback" process, though tried on only a couple of hundred people, is "foolproof". But while it works on Don, it fails on the person needing it most - Sarah.

Sawyer examines the many practical and philosophical issues surrounding the possibility of extended life. The first, and most obvious, is where Don's restored libido might lead him. Another aspect is the realisation that age may bring wisdom, but what is its worth in terms of employability. Moore's Law says computer power will double every 18 months. Translate that into terms a man retired for twenty years confronts when he seeks a job. Rollback is an expensive process - not everybody can afford it. How does a man deal with his children who are "older" than he and that he's certain to outlive? These are the types of questions Sawyer has a superlative talent in posing and addressing. His ability to develop real characters who must deal with such issues is without peer. Underlying these capabilities is a firm foundation in the relevant sciences. "Rollback" may be speculative, but only in the narrowest definition of the term. Sawyer didn't place this story only a generation in the future just to avoid extravagant surroundings. The science he depicts is almost there. Only the Dracons are missing . . . [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

For nit-pickers: The question of how Don's brain, which has been adjusting to his advancing years, would react to the sudden reversal of the remainder of the body's effective age to 25. Whatever the results to his libido, there's as good an argument for his going insane as there is for Sawyer's scenario of the resetting of his chronological clock. Yet another philosophical question raised by this excellent author. - sah
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on 8 April 2007
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]
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on 6 January 2008
This is very readable even for a non si-fi fan. The thought provoking Story unfolds along two timelines, ensuring you read "just one more chapter". Sawjer is not only a great visionary and futurist, but a superb story teller.
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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?”
Pollox: “LMAO.”
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 [1981], 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.
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Top Contributor: Doctor WhoTOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 21 March 2009
a new novel from science fiction writer robert j sawyer. his books usually are near future set and feature characters going through life changes against a background of cutting edge scientific advances and discoveries. and this one is no exception.

It's s stand alone novel complete in roughly 312 pages. the book is in two parts, and the first part runs for 95 pages.

the plot: [some of this may seem like a spoiler but it's all on the back of the book so it's not anything you won't learn should you get it]

don and sarah are a happily married couple in their eighties. the latter is famous for having successfully decoded a message from aliens years before. and now the world has received a reply to the reply that was sent back then. sarah could help decode it, but to give her the time to do it she is offered a medical treatment that de ages people. she insists on don getting it as well. it works on him. but not her. can the couple survive the age difference that has resulted? and can sarah decode the message?

don and sarah are good and quite likeable characters and their relationship is well portrayed in very readable prose. the narrative does flash back and forward a lot, flashbacks dealing with the time when she deocded the original message. the effect of the age difference is well portrayed and the characterisation is strong here. don does some things that may seem like the wrong decision and you can feel aghast with him doing those but you'll want to read on to know what happens next anyway.

the middle of the book does rather heavily concentrate on the relationship, the decoding of the new message lurking in the background rarely mentioned. and whilst the character story was very good I did feel I wanted to get back to dealing the message. But it all comes together very well in the last sixty pages, the truth about the new message being nicely unexpected.

there are a good few thought provoking moral debates on the way as well. the writing never lectures you but makes you think about them for yourself. which is the best way to do it.

a decent and quite memorable read all in all. it does contain a couple of bits of strong language and some adult situations so it may not be entirely suitable for younger readers
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