Interesting SF timing over the past couple of days… I finished Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel “Rollback” on Sunday, and was able to take in Sawyer’s reading/book signing Monday night at Vancouver’s speculative fiction bookstore, White Dwarf Books. I hadn’t planned it that way, just one of those nice coincidences where what you’re currently reading syncs-up nicely with a related an event.
The reading was an enjoyable evening. The folks at White Dwarf cleared an open space between the shelves and crammed in enough chairs for about two dozen of us and provided wine, juice and some tasty cookies, all under the watchful eye of the store’s resident basset hound. For his part, Sawyer was intelligent, warm and funny and seems like the kind of guy it’d be cool to sit down and have coffee with and talk about, well, pretty much anything. He gave a spirited reading of an excerpt from “Rollback”. Sawyer took questions from the audience, deftly managing a spirited discussion about the apparent halt of Darwinian forces in modern human evolution. He was also kind enough to share his thoughts about his approach to character writing in answer to my question about how he was able to put himself, as a middle-aged person, into the mindset of a senior citizen. Sawyer responded that he combined the writer’s ability to imagine himself as thoroughly as possible in his character’s shoes, with a good deal of observation of old people around him, as well as feedback on his drafts from friends who are seniors. He pointed out he’d previously had to make the same imaginative leaps into lives he’d never experienced when creating characters who were Neanderthals or evolved dinosaurs. Sawyer went on to note that his next task along these lines would be to include a 15-year-old blind girl as a character in an upcoming novel. Great to see he’s always looking to tackle new challenges as a writer. It’s one thing to invent an alien personality from scratch where you get to make the rules, it’s quite another to create human characters who readers can believe they’d actually meet out and about on the streets – something that Sawyer continues to do with success.
As for the novel, “Rollback” is a clever, warm and honest exploration of the challenges of being old, and the pitfalls that would open up if the elderly could become young again.
The story focuses on Don Halifax, an 87-year-old retired CBC (Canada’s public broadcaster) Radio producer and sound technician, married to Sarah, a retied SETI astronomer who, decades earlier, decoded an alien transmission and spear-headed Earth’s response signal. Now the aliens have sent another signal, scrambled with a different key, and a corporate tycoon wants Sarah to again take the lead in figuring out what the extraterrestrials want. Problem is, Sarah’s so old, she’ll never live to see if the aliens continue the conversation, never mind that she might not be around long enough to crack this code. That’s where the rollback procedure comes into play: it’s a rejuvenation process so insanely expensive only the ultra-rich can afford it. A series of medical treatments that reverses the aging process and returns the patient to a physical state of about 25-years-old. Sarah agrees to undergo the treatment and work on the new signal project, but only if Don gets the rollback to. Tragically, while the process is a resounding success with Don, it fails with Sarah, leaving her withered and old, and somewhat alienated from her husband. Don must now struggle to maintain his relationship with his wife and family even as he faces the challenges of reintegrating into a world that hasn’t had much use for him in a long time.
In a recent review on Sci Fi Weekly’s books section, Paul Di Filippo likens “Rollback” to a concoction made from the movies “Cocoon”, “Contact” and “On Golden Pond”. I don’t think that’s an entirely fair comparison.
“Rollback” is nowhere near as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about communicating with alien civilizations as “Contact” is – Sawyer’s book is far too practical in its philosophy about the impact of an interstellar meeting of the minds.
I’m not even going to get into the differences with “On Golden Pond”, aside from the fact that “Rollback” didn’t bore the hell out of me like the former did.
As for “Cocoon”, while one may be tempted to say there’s a similarity in the sympathetic treatment of the lives and challenges of the elderly in today’s society, I think there’s only a surface resemblance. “Cocoon” shows us a troop of seniors having, for the most part, a jolly good time once their rejuvenation kicks in. It’s like a long-form version of Spielberg’s Twilight Zone remake of “Kick the Can”. Sure, Hume Cronyn’s character runs around on his wife, but we’re given to believe that he was pretty much always that way until age slowed him down.
“Rollback”, on the other hand, presents relationships, choices and circumstances that are far more complex because of the multi-layered nature of the age disparities within it. Don is the same mental/emotional age as Sarah, but physically he becomes much younger, creating a world of difference in terms of physical capabilities, sex drive, appetites for food, need for sleep, even tolerance for the pace of conversation. He still loves Sarah deeply, and yet these differences drive him into the arms of grad student Lenore. Not in a happy-go-lucky way like Cronyn’s cheating husband in “Cocoon” but in a set of circumstances fraught with guilt that stains his new relationship.
Don must also struggle with the angst accompanying the fact that he will now outlive his wife – not by a few months or years, but now having to endure decades of mourning. And Sarah can only watch as he tries to cope with this. On top of this burden, Don begins to question his own value, pondering how many people more worthy than he have not had access to this procedure which would allow them to continue to make valuable contributions to society. We see overall that Don is suffering from a strange new kind of survivor’s guilt.
And yet Don’s not truly at home the young either – he may look like one of them, but he doesn’t think like them at all. Don has 87 years worth of life experience to shape his beliefs and affect his judgment, and this occasionally causes problems when Lenore has to upbraid him for being patronizing, or when he simply feels isolated among the young whipper-snappers at the pub. But this alienation doesn’t drive him away from his second love interest, in fact, it drags the two of them closer together, creating a love triangle not in the soap-opera sense, but in a deep, pained, needing and fragile way that is so human that as much as we can’t say we approve of cheating on one’s spouse, we can’t say what’s happening is entirely wrong either.
Don’s got other hurdles to clear beyond sorting out his love-life. His family is forced to readjust to him while Don himself has to come to grips with the fact that he might outlive his own children if the price of the rollback procedure doesn’t come down enough before it’s too late for them.
The jealousy of those around him is another obstacle. Humans have been obsessed with youth for a long time, stretching back into legends of Conquistadores hunting through the jungles of South America for the fountain of youth, Knights questing for the holy grail, or the first Chinese Emperor desperately trying any quack treatment or potion in a bid to live forever. Products and services aimed at returning youth and vitality are a huge part of the modern commercial market. With the premise in “Rollback” that the procedure is ultra exclusive because of its enormous expense, Don finds many around him want what he has and are quite upset when they can’t have it. He finds himself confronted by old friends who want him to get his rich benefactor to foot the bill for treatments for them. Relatives look on Don with jealousy and ask why he gets to go on living when their loved ones have had to die.
And life outside his personal relationships isn’t easy for Don either. With his newly regained youth, Don finds himself confronted with the question of how he will make his new lease on life productive. The answer seems simple enough: go back to work. But what if you’ve been out of the workforce so long your skills are irrelevant? Many out-of-work executives today are finding out that a lifetime of experience is nearly worthless if the nature of the job, the market, the corporate culture, the political/demographic necessities, or the dependent technologies have changed sufficiently.
It’s this tension between deeply complex and human relationships and alienation brought on by radial life and lifestyle change that makes “Rollback” such an interesting story.
Other points of interest in “Rollback” include a sudden change in character point of view about mid-way through the book (after a birthday party, I think), where we suddenly jump from Don to Sarah, then Lenore (possibly one or two others after this) and then back to Don for nearly the rest of the book. I still haven’t figured out why these sudden, temporary POV changes come into play. Certainly they make for an interesting shake-up in pacing and characterization, but why only for such brief portions of the novel? This may bear some more thought.
I also got a kick out of Sawyer referencing his fictional “Old Sully’s” beer – re-using the brand he invented for “Mindscan”. Curious bridge between a story about a man who’s life is extended through medical rejuvenation, and a tale about a man who’s life is extended by downloading his consciousness into an android. The two stories are in some rough way negatives of one-another.
The possibility of life-extending options was actually brought up at one point during the reading/signing discussion where one member of the audience asked Sawyer if he’d consider a robotic upload or a rejuvenation treatment. I seem to recall Sawyer saying he liked flesh too much to go for the android option, but he might be amenable to a rollback.
In any case, Sawyer has shown us with “Rollback” that it’s never too late to breathe new life into the old SF trope of the fountain of youth. And I’m willing to bet this is a yarn that will age well.