Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Long Time Ago In A Blog Far, Far Away

It’s been 30 years. On May 25, 1977, “Star Wars” hit the big screen and science fiction (or science fantasy, depending on how you view it) cinema hasn’t been the same since.
Pretty much everyone who was around then has a story about their first time seeing Lucas’ masterpiece and how it affected them.
For my part, I have an embarrassing confession to make: my first experience of “Star Wars” back in ’77 didn’t come from seeing it in the theatre. Nope. I was 3 at the time, and while my parents were perfectly happy to take me to see Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon”, they wouldn’t take me to “Star Wars”, no matter how much I begged, no matter that all my little friends were seeing it with their older siblings. They claimed that they thought I’d be scared, but my theory’s always been that they wouldn’t go because neither of them likes SF much, and they had no idea what this new film was about and how big it actually was. Took them a while to clue into that. So, I very clearly remember my disappointment at the time, and how I hung on every word from my friends and their big brothers who’d been to the film. Yep, I heard about groundbreaking “Star Wars” second hand. Cue the violins and please excuse me while I go and put a paper bag over my head in shame.
I also remember the TV trailers, but most of all, after the phenomenon really caught hold and the studio realized what it had… the merchandizing. “Merchandizing, merchandizing, merchandizing! Where the real money from the film is made!” to quote Yogurt from Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”. The collectible glasses from Burger King, the action figures, the glow-in-the-dark lightsabres, the colouring books, yes, even the 4-foot-tall inflatable Darth Vader punching bag. (none of which I still have, otherwise I’d be sellin’ them on ebay and retiring)
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to miss the hated holiday special.
But such was the power of the, er, force behind “Star Wars”, that even those second-hand experiences were enough to get me hooked.
In the end, I didn’t see “Star Wars” until after I’d seen “The Empire Strikes Back” (luckily in the theatre this time, on opening weekend – my parents let me skip out on a ball tournament to take me to that one – they’d learned their priorities by then).
That was at the dawn of the home video age when you could rent-out a player and bring it home with a couple of movies (the player itself was not a VHS or Beta – rather, something that played large-format discs about the size of a record in a square plastic sheath – I can’t recall if it was an early laser disc player or not). And while it wasn’t the big old cinema in Kitchener, we had good home-made popcorn, plenty of pop, and when the 20th Century Fox music finished and those first words appeared on the screen, the magic was all there.

And now for the bonus features:

“Star Wars” has inspired strong feelings in people over the years. Some worship it wish slavish devotion, camping out on theatre doorsteps days in advance of the premiers and filling their homes with every sort of collectible the Ranch can possibly license until there’s no room for anything else (I know a guy named Sean here in Vancouver who’s gleefully a member of that group). Some enjoy the films and watch them at least once a year (count me among this bunch). Some take it all in stride. And some loath it completely – or at least what Lucas has done to the series with the prequels and constant tinkering of the originals.
But I think one of the best legacies of “Star Wars” is the satire it’s inspired, showing that not only was it a strong creative, er, force in its own right, but that it could inspire others to create, and to create something to make us all laugh.
In the world of animation, “Family Guy”, “The Simpsons”, “South Park”, “Robot Chicken” and “Undergrads” have all had a poke at The Trilogy over the past few years. Before that, in the years immediately following the original three films, we saw “The Muppets” (true, not animation, but in many ways more in the spirit of animation than live action), “Muppet Babies” and “The Secret Railroad”. I’ll never forget Mr. Passenger pulling out an extension cord, plugging it into a wall socket and dueling it out with Vader on the “Star Wars” spoof episode of “The Secret Railroad” – it still cracks me up (I wish that series was available on DVD – sadly, it’s probably lost).
My favourite live action spoofs have always been the above-mentioned “Spaceballs” and pretty much any Kevin Smith movie because they all include “Star Wars” references or debates. Best line from “Spaceballs”: Dark Helmet: “And that is why evil will always win, because good is dumb!”
There are also many who give the nod to “Thumb Wars”, but I can’t comment ‘cause I haven’t seen it yet.
And, of course, I’m really looking forward to “Fanboys” (initially slated for August, but I think I’ve read it’s now on the roster for January – d’oh!). The premise alone is worth the price of admission.
That being said, regardless of whether you favour live action or animated spoofs, everyone who enjoys taking a gentle shot at “Star Wars” must bow in respect to the one that got the ball rolling… I am, of course, referring to that masterpiece known as “Hardware Wars”. The producers of this short wasted no time in getting their festival of potshots onto the screen – it was out in ’77 as well. How can you not love a film where flashlights were used in lieu of lightsabres – the same as all of us were doing in our basements.
Ladies and gentlemen, to quote Brooks again: “May the Schwartz be with you!”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Playing A Better Hand Than "Heroes"

The first season of “Heroes” came to a middle-of-the-road conclusion on Monday. The series has had its moments of greatness and disappointment, but it’s writers and producers should be given full credit for breaking new ground in television for trying to portray metahumans as real people.
I’ll discuss my thoughts about the season finale of “Heroes” in a couple of days when I’ve had a chance to mull it over a little more. You can also find an excellent discussion of the episode on the SF Signal site (to which I’ve contributed a trivial muttering or two).
But for a superior portrayal of realism in a superheroic setting (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron), I’ve recently started re-reading the “Wild Cards” series, edited by George R. R. Martin. “Wild Cards” presents a world where a genetically-engineered virus created by aliens was released in 1946 – a virus that kills 90% of those who contract it (these people are said to have drawn the black queen) and disfigures 9% of those infected into often hideous freaks called jokers. Only the remaining 1% gain meta abilities without becoming physical horrors. These are the aces. And even among the aces, most powers are weak (telekinesis that can only push a penny across a table) or relatively useless (the self-explanatory talents of Rainbow Man). For those aces who do possess powerful abilities, life isn’t easy either.
It’s the harsh realities of life for jokers, aces, normal humans, and society as a whole that make “Wild Cards” such a worthy read. Where “Heroes” simply brushes the surface of how governments might react to metahumans, what effect these powers have on personal relationships, and the journey of individuals as they discover their abilities and the limits of them, “Wild Cards” plunges into the darkest depths. Heroes make mistakes, have changes of heart and betray each other to save their own skins, and use their public status to get rich endorsing products and making movies or hosting TV shows – because, hey, doing good out on the streets doesn’t pay the bills. Jokers make futile yet determined efforts to have their civil rights recognized. It is a raw world of three-dimensional characters that is utterly believable if you’re willing to accept the premises of superpowers and alien viruses that are compatible with human DNA.
The series is also fun. If you’re a fan of Hiro Nakamura, you’ll love The Turtle. The variety of authors involved in the project gives the series a different feel with every short story in every volume – from action to hard-boiled crime to drama.
It’s been a while since the “Wild Cards” series was published (although I hear Martin’s working on a new project for the line), but if you can find a copy of any of the volumes, it’s certainly worth your while to pick it up. “Wild Cards” is what “Heroes” should have been.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Have Airship Will Travel This Long Weekend

Having just come off the Victoria Day long weekend (the time officially to pay tribute to the legendary monarch of the 19th and early 20th centuries, though observed by most as the frequently rain-soaked start of camping season), I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this posting in her honour by taking a look at speculative fiction of that era and its retro successors of today.
Queen Victoria (born May 24, 1819, died January 22, 1901) ruled from June 20, 1837 until her death. Hers was an era of great scientific advance and cultural upheaval that saw the flowering of benchmark works of speculative fiction from both within and outside the vast British Empire.
The SF of the Victorian age did a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of the times, a sense of awe and fear… Of what could be learned and the power attained, the immensity of what still was not known, and an awareness of a future full of consequences. These authors showed us how an entire culture seemed to feel like an explorer at sea, learning new currents, reefs and islands, becoming comfortable with what was newly attained and yet still gazing at the uncharted horizon with a mixture of eagerness for the riches beyond and the dread of dragons off the map. In going beyond the now and the past to gaze at the wider social implications for the future, while grounding their works in the concrete perspectives of individuals who readers could empathize with, SF authors of the era transcended their peers who only focused on the social ills or class naval-gazing of the day.
My top 5 favourite works of this era from within the British Empire are:

”The War of the Worlds” by HG Wells
”The Time Machine” also by Wells
“Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
“The Lady of Shalott” also by Tennyson
”Dracula” by Bram Stoker
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson

And there were a legion of other seminal works from outside the Empire, including my favourites:

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum

The zeitgeist of our modern Western culture is far different than that of Victorian times. We are more jaded, having split the atom, made powered flight commonplace and traveled to the moon, while still remaining trapped on this one world embroiled in strife and intolerance. But the memory of that freshness, of that time of boundless possibilities is still with us and conjures a wish to have it counterbalance our world-weariness, or at least offer the brief respite of nostalgia. Which is why the themes, settings, and general feelings of 19th century literature are still in use today (without the antiquated, overwrought language). Or, at times, authors will venture into the realm of alternate history, arming themselves with coal-fired steam engines and iron-clads with brass fixtures to pit Victorian-era adventurers against modern SF challenges in what we call Steampunk.
In print, we see great works like:

“The Terror” by Dan Simmons
“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (graphic novel) by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
“The Prestige” by Christopher Priest

(and even a nod to the past from Minister Faust in “Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad” in the form of Digaestus Caesar, one of the gang of villains who’s SF orientation is “Victorian scientific adventure fantasy”)

And this is just a list of personal cream-of-the-crop favourites, never mind the legion of other solid retro-Victorian tales out there.
There are a legion of film and TV references as well, based on works from the Victorian era or moderns stories set within it:

Film versions of the afore-mentioned ‘Oz, ‘Leagues, WOTW, Time Traveller, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Connecticut Yankee, Prestige and LOEG,
“Steamboy” – perhaps the ultimate steampunk indulgence delivered in high-energy anime style.
“From Hell” – the Hughes brothers’ film based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel (which I classify as a genre work because the detective’s prophetic visions are an element of the fantastic).
The recent episode of “Dr. Who” where the Doctor must save Queen Victoria from a werewolf stalking a castle’s gloomy halls.
And, in a nod to my childhood, the cartoon series “The Secret Railroad”, about an old steam locomotive that takes a boy on journeys through time and space.

And steampunk has even made its way into the world of art: check out Erik’s Art, a very cool site where we’re presented with images of what “Star Wars” would have looked like if imagined by Victorians. Here are links to re-imagined renderings of:
Obi Wan Kenobi
The Death Star
Jabba the Hutt
Han & Chewie
Darth Vader

So grab your top hat, hop in your airship, and raise a glass of your favourite refreshment in a toast to Queen Victoria and all the great literature (and its legacy) that her era left us.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

New Robotech Movie Should Stay In The Shadows

I finally got around to renting “Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles” last week and came to the conclusion that while it wasn’t a complete waste of time, it certainly wasn’t the best 88 minutes I’ve ever spent.
Now, I know, there are probably many of you out there chorusing “What did you expect from a fan-film follow-up to a series bastardized from the original Japanese?!” And I have to admit, you’d kinda be right.
I wasn’t expecting anything amazing (Robotech was never the epitome of timeless, top-notch anime). I was kind of hoping for something a little more coherent.
Let me make it clear, that when Robotech (an Americanized riff off of the anime classic “Macross”) first aired here in BC back in the 80’s, I was one impressed teen. How could you not like transformable fighters and starships defending the Earth from aliens – giant aliens no less? That being said, I was only a fan of the first part of the series which depicted the adventures of the crew of the SDF-1 and their battle against the Zentradi. The other two segments, highlighting the wars of subsequent generations against the Robotech Masters and the Invid were largely uninteresting to me at the time. Maybe I was just Roboteched out by the time the first chapter ended.
As an adult, I can still look back and enjoy the celestial slugfests and the attempts at creating three-dimensional characters (though often in a ham-fisted soap-opera way). Although I cringe at the gigantic run-on sentences with their unending streams of subordinate clauses: “…blah blah blah and therefore blah blah blah and so blah blah blah and therefore…” You get the point. Why could they not have had a better dialogue editor back in the day?
Anyhow, never having followed the back two thirds of the story, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be a little lost with some of the character walk-ons and relationships that have their genesis in ‘Masters and Invid.
That being said, this flick was a complete mish-mash of classic character cameos (some unresolved), half-hinted backstories and rushed and undeveloped plot ideas. If old characters are going to make appearances, it should be a reason necessary for the advancement of the plot, not to satisfy cameo-thirsty fanboys. If a movie is released for the general public, backstories necessary to give it context need to be developed properly, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to the uninitiated and seems stilted even to those who already know the story. If a major plot development takes place, it too must be flushed out, and not rushed unceremoniously out the door like the Invid departure as a means to make way for the next undeveloped challenge. In essence, a movie like this needs to be able to stand on its own as an individual story, one that just happens to be part of a larger tapestry.
This principle even applies to feature film pilots for new series (as it’s clear the producers of the new Robotech installment are hoping). Example: the feature pilot for the new “Battlestar Galactica” works great as a stand-alone film. Sure you’d like to see the fleet’s further adventures on the road to Earth, but you don’t need to because you’ve just been told a phenomenal story that works within itself.
“Shadow Chronicles” fails at this. Miserably.
That being said, it wasn’t totally without merit. The space battles were cool and the writers did manage to infuse the film with the same energy level of the original (if not the focus). I also enjoyed how the general design and colouring of the Earth capital ships worked as a nice little nod to another classic: the Yamato/Argo of “Space Cruiser Yamato”/”Starblazers”.
If you have only a passing interest in anime and Robotech history, I’d suggest waiting until “Shadow Chronicles” runs on TV for free before indulging your curiosity.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Yet Another "Where's The Flying Car I Was Promised?" Rant

My car died quietly Thursday morning in my garage. A ’95 Chevy Cavalier bought from the original owner who’d gently used it for three years. Not too much mileage on my black beauty either despite carrying me all over BC. And she always got me home. But aging problems have been mounting over the past couple of years – an issue with the radiator that had me refilling the coolant tank every 2 weeks, a leaky transmission, the gas gage was dead, a dead light on the radio portion of the dash, a couple of minor dents, a busted trunk lock from a failed break-in, and most recently inconsistent ignition. I’d always hoped that if she was gonna die, she’d do it at home and not leave me stranded somewhere, and lo and behold, she did me that last courtesy.
As I called a cab, thought about calling the Kidney Foundation’s car donation program (a tax receipt for your jalopy and the salvage proceeds go to a good cause), and unloaded the car of all the display material I needed to take to a conference that morning, I was trying to figure out how we’d be able to swing buying a new car and, like any good SF fan, I had that moment of futuristic frustration where I asked the gods of technology: Where’s the flying car I was promised?
I mean, this is the vaunted 21st Century! The age of technological progress! If I’m going to be making a decision to replace my old clunker with something new and shiny, I know I ought to be comparing the fuel efficiency of various models, their performance and reliability, their safety ratings, their environmental impact, their looks, their extra bells and whistles, but shouldn’t auto manufacturing be at the point where I can also compare airspeed, lift capacity and non-powered gliding capability?
A sky full of aerial autos is old hat in science fiction. The idea’s been a staple of literature for decades now (does anyone happen to know what the first reference to flying cars was?). It’s been illustrated on-screen in everything from “The Jetsons” to “Bladerunner” to the “Back to the Future” franchise. An old idea, but one that’s failed to materialize in any real practical sense.
Oh sure, there’s the old black and white footage of Avro engineers trotting out their prototype one-man flying saucer. And it seems that just about every year the flaccid excuse for a news program on Discovery Canada (what ever happened to the solid, real science news they used to run when that cable specialty channel first launched?) profiles some wacky back-yard inventor who’s claimed to have cooked-up a workable family flying machine. But where are Toyota, GM and Volvo in all this? What are Bombardier and Airbus doing to bring the dream closer to reality?
They’re content to leave us dreaming.
About the closest any of us are ever going to get to the personal urban aircraft is if we find ourselves in the plywood and cardboard cockpit of an entry in the annual summer “Flugtag” circuit sponsored by the Red Bull energy drink guys.
Although I do have to grudgingly admit that the notion of thousands of us daring young men (and women) in our flying machines taking to the skies is totally impractical. Just think of how the standard traffic accident would be magnified by mid-air collisions. You wouldn’t be crawling out of a crumpled heap or being pulled from a steaming wreck by the jaws of life – you’d be plummeting to the ground thinking your mother was wrong about telling you to wear clean underwear in case you get into an accident because this time, on impact, there’s gonna be a lot of soil – both yours and the ground’s – pretty much all over you.
Safety features like airbags would take on a whole new meaning – instead of big pillows popping out of your steering wheel, they’d have to be rapid-inflating helium balloons to stave-off the aforementioned catastrophic fall.
Where the accidents of today generally involve other vehicles, road signs, trees and the occasional house’s living room, an air car accident could have the potential to wipe out a house or even a residential block.
What about the ability of police to give you a speeding ticket? How would you pull over in mid-air? (Didn’t George Jetson have to deal with a harnessbull in a jetpack on more than one occasion?)
How about wait times in the lineups at the licensing bureau? If you think it takes too long now with 50 people in line ahead of you taking their drivers tests, think of how much longer you’d be waiting if they had piloting components in those forms covering fuel consumption, windspeed, drag and airframe stress? Even worse: think of how much more the bureaucrats at the licensing bureau would enjoy making you wait even longer!
Having to wash bird crap off of the car would be the last thing you’d be worried about – an encounter with a flock of seagulls (the birds, not the silly 80’s band) would pretty much put an end to the vehicle.
And having a sky full of personal aircraft (think of how many cars are on the roads now) would redefine air pollution. Hard enough looking at the night sky in a city and trying to see past the buildings, city light, smog, commercial aircraft and satellites to get a glimpse of stars without having an aerial autobahn to boot.
Then there’s the increased risk of getting lost. “Ah-ha!” you say, “you’d be able to look down on the buildings and streets and find your way around a lot easier!” Really? Doesn’t help when you’re looking at a road map now, does it? And what if you ran into clouds or a really thick smog bank? I would argue that the risk of nagging from impatient backseat drivers would actually increase as you drove around the same cumulonimbus for the third time.
Some might argue that developing sufficiently intelligent computers to handle the flying duties would alleviate these problems. Question: how flawless is the functioning of your PC or Mac? ‘Nuff said. Anyway, that just sounds like another kind of potential nagging backseat driver, except this is one that you wouldn’t be able to give the excuse that you can’t carpool with it because you’ve gotta pick up your kid after school. No, autopilots wouldn’t be the answer.
But still, there is some cheesy 1950’s appeal in the idea of backing your flying car out of the garage onto your personal helipad and whooshing off alone into the clouds in comfort without a flightplan or a care in the world… a sort of technological evolutionary next step in taking to the open road… The sky’s the limit.
Nah. The dealers would probably drain your bank account dry with rotten financing and high interest rates. And gas costs these days? Never be worth it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Another Mainstream Pop Culture Nod To A Frakkin' Good Show

This month’s edition of Vancouver Magazine has a nice column by Laurel Wellman tucked away inside called “Geek Like Me – Hands up: who’s a Battlestar Galactica fan?” (sorry folks, the mag site’s a bit of a disappointment, this particular piece is yet not available online) Wellman writes about BSG’s growing popularity, from acceptance by mainstream critics (whatever that’s worth), to non-SF-fans watching the show, to die-hard fanboys holding fan club meetings (such as “The 13th Colony” gatherings at the Tim Horton’s donut shop in Royal Centre) and throwing Frak Parties to celebrate the season premiers. Nothing terribly new to SF fans who enjoy the show, but it’s nice to see yet another mainstream pop culture mainstay like VM giving it a respectful nod.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Rollback" Is Forward-Thinking When It Comes To Rejuvenation

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.