Robert J. Sawyer
In the near future on Earth, a second message has been received from aliens on Sigma Draconis, in a system only 19 light-years away. Dr. Sarah Halifax, who decrypted the aliens’ first message 38 years ago, is asked to work on decoding this second message as well. Only problem is, she’s 87 years old. When a multi-billionaire offers to pay for a rollback procedure for Sarah and her husband Don, making them physically young again so that she can decode the new message and continue to communicate with the aliens for many years into the future, they agree…but the rollback fails to work on Sarah, leaving Don physically 25 years old, with a mind full of 87 years of memories and married to an 87-year-old woman.
This book combines some interesting plot concepts with a page-turning, easy-to-read third-person narrative style, making for a quick yet entertaining — almost can’t-put-it-down — read. Sawyer tosses off a lot of cultural references — many of them from recent pop-culture history and many others fabricated events from the near future — which add a certain authenticity to his narrative. He also writes engaging dialogue, though the characters are not particularly well-developed. Overall, the writing style is not very dense, yet interesting, with some compelling plot elements, making for an enjoyable read.
Sawyer attempts to give his story some weight by including some moral and ethical themes. His story lends itself pretty well to this. The dangers of playing God by attempting to alter the natural course of life and death is a classic sci-fi theme, and the characters — Don and Sarah, as well as, it turns out, the aliens themselves — are all interested in morality, how it is defined and how moral beliefs impact both individual persons and society at large. In fact, Don and Sarah and their family members hold quite a few extended discussions of ethical questions and issues — from ‘playing God’ through science, to family values, to abortion. Sawyer manages to work these moral conversations into the book without allowing the pacing to drag. And I tend to be appreciative of fiction where the characters actually discuss morality like it matters.
However, in the end, Sawyer did not succeed in making these discussions of morality compelling to me, for two reasons. First, he did not sufficiently integrate them into the plot. The characters debate various ethical questions, yet their debates do not play out thematically in the plot. They discuss the idea that persons who play God through science supposedly ‘become’ God as they create new things, yet the story breaks with tradition in avoiding much exploration of the dangers of such behavior. We are led to expect that Don’s rollback is going to create moral quandaries for him, but aside from a little guilt when he first cheats on Sarah and sleeps with a 25-year-old woman, he doesn’t seem to undergo much conflict about the situation. (Regarding this affair — can I just say ‘ew’?) And there’s another ‘playing God’ plot element which works out conflict-free, as well (more details would constitute spoilers). I was hoping for more integration of the content of the moral conversations into the fabric of the plot, but I was disappointed.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, all the characters based their discussions of morality on a purely Darwinian foundation, and they failed utterly to convince me that evolved morality matters. In my own reading of Darwin I found his arguments for the biologically-based evolution of morality to be the weakest part of his theory (in addition to being contrary to the Christian view of morality). But they also make any serious debate about morality seem kind of stupid. I mean, if morality has evolved societally, changes over time, and has no absolute definition, why in the world would people even bother to discuss it or debate about it? Who cares? On some level, the characters in Rollback recognize the irony in this, since they do hold fast emotionally, psychologically, and rationally to their ethical beliefs while at the same time holding that those beliefs are evolved and therefore not based on any absolute standard. They also hold various beliefs which they openly acknowledge are not Darwinian and indeed completely illogical according to Darwinian theories of morality (including their dedication to SETI in the first place). But for the most part, they fail to engage in any real way with this paradox; they do not wrestle with it. On this level Sawyer failed to impress me as some authors with whose worldview I disagree have nevertheless done — he could not convince me that moral questions and their answers were actually important to him, try as he might to make them seem important to his characters.
Not to mention that the characters hold many moral beliefs which I found revolting — central among them being their belief in the ‘right’ to abortion, which they proudly (and extremely ironically) proclaim as a post-Darwinian triumph over the ‘selfish gene’ — since, of course, killing one’s own offspring is not a good way to win out at natural selection and therefore is oh-so-selfless. Don feels guilty about cheating on Sarah — only because, as he explains to himself, the morality of his generation dictated that fidelity is a good thing (a dictate which doesn’t apply to the younger generation according to his beliefs about the evolution of ethics). And his guilt doesn’t stop him from continuing the adulterous relationship, either.
Content warning: The book contains occasional strong bad language, as well as a couple of embarrassingly technical sex scenes.