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by Robert Sawyer
Tor, $14.99, 313pp
Release Date: May 8, 2012
This is a reprint of the original copyright of 2007. I’m always happy to see my favorite authors being reprinted. Rollback is a rather gentle story, as many of Sawyer’s are. There are no cataclysmic or apocalyptic events. There isn’t actually much conflict in this story. Which means, of course, it’s not very exciting. It is, however, thought-provoking.

In this story, Earth received a message from the stars, a planet in the Sigma Draconis system. One special woman, Sarah Halifax, was the one who decoded it. It was an invitation to a conversation. A message was sent back and 36 years passed. A second message is received and it is, again, encrypted. This is a puzzle since the first message was understood and responded to – why would the aliens encrypt the next message? But Sarah is now in her 80’s and frail. She applies herself to decrypting the second message but it seems doubtful she will succeed and certainly won’t live long enough to receive a third message. An obscenely wealthy industrialist offers to pay for a ‘rollback’ for Sarah. A ‘rollback’ is, basically, rejuvenation. Sarah agrees but only on condition that her beloved husband of 60 years is also given a ‘rollback.’

Tragically, the ‘rollback’ doesn’t work for Sarah, probably due to drug therapy she used to fight cancer years before. It does work for her husband, Don. He eventually regresses to appear 25 again. He still loves his wife deeply but he now has the body – and hormones – of a healthy 25-year-old male. There is some gentle romance as he meets a younger woman who reminds him of his wife. His wife is completely aware of his needs and is tolerant. No real conflict here except Don’s tortured conscience.

Sarah does, finally, figure out the encryption and realize the message is intended for her specifically. And the content of the message is for her and her alone. The industrialist believes, of course, that he is entitled to know what it is but Don forces him to back down. Again, though, not much conflict. And we don’t see any involvement from the military or government, which seems unlikely.

The story challenges us to think about what it means to grow old and what it means to be given a second chance at life. The most fun would be considering what it would mean to raise an alien baby but, unfortunately, the author didn’t spend any time on that aspect. The best I can say about it is that it was a light read. ~~ Catherine Book

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