Robert J. Sawyer and his new book ROLLBACK
Anybody over the age of 25 knows the terror of the following five words: “You’re not getting any younger.” Some have even heard the horror in the warning: “Past 30, you lose one thing a year,” where “thing” means bodily efficiency, process, or, heaven forbid, part. What’s there to lose? Quick metabolism. Sex drive. Endless energy and quick recuperation. Hair where you want it, and lack of hair where you don’t. Muscle power. Skin tone. Lack of sag. Pain-free exertion. Pain-free rest. Vision. Hearing. Taste. Bowel and bladder control. Kidney, liver and heart function. Memory. And, finally, life.
But what if you could get it all back, roll it all back to age 25 of peak performance, plus the benefit of your years of knowledge and wisdom (youth is wasted on the young, and wisdom on the old)? And all it would cost would be a fortune... and your natural connection to everyone you’ve ever known?
Such is the alpha and omega of
“This is a realistic technology,” says Sawyer of Rollback’s central concept, “and I do think we will be doing it in the 21st century.... It’s a love story in a science fiction context.” The novel examines what happens when an octogenarian and her husband are offered free rollbacks by the mid-21st century’s equivalent of Bill Gates as a quid pro quo for access to the wife’s scientific genius; the only problem is that her rollback doesn’t take. The novel charts Don Halifax’s misery at watching his brilliant wife drift towards death while he discovers that new vitality has opened him up to new realms of pain. He’s a 25-year old with an active sex drive, but his frail wife can’t possibly meet him even halfway. He wants to work, but he’s a half-century past relevant job training or experience, having retired decades before. And he’s alienated from his family and friends who are jealous of his second chance at life.
“Science fiction is always metaphor,” says Sawyer. “One of the things I’m dealing with is the health-care crisis that the
The ethics of rollback medical interventions--which, of course, are the logical outcome of all medicine--are complicated and rife with conflict, and mirrored in our current global crisis of medicine for the wealthy and early death for the rest. Who will be able to pay for such treatments? Will ageing become the newest symbol of class division? What will become of mandatory retirement? What becomes of the human experiences, thus far relegated to a maximum of 120 years, when people might live to 170 0r 180? Will people discover they won’t even want to live to that age once they’re there?
Rollback, like many of Sawyer’s novels, deals with a completely recognisable world in which humanity faces opportunities and crises caused by scientific discovery. Sawyer prefers populating his worlds with realistic people--journalists, researchers, students--rather than SF clichés of beautiful, buxom scientists and lantern-jawed heroes. It’s that humanity and familiarity, combined with Sawyer’s passionate pacifism and endlessly engaging revelation of scientific marvel and inquiry, that make his work so enjoyable and memorable. Such qualities have also endeared him to audiences that think they’re too good for “that sci-fi stuff,” granting him access to the same people who read Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake), Michael Crichton or Kurt Vonnegut, without realising that they’re imbibing the very SF they tend to dismiss out of hand.
Sawyer understands some of the resistance to SF, even while lamenting it and SF publishing’s current decline. 2007 is a long way gone from the post-war climax of SF literature, itself a product of American ascendancy and belief in the power of technology to cure all ills (Sawyer points out that in the 1950s, “Better living through chemistry” was an actual slogan, rather than an ironic punch line). In the 1960s, SF became, especially in the short story magazines, “a literature of technological boosterism,” says Sawyer. “That was perhaps right for the time, but it has not aged well.” By Sawyer’s reckoning, the Jetsons-vision of the future of flying cars and humanoid robot butlers seemed a genuinely achievable promise--indeed, a guarantee--in the 1950s. But by the 1960s, the robot’s sheen was rusted red; the gap between the promise of democracy and the lies of industrial capitalism was a chasm all were forced to witness, including the millions of bodies and the ecological devastation piling up inside it. What SF promised was becoming identified with what the Nixon generation had pledged, and fewer people than ever wished to identify with tricky Dicks of any stripe.
Yet the best of SF continues to be acutely relevant because of its dedication to asking difficult questions without resorting to reaction or pastoral fantasy, embodying what
"And boy, do we, the general public, ever crave that. We really want there to be a clear cut [declaration] of ‘This is bad guy we have to go after: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden.’ We identify these people [as] pure unmitigated evil, and we, by default because we’re going after them, become pure, unadulterated good. That’s very comforting. There’s a president in the White House who totally looks at the world in that way. There are no shades of grey. There’s black; there’s white. It’s totally clear in his mind which side he’s on. The irony is that half of the rest of the world, once you get outside of
Tuesday, May 1, 7 pm