Robert J. Sawyer and his new book ROLLBACK

By Minister Faust

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 Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel Rollback, which spelunks the scientific, social and ethical implications of the technological age we’re entering right now, in which medical advances in surgery, tissue regeneration, stem cell application, gene therapy and nano-technology will allow the rolling-back of physical age. And who better to delve into the subject than Sawyer, a Canadian Michael Crichton with an Asimovian concern with scientific detail and accuracy? Sawyer’s also one of the nation’s top writers, having had a Canadian mainstream best-seller and won every major international award (prestige-wise and financially) in science fiction, and being the only author ever to win the top SF awards in the United States, Japan, France, and Spain. Maclean’s says of him: “By any reckoning, Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever." And he’s written--get this--seventeen novels. Sawyer will be at Audrey’s Books on May Day to read from Rollback and to delve into the issues he raises.

“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 United States and Canada are facing right now. When Tommy Douglas and the [CCF] in Saskatchewan gave us this great notion of socialised medicine for this country, nobody had the idea that you could spend millions or eventually billions of dollars on medical procedures eventually to prolong the quality of a given individual’s life. [But] it’s a bottomless bucket, how much money you can pour into medical procedures these days. And it means that despite of all of our best intentions, there are procedures that are going to be out of the reach of the ordinary Joe.”

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? China’s one-child policy has socially engineered hundreds of millions of people to have no living memory of aunts, uncles or cousins. What kinds of effects would inexpensive “rollback” technology would have on Western society a hundred years after its introduction?

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 US social critic Michael Eric Dyson calls a toleration for uncertainty, rather than a demand black-and-white clarity. “I get in trouble when I dis fantasy, but I’m going to do it anyway,” says Sawyer, elaborating on the difference between the two genres, so often confounded. “Traditional fantasy clearly identifies the good guys and the bad guys. Not only do the readers know who they are, but even the characters know which [morality] they are. Although Star Wars has science fiction costuming about it, it’s clearly fantasy, and Darth Vader knows he has gone over to the Dark Side; he’s aware he’s made the choice of evil. That’s totally true in The Lord of the Rings as well. There’s no question of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

"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 North America, looks at him and says, ‘No, he’s the evil guy!’ But there’s an unflinching clarity in his mind--and a lot of Americans share that as well.”


Tuesday, May 1, 7 pm
Audrey’s Books

10702 Jasper Avenue


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