Robert Sawyer is one of science fiction's most popular authors, and for good reason. The man is extraordinarily nice.
I still remember the year Hominids won the Hugo. It was at TorCon 3, the 2003 World Con, and well before I ever met the author myself. I had read Hominids and was not particularly enamored of the book. I had just vented my displeasure to a table of my peers. In particular, I was particularly convinced that this was a misplaced case of home field advantage: for in addition to being cosmically nice, Mr. Sawyer is also unabashedly Canadian. Anyway, my American spleen depleted, I later found myself alone with a new writer on the scene who shall remain nameless. She informed me that she had voted for Hominids because she had met Mr. Sawyer at another convention and had really liked him; she was sure the book must be really good.
Well, years have passed since then, and I myself have met the charming Robert Sawyer. He is a sweet, self-effacing man, an absolute pleasure to chat with. He's approachable, witty, and shows real interest in people other than himself. He's not fishing for praise, or trying to build a fan club. Contrary to my expectations, he's not the sort to sell himself at all. You see what I'm saying? He's not a professionally nice guy trying to build a career: he's actually a good fellow who likes meeting and spending time with other people in the science fiction world.
All of which complicates the task at hand. Rollback—let me get this out in the open—is simply not Hugo material.
I am sure the book is fine entertainment for many readers and I will try to do it justice. But compare Rollback with, say A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Dune, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or Rendezvous with Rama, or Neuromancer. These are memorable, obvious classics. Not every Hugo is a classic, and not every classic wins a Hugo. But even in recent years Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is top notch material: good reading and possibly important. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is science fiction that's an extraordinarily competent page turner and also Big Idea Stuff. Rollback is not dreck, but it simply doesn't compete well with the best of the best. It strikes me as unlikely to be remembered in the future as the pinnacle of our current era.
So: we have dispensed with the Hugo question, but is the book worth reading?
Rollback combines two narrative lines. In the first, humanity is in slow lightspeed contact with an alien civilization 18.8 light years distant. Thirty-nine years prior to the start of this story, Sarah deciphered the alien's opening message. Now she is now in her twilight years when the alien reply to humanity's first response comes back. Only this time, it's not in clear, alien three dimensional text; this time, it's encrypted. And nobody can figure it out. Sarah's mind is no match for the eager young turks, but Sawyer gives the reader every reason to expect that she'll solve it anyway.
The second plotline follows Sarah's husband, Don. After the transmission is received, a benefactor offers Sarah "rollback" technology: Full chemical, genetic, and physiological rejuvenation. She will only take it if Don can have it as well. It's enormously expensive, but the benefactor bites the bullet. The technique fails on Sarah but succeeds on Don. Don didn't much want it to begin with, and he certainly doesn't look forward to a second chance at life without Sarah. The consequences of this imbalance drive the bulk of the novel.
In terms of science-fictional ideas, this stuff is not new. Sawyer's innovation here is to examine what it would be like for a perfectly ordinary guy to be given the new youth, surrounded by friends and family who do not. To his credit, Sawyer does not let Don off easily.
Unfortunately, Don's not a very compelling character. He's basically spineless, and it's very difficult to fathom what Sarah ever saw in him, or what his young girlfriend—who doesn't know he's an eighty-year-old married man—sees in him. Outside of Scrabble, Don has no particular interests, hobbies, or passions. He was once a sound engineer, but he's years out of it and there's no sign he had any personal enthusiasm for it anyway. He's a total non-participant in Sarah's quest to decrypt the message, and he's barely a participant in his own quest to find some meaning in this unfortunate position that life has thrown at him.
Yes, it's cool that Sawyer has made glorious new youth into an "unfortunate situation". But it would take a lot more emotional nuance to really draw this plot out. Sawyer is a case study for the "show don't tell" rule. He explains everything. Often more than once. His emotional moments are told, explained, and then, in case the reader missed it, revisited in conversation. Sawyer peppers his dialog with chit-chat, and the quiet banality of everyday life. This may be an experiment with mimetic technique, but somehow Sawyer does not draw the emotional weight out of everyday language the way, say, Raymond Carver does.
So; the bulk of the book, as the title suggests, covers Don's journey. Sawyer makes a passing effort at scientific exploration of the rollback technology, but not enough to really engage the hard-science crowd. Nor does he explore the larger social consequences as Bruce Sterling did with Holy Fire, or as Kim Stanley Robinson did in the Mars Trilogy. Sawyer keeps this one man's story. With his tiresome protagonist and a rough approach to emotional nuance, I can't say he fully pulls this off.
Over on the alien-communication plotline, Sawyer has more interesting moments, particularly in flashback to the original breaking of the alien code. Again, this is not a bad book. Once we get beyond math, Sawyer wonders what a coarse symbolic logic between species might look like. He briefly explores some interesting ideas about alien expressions of ethics, and sketches an intriguing outline for how the notation of it might work. The big disappointment here for many SF readers is simply that there isn't more of it. For my money, this would have been a good book!
The flashbacks are interesting and infrequent, but the present is more problematic. Sawyer backs himself into a corner: Sarah obviously can't compete intellectually with a young generation of geniuses. If she is going to best them, as the story clearly demands, she is going to have to have either a dramatically different insight, or some special knowledge.
One rather obvious answer occurred to me as I was reading. Sawyer appeared to be laying the groundwork for one specific revelation. In fact, it seemed so obvious that I was rather dreading the big eureka moment. Dreading, because I figured if it was this obvious to me, then it should be similarly obvious to Sarah's peers. The only real way to overcome reader disbelief would be to posit certain assumptions that would be almost equally non-credible.
Unfortunately, Sawyer confounded my expectations by outright cheating. This plot is in the form of a mystery, and there are certain things you just can't do to mystery readers. You can't introduce the murderer in the final scene as an out-of-the blue answer, and more to the point, you can't have your sleuth know something the reader doesn't in order to say: "Aha, surprise! I solved it." The clues may be horrendously obfuscated, but the reader experience really should be somewhere between: "Doh! I should have realized!" and "Cool! I wish I'd thought of that." But if the response is, "Why did I waste my time even thinking about this when I clearly didn't have a chance?"—Well, that's a problem.
That's about as bad as it gets, but for a bit of icing on the cake, Sawyer still resorted to the "non-credible" assumptions in order to finagle the ending.
There's really no way to discuss the specifics in detail without spoiling the whole book, and frankly, I don't want to do that. Whether it's because he's a nice guy or because his narrative style really works for some people, Sawyer clearly has a lot of fans. And to put the good spin on the story, these fans will be treated to a multi-layer plot with an all-too-human protagonist. There's no beating around the bush with the ideas Sawyer wants to raise: the issues are presented in bold primary colors, and although obviously not handled in a manner that works well for me, there is plenty of material for thought.
But one final word for Denvention 3 voters: If you want to vote for Robert Sawyer because he's a nice guy, I hear you and I understand it now. But remember that he's had his turn, and there are some strong candidates that really might be worth remembering in 20 or 30 years.