Robert J. Sawyer is a writer who already received the most prestigious awards in science fiction: the Nebula for “The Terminal Experiment” and the Hugo for “Hominids”. Other novels won various other awards.
In “Rollback” Dr. Sarah Halifax is the scientist who in 2010 manages to decipher an alien message arrived from the Sigma Draconis system and gives her contribution to create an answer that is sent to the aliens, who unfortunately live almost nineteen light years from Earth.
It’s only after thirty-eight years that another message arrives from Sigma Draconis and at that point Sarah Halifax is eighty-seven and to make things worse the message is encrypted. Billionaire Cody McGavin, SETI project’s main sponsor, thinks that Dr. Halifax contribution could be determining to decipher the new message so he offers her a very expensive rejuvenation treatment (the rollback of the title) and to convince her he offers the same treatment to her husband Don.
In a destiny’s twist the rollback works for Don but fails for Sarah, who sees her husband young again while she struggles to decipher the alien message whose encryption seems to baffle all the scientists in the world.
Once again Robert J. Sawyer wrote a novel full of ideas to create a plot that leads to a surprising conclusion. His ideas are not necessarily original but he manages to rework them in ways different from the past. For example in “Rollback” there’s the subject of the alien message but if we compare it for example with James Gunn’s novel “The Listeners” we can see that Sawyer brings the topic to a new level where the aliens don’t just talk about mathematics and give information about what’s happening on their planet but their message includes statements about ethics and moral and a questionnaire to know the Earth people’s thoughts about those subjects. In “Rollback” the topic of the rejuvenation and its consequences for someone who undergoes that treatment is important as well: this is one of the main topics in the future history in Peter F. Hamilton’s novels but Sawyer develops it in his own way.
Like in various other Sawyer’s novels the main character is a scientist: in fact scientific developments are the bases of the author’s fiction but he also develops his characters’ psychology. Often in his novels the main characters are affected by lethal diseases: in “Rollback” you can say that the protagonist’s disease is old age.
If you like novels 1000 pages long with fourty-seven subplots that get unravelled at the same time Sawyer is indeed not your writer, instead if your like novels that for today’s standard can look even short with linear plots Sawyer will make you happy.