Thoughts on the 2008 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel: Rollback

I’ve never really thought about what it must feel like to be old. You know how it is; I’m decades away from even retirement, so why worry? I imagine that even if I’m 50 I probably wouldn’t think much about being old—that would involve actually accepting the possibility I’d grow old.

More so: I’ve never even thought about what it must mean to be old. I always kind of imagined that you’d be the same, except wiser and creakier. To some extent that’s true, but in others… it’s not. You lose mobility. Your mind becomes slower. The senses—taste, sight, hearing, even touch—aren’t what they used to be. And then there’s the full body of meaning behind the word “creaky”, which is pain.

Damn scary stuff. It’s not death, but we hate to think of it all the same. So of course we come up with stories that bring along procedures to extend life, bring back youth. Right now as I write this in the dawn of the 21st century, we even think we have the beginnings of the key to actually do this (even I know about all the telomere stuff).

I thought about those stories as I was reading Rollback. Usually the narrative structure of these things go: someone is 40 and wants to be young for-evahs, then they do get young, then bad things happen and we learn that you shouldn’t mess with God’s time schedule, the end.

It’s kind of uncool to toss your reader straight into what it feels like, what it means, to be 90. To be so aware of the end; the final destination approaching as you sit on the train of mortality, watching your life go by. To be so frail. To accept death. You are drenched in those feelings, that life. To be old with a partner who’s also old, in faithful lockstep to the grave.

And by uncool, I mean pretty cool. And Rollback is very much a people book; the science of getting young again is plausible but on the way-side. The questions are not about the science; the questions are about how the science affects the main characters—both the success and the failure of science, for the “rollback” works for Don but not for Sarah. The exploration is on the human side of the equation.

The question of “what happens when you’re suddenly young again?” is explored in shades of reality. By which I mean science, and not religion; the damnation of the ages does not land on Don’s head (though he probably wishes it would at some points) simply because he’s rolled back the years. Instead, he has the rather more ignoble indignity of going through youth with an older eye, both wise and foolish in what he remembers and forgets about lessons and consequences. (I wanted to smack him a few times, actually.)

And if that’s all there was, it still would have been a touching book. Out of all the nominees, it’s the only one that made me cry.

However, that’s not all there is to Rollback. The plot also involves a First Contact story, which makes you think, “Whut? Is this some kind of random distraction?” But of course, the first contact story ties into the theme of aging, because the contact is made through radio signals, which take many years to traverse space. The aliens specifically want to talk to Sarah—the only problem being that Sarah can only get out barely two replies before she expires, and the aliens live much longer than that.

(This part of the plot is amusing to me, because Sawyer made some of the techniques that would actually go into decoding an alien reply understandable and engaging. Even though there were equations dripping down the page at one point. Neat trick.

Also? The pizza and the late night research and the collegy stuff? I’m not too far away from it. It was so very real. I could taste the cold manky pizza and remember not caring because I was too busy hacking. Not at alien codes, mind you, but still.)

Rollback is not clearly just one thing (rejuvenation) and not clearly the other (first contact), but is obviously both, which might make you conclude that it’s unfocused. But if you forget about trying to classify Rollback and just think of it as a yarn about being old, then being young and being old, then being young, with aliens, it’s more than just quite alright (although I think the future’s word for “cool” is lame, so I’m just going to put “cool” here).

But man. I so do not want to get old.

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