Tor, 2007, 320 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31108-5
From time to time, I like to think about well-known authors in terms of ecosystems: Once past a certain level of longevity or notoriety, the author earns a niche and becomes part of the vast machine of publishing. Truly well-known authors even become references for booksellers and casual readers. Stephen King means horror. Tom Clancy is still, two decades after his best work, Mister Technothriller. Dan Brown has become the first recommendation for contemporary historical thrillers. Here in Canada, Robert J. Sawyer has become the voice of Science Fiction in no small part due to a deliberate effort to write a type of science-fiction that is designed to appeal to the book-buying majority.
If a middle-aged reader walks in a bookstore casually looking for a science-fiction novel, Sawyer is an automatic recommendation: His fiction is cleanly written in straightforward prose, generally take place in familiar near-future settings and tackles issues of interest to the well-educated middle-aged readers statistically most likely to buy books. Add to that Sawyer’s uncanny media savvy and you end up with a natural, safe choice for everyone.
His latest novel, Rollback, clearly shows why Sawyer is at the top of his game. It’s a novel that couldn’t have been written by anyone but Sawyer, and it clearly illustrates Sawyer’s core preoccupations. It’s accessible in form, content and atmosphere, featuring a classical approach to science-fiction that many casual readers won’t find in many other contemporary works of genre Science Fiction.
Like many Sawyer novels, Rollback finds its plot in high technology and old-fashioned matrimony: When an astronomer working on SETI messages is offered a chance for expensive rejuvenation, she negotiates a similar treatment for her husband. But dramatically enough, her treatment fails even as her husband sees the decades roll back. But youth doesn’t always go well with experience as he deals with the unique complications of being an old man in a rejuvenated body. Home life is messy, and the world outside doesn’t offer much respite for a man out of time. Meanwhile, the decryption of the SETI messages reveals a surprise about the nature of the aliens at the other end of the line…
Readers of Sawyer’s post-Frameshift period will immediately feel at home: The prose is limpid, the protagonist is a Toronto-area baby-boomer and the themes once again revolve around philosophical questions. Sawyer has long been a proponent of “Phi-Fi” (“Philosophical Fiction”), and this attitude finds its best expression so far in Rollback as it describes questions of longevity and morality in a way that will feel relevant to most readers. Sawyer’s treatment of “old man in a young body” is rich in speculation, yet feels considerably more down-to-earth than most similar tales. Among other strengths, Sawyer is able to present solid Science Fiction without necessarily burying casual readers in a deluge of genre conventions. Combined to the easy style and the baby-boomer cultural references, it makes it easy to see why Sawyer is so successful in his chosen niche.
But this choice also carries consequences that will be most visible to demanding genre readers. More than any other Sawyer novel so far, Rollback feels like a book aimed at a specific demographic niche: The sheer accumulation of Toronto-area English-Canadian middle-class baby-boomer pop-culture references can be irritating at times. Some of the plot contrivances feel forced: it’s hard to believe that a successful rejuvenation patchwork of treatments would resist downward price pressures for so long given the near-universal demand for them. (But it can give rise to some interesting back-of-the-envelope calculations: How expensive could such procedures be?) Sawyer’s straightforward plotting can be obvious at times: Lenore Darby’s second appearance in the novel blatantly telegraphs her plot purpose. Rollback‘s adherence to Sawyer’s core themes can also becomes repetitive, as I couldn’t help but be amused at the revelation of the alien message content: “The aliens are interested in the very same things that fascinate Robert J. Sawyer? What are the odds?!” And while few casual readers will complain about Sawyer’s straightforward prose style (which is clear enough to be read in a distracting hotel lobby environment), it’s yet another element that sets Sawyer’s work apart from the generally more ambitious genre SF novels aimed at readers with tougher literary standards.
In some hilariously ironic sense, it’s possible that Sawyer has consciously limited himself to an mainstream-friendly, best-selling niche. In a sense, his novels are critic-proof: They reach their audience, give them a good time and so encourage the sales of his next novels. Better yet, they can’t be dismissed easily by the more nitpicky genre readers, who will still find something to like in the middle of specific cultural references and familiar Sawyer tics. If Robert J. Sawyer has become an ideal gateway to Science-Fiction readers, it’s appropriate that Rollback ends up being an ideal gateway to Robert J. Sawyer’s specific brand of SF.