Monday, April 30, 2007


Robert J. Sawyer, winner of the two top awards in the science-fiction field, the Hugo and Nebula Awards, applied the "page 69 test" to his new novel, Rollback.

Here is an excerpt from page 69, followed by Sawyer's analysis:
"... Okay, fine. I'm -- what? -- I suppose I look about seventy now, right? Just stop the rollback here." He pointed his index finger straight down, as if marking a spot. Seventy he could live with; that wouldn't be so bad, wouldn't be an insurmountable gulf. Why, old Ivan Krehmer, he was married to a woman fifteen years younger than himself. Offhand, Don couldn't think of a case in their social circle where the woman was a decade and a half older than the man, but surely these days that was common, too.

"There's no way to stop it early," said Petra. "We hard-coded into the gene therapy how far back the rollback will go. It's inexorable once begun. Each time your cells divide, you'll get physically younger and more robust until the target is reached."

"Do another round of gene therapy, then," Don said. "You know, to countermand--"

"We've tried that with lab animals," Petra said, "just to see what happens."


She shrugged her shoulders. "It kills them. Cell division comes to a complete halt. No, you have to let the rollback play out. Oh, we could cancel the planned follow-up surgeries -- fixing your teeth, your knee joints, getting you that new kidney once you're strong enough to stand going under the knife. But what would be the point of that?"

Don felt his pulse racing. "So I'm still going to end up physically twenty-five?"

Petra nodded. "It'll take a couple of months for the rejuvenation to finish, but when it does, that'll be your biological age, and then you'll start aging forward again from that point, at the normal rate."

"Jesus," he said. Twenty-five. With Sarah staying eighty-seven. "Good Jesus Christ."


Well, whadayaknow! Page 69 of Rollback happens to land us right on the book's core idea. The novel is indeed about rejuvenation. Sarah and Don Halifax, each 87 years old, have been married for 60 years, when a rich benefactor offers Sarah a rollback -- a new and hugely expensive rejuvenation procedure. Sarah refuses to accept unless the benefactor offers the same gift to her beloved husband Don. The benefactor agrees -- but, tragically, the procedure works for Don, but fails for Sarah: by page 69, he's on a collision course with physically being 25 again, while his wife is left at her natural age.

H.G. Wells used to call each of his novels "a scientific romance" -- "romance" in that context being an old-fashioned word for "novel" (Wells wrote his major works long before Hugo Gernsback coined the term science fiction in the 1920s). But I like to think of Rollback as a true scientific romance, in the modern sense of the word: it's a love story that, thanks to scientific developments that I'm sure we will see in the next few decades, tries to tells us something new about the human heart.

A lot of people who don't read science fiction think of it as a cold, clinical genre, but that's not true, at least in my case. I strive to combine the grandly cosmic with the intimately human, and I think Rollback is my most successful melding of that to date (and -- cough, cough -- Publishers Weekly agrees, saying, in its starred review, denoting a book of exceptional merit, that "Sawyer, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards, may well win another major SF award with this superior effort.").

Many people have favorably compared Rollback to Audrey Niffenegger's wonderful The Time Traveler's Wife, which absolutely is a science-fiction novel, even though it's not labeled as such on the spine. But, then again, as I said, neither were H.G. Wells's works originally, and I hope you'll give the other 319 pages of my scientific romance a try!
Visit Robert Sawyer's website and blog, and read an excerpt from Rollback.

See the entry for Rollback at "My Book, The Movie."

--Marshal Zeringue