The immorality of immortality

DAWSON CITY In Robert J. Sawyer’s new book, Rollback, Don Halifax is trying to stay faithful to his wife of 60 years.


In Robert J. Sawyer’s new book, Rollback, Don Halifax is trying to stay faithful to his wife of 60 years.

The problem? She’s 87 and he’s only 25 — physically, anyway.

Don is really 87, too, but through a multi-billion-dollar procedure called a “rollback,” which physically turns back the clock on life, he has the body of a 25-year-old with all his memories intact.

His wife Sarah, the first human to make contact with intelligent alien life, underwent a failed rollback and remains 87.

Sawyer’s 17th novel explores the morals, the ethics and the emotions of two of humanity’s obsessions: aging and the search for aliens. Immortality is a familiar theme for the Canadian author.

Sawyer, 47, usually writes from Toronto but has spent the last two months writing from the Berton House Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City. He’s working through the first draft of his novel, Wake, about the World Wide Web becoming intelligent and conscious.

The News sat down in Berton House to discuss Rollback with Sawyer, the only Canadian author who’s won all three of the world’s top awards for the best science-fiction novel: the Nebula, the Hugo and the Joseph W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Yukon News: You’ve written about immortality in a previous book, Mindscan. Why did you return to the subject?

Robert Sawyer: It’s one of those themes that is realistic. I don’t think we’ll ever travel faster than the speed of light or travel back in time, given what we know about physics. I’m not even sure that, given what we know about consciousness, we’ll ever make completely self-aware computers, which I’m writing about now.

I’m absolutely convinced that physical rejuvenation is a trivial bio-chemical problem. It’ll be done this century, I have no question about that. Given that it’s a likely scientific advance coming this century, it’s natural for me to dwell on it. But I’m not obsessed with my own mortality.

YN: Would you have a rollback?

RS: Yeah. It beats the alternative, which is dying. There’s no doubt Don’s life is materially better for having a rollback. Hell, I’m 47. If they could make me 25 again I would do it. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be, I got a little arthritis in my hand. I got a million things going wrong at 47. I’ve lost my hair. Nobody wants to be old. You just face it stoically because you have no choice.

YN: At its core, Rollback seems to be a love story, but everything written about the novel focuses on the aging and alien — the sci-fi — parts of the book. Are people missing part of the story?

RS: When you talk about a sci-fi book you immediately hone in on the high concept – what is the Big Idea? And the Big Idea here is that we now have the technology to make people young again. There are millions of books written about romance, there are hardly any about making people young again, so which one are people going to talk about the most?

But I’m a huge believer science fiction is very much a character-driven genre and a genre about the human condition. What we do in science fiction is do things that illuminate the human condition the way you can’t in mainstream fiction. I can say something new about love in this book because I have a laboratory that nobody has gone through yet. No matter how many romances Harlequin publishes, none will ever say something that wasn’t said first and best in Romeo and Juliet.

YN: I was surprised by how quickly Don strayed from his marriage once he “rollsback.”

RS: The reality of being 25 is that you’re a raging ball of hormones. This is a guy who has suddenly been flooded by hormones he hasn’t experienced for decades. The idea of unpremeditated sex is foreign to him because he can’t do it without planning for it and using pills. Now parts of him that have had no volition of their own for decades are suddenly leaping into action.

This is a realistic portrayal of a guy who’s coming face-to-face with the fact that age isn’t just a number. He’s facing the reality that he has 70 years of life left, a 100 years of life left and his wife has hardly any left. It might have been noble to portray a guy who rises above all temptation but it would have been a short and boring novel.

YN: Age defines who you are.

RS: The book starts with a quote from (baseball pitcher) Satchel Paige — “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” We know how to behave in a situation based on our ages. We know who’s dominant in a social situation — the guy at work is older than you and you have to give respect and listen. Or you do something stupid and we say: ‘He’s just a kid, forget about it.’ Society defines all of that for us. Rollback is about stripping those signposts away. Don Halifax does not know if he’s 87 or 25 or the mathematical average between the two. He has to stumble along and decide for himself what’s right for him.

YN: You’ve said before that important artistic and social justice problems haven’t been solved because no one has had a century to work on them. Would the world be a better place if people had access to rollbacks, whether or not it was unequally accessible?

RS: For sure. Even at the outset, it’d be a better place. How do we deal with — you name it — how do we deal with the rights of aboriginal people? We’ve been dealing with that since we became a country. The answer is, ‘who knows?’ because we die before we sort them out.

Really big complex puzzles — in science, in art, in morality — require decades of thought to solve them. And no one has been able to do that. And that’s why we’re still arguing about the same issues they were arguing about in Athens 2,400 years ago.

It’s perspective. I’m absolutely convinced global warming is real and caused by human beings. The people who aren’t convinced are the ones who can’t think beyond their own memories. ‘Well, I don’t remember it being colder 10 years ago.’ Part of the problem is we don’t have a vested interest in the future because we won’t be around.

YN: If we found intelligent life, what would we say? Would be brag about ourselves or try and learn from them?

RS: The standard assumption is that any life we encounter that is intelligent will be more advanced than we are. Why? Because the universe is a very old place — about 11 billion years and we Homo sapiens have been around for 100,000 years. If we meet a species that’s been around for half a million years or half a billion years, they’re going to be more advanced. If we encounter intelligent aliens it’s already defined for us what the roles are: they’re older and more intelligent. It parallels the relationship between young and old in the book.

We won’t brag. We’ll have to try and explain ourselves. We’ll have to try and explain why we invaded Iraq, why we allowed Nazi Germany to happen and why Africans were made into slaves and why people who are gay were beat up because of their preference.

YN: They’ll be more focused on our ethics?

RS: Who cares what inventions you’ve got? What’s interesting is what you’ve thought about ethical issues. We can make lots of babies but can’t support them all so what do we do with them — do we kill or what? I think that’s what aliens would be interested in, what our opinions are and not what our encyclopedias say.

The single most important value of finding alien intelligence is to say there is another way it could have been and that should make us look at ourselves. We look for life on alien worlds not to find out about it, but to see ourselves in a new way and in a new context.

YN: What excites you more as a writer: plot, character or theme?

RS: Theme. The other two are in service of the theme. I am a writer who talks about ideas. My characters and plots help me illuminate those ideas. The incidents that make up the plot are chosen because they illustrate thematic points I want to make. The characters who live out those incidents are designed to embody the thematic points.

Fiction is a way of saying things through symbol and metaphor that could be more powerful than a simple direct declaration of those thoughts.