Due to some minor subscription quirks, I received the last three issues of Analog within a single week. At other times the delay might irk me, but in this case it's a blessing—it means I don't have to wait a month in between installments of Robert J. Sawyer's serialized novel Rollback. Sawyer became one of my favorite authors while researching The Gospel According to Science Fiction thanks to his mixture of compelling pulp plotting and Socratic philosophical dialog, and Rollback is a fine continuation of that tradition.
The story follows Sarah Halifax, an astronomer who was the first to decode an alien message from Sigma Draconis detected in a very-near future, and her less scientifically-inclined husband, Donald. Messages between Earth and Sigma Draconis take nearly 40 years round trip, so the Halifaxes are nearly 90 when a second alien message arrives. Thinking that Sarah's expertise and insight may be necessary in future correspondance with the aliens, a wealthy benefactor puts up a not-so-small forture for a physiological "rollback" to restore Sarah (and, at her request, Donald) to youth and health. But sarah's body rejects the procedure, and she remains old while Donald becomes young again. Thus follows a number of meditations on mortality, youth, and aging.
This main story is interesting, but the part of the story that really fascinated me was the content of the alien messages. The Dracons seem quite uninterested in all the things we've always assumed aliens would want to talk about—math, astronomy, biology. Instead, their second message to Earth is a lengthy questionaire on morality and ethics. As Sarah explains:
"What a ridiculous notion, that beings would send messages across the light-years to talk about math! . . . Math and physics are the same everywhere in the universe. There's no need to contact an alien race to find outif they agree that one plus three equals four, that seven is a prime number, that the value of pi is 3.14159, et cetera. None of these things are matters of local circumstance, or of opinion. No, the things worth discussing are moral issues—things that are debatable, things that an alien race might have a radically different perspective on."In fact, the first message from Sigma Draconis uses math only as a means to begin discussing logic, culminating with ethical statements about good and evil. To the Dracons, morality is the highest science, the thing worth beaming across the stars with an 18-year time lag.
From this fascinating proposition, Sawyer makes some strong points about the morality of our own science. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Sarah concludes, is a sign of an advanced ethical stance:
"SETI is an activity that says life, as opposed to nonlife, is important, that finding life is meaningful. If you didn't care about the distinction between life and nonlife, all you'd do would be astronomy, not SETI."Much of this discussion of morality and science is relevent to recent discussions of atheism and intelligent design—Richard Dawkins is mentioned by name at one point—and one of Sawyer's main points is that humankind as a race must "transcend Darwin," to overcome the programming of our "selfish genes" and become altruistic on a planetary (and interplanetary) scale.
"Evolution eventually gives rise to technology, which has a survival value up to a point—but once technologies of mass destruction are readily available, the psychology that the Darwinian engine forces on lifeforms almost inevitably leads to their downfall. . . If you voluntarily opt out of evolution, if you cease to struggle to get more copies of your own DNA out there, you probably give up a lot of aggression."We have a duty to ourselves and to the universe to evolve morally as well as genetically, and to break out of the restraints imposed by our biology. Science and technology have given us the means to destroy ourselves; it is up to our sense of ethics to rein in those results of evolution and bring altruism to the stars.
Though it's not quite as strong a story as his more major works, such as Hominids and Calculating God, Rollback is everything you would expect from Robert J. Sawyer—entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. I'm glad I got to read it without waiting between installments, and now that all four parts have been published, you can do the same.
Rollback will be available as a collected hardcover from Tor in April, but those who are impatient—or who want to support the remaining SF magazines (and you do want to support the remaining SF magazines, don't you?) are encouraged to seek out the October through December 2006 issues of Analog and the January/February 2007 double issue for all four installments.