Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Over the last period of time, I've commented about two or more books that I felt went into too much length on character details. Rollback is an example of a book with quite a bit of character material, but which did not trigger that reaction in me. I think this is because the character material is an integral part of the story material and relates closely to the SF elements. (The fact it did not lead to the book being considerably longer than average may also be a factor.)
The basic concept of Rollback is that an incredibly expensive rejuvenation treatment has become available. That is the first science / SF element. The second science / SF element is SETI and messages from another star system. The two are connected by a SETI scientist, Sarah Halifax, who was the one who managed to make sense out of the first alien transmission that was received in 2009. It's now 2048 and she is now 87 years old. Earth has received a second message from the aliens (their answer to Earth's 2009 reply to them). The aliens are in the Sigma Draconis system, which is nearly 19 light years away. It takes messages this many years to make a round trip between the two worlds. The new message is puzzling in a different way. A billionaire businessman who funds SETI projects has decided it's essential that Sarah continues to live long enough to carry on this very slow dialog with the aliens as long as possible. He offers to pay the huge bill for her rejuvenation. She insists she will only do it if her husband, Don, gets the treatment as well.
It's in this context that the beginning of the book is made up of a great deal of the lives of this 87-year-old couple. I would also note that this is out of the ordinary for an SF novel to spend this amount of time describing aged people with slow, aching bodies. It's handled well, and (from my point of view) just as importantly, it's done not just for imagery but because it's so relevant to the rest of the novel. Their aged condition makes it clear she can't, under normal circumstances, continue the dialog with the aliens. Continuing the dialog requires she be rejuvenated. Her love for her husband, who is also nearing the end of his life, makes her insist he also get the rejuvenation. Both of them have previously come to accept they will not live many more years. Don's acceptance of this makes him hesitate about agreeing to the rejuvenation. In the end, he is convinced by the prospect of getting to see his grandchildren grow up - once more linking back to their personal lives. This hesitation also fits in with the story's tragic side - that rejuvenation is offered because of Sarah's importance, but the treatment only works for the hesitant Don, not Sarah.
Don's physical age is rolled back to 25, while Sarah remains at 87. This leads to other personal issues, as well as stimulating thought on the issues in general.
This and other experiences of Sarah and Don put us in emotional situations on a number of occasions.
The book also links the scientific / SF questions to other food for thought. The first message from the aliens contained two parts. The first part was a tutorial in which they built up from math and images a language for the communication. This gives thinking material for the SF side of the book. The second part of the alien message (using the format described in the first part) was a questionnaire about ethics. (The questionnaire was designed to accept answers from various people, allowing for multiple points of view.) During the course of the book, some of these ethical questions are presented, providing the reader with the opportunity to think about other matters as well. The book also turns around and presents us with an interesting idea on a connection between ethics and interstellar communications. Meanwhile, Sarah and Don’s personal situation faces us with ethical questions, too.
In the process of presenting the SETI context of the story and in the characters’ discussions on trying to understand the alien message, various ideas on aliens and SETI are examined.
The book doesn't have an epic scope or feel. There is no fight of good against evil, or even “us versus them”. We have characters that are bright and decent – but neither perfect nor archetypes of protagonists. In spite of having many things to offer a reader, I don’t imagine it will be a classic. Still, it seems to be a good choice if you’re interested in “idea SF” or hard SF with a good amount of character detail.