Rewind is very much an idea-driven book. The can be described fairly simply: Seventeen adults of various ages and backgrounds have been regressed to childhood -- each now with a perfectly healthy body apparently 9 years old. This miraculous act of science was performed by the Holn, alien visitors who have been on Earth (in New Mexico) for the past six years. Although the Holn (not to be confused with the "Holnists", the antagonists of David Brin's Postman) have been completely peaceful while on Earth, and have exchanged massive amounts of information with Earth, their unasked for regression of seventeen people to childhood, and subsequent departure from Earth, are completely unexpected and unexplained.
Rewind is an intriguing page-turner. It jumps right into the central plot: as the novel opens, the Holn have already left and the adults are already regressed ("rewound", as some pundits say, hence the book's title). The novel then proceeds to unveil the many questions surrounding this event, and eventually their answers: Are the children really the same people as the adults? Are they human? Will they age? How were they regressed? Why did the Holn do this?
The many ramifications of such an event are explored: legal, scientific, political, cultural, religious, personal, etc. Media pundits discuss the significance of the "Group of Seventeen", rival Evangelical preachers alternatively them angels or devils, lawyers argue their case, and mysterious organizations want to possess them. The "Rewound Children" (who still think of themselves as adults, as their memories and personalities seem unaltered) deal with physical changes, such as the repair of injuries and the vitality of youth, but also the loss of physical stature and adult functionality.
Even more vexing is the impact the regression has on their friends and families. Surprisingly, for most of the Seventeen, the reactions of their families start out bad and get much, much worse.
As one character says, the regression opens a whole can of worms. The idea of adults becoming children certainly isn't new (Tom Hanks in "Big" and Kirk Cameron in some forgettable film are two recent examples). The book's intimations of immortality are certainly one of the oldest of all fantasy/science fiction plots. But the exact premise formulated here is nonetheless new and interesting. The whole world is watching, and the exact nature and reasons of the regression start out completely unknown. Also, the scientific (especially physiological) aspects of the age regression are treated in depth, something I have never seen done before. Many of the main characters are the scientists charged with studying the Seventeen and determining what has happened to them. The biology is handled particularly well, with an impressive array of physiological characteristics described in detail: glandular, cardiovascular, neurological, dental, and topics are addressed. This is done without letting the story get bogged down with dry exposition. (I never thought a discussion of tooth enamel could be so interesting!)
There are some annoying mistakes with regards to biological terminology, however. For example, the scientists in the book say that the Holn have reverted the Seventeen to a child "genome." Yet the process is specifically said to have kept the same genetic structure for each individual. A "genome" is an organism's total genetic code, and is the same throughout the organism's lifespan. A child has the same genes as an adult, and hence the same genome.
Clearly, the Idea is the thing in Rewind. This presentation of a compelling "What if?" scenario, followed by detailed extrapolation of ramifications has been called "technical s.f.", but this is the traditional heart of the genre, and Rewind has nothing to apologize for in taking this approach. The book makes no pretense of being "literary" for the sake of being literary. This is a good thing. Rewind won't be studied in English courses, but it is a very good read packed with interesting, and occasionally challenging, ideas.
Unfortunately, the building blocks used to explore the Big Idea are frequently less than stellar, and sometimes even amateurish. As mentioned before, the science is quite good, but the sociology and media responses are often unbelievable. The characterization shows great promise. England has gone a long way toward believability with these characters, but hasn't quite gotten there. The actions of most characters seem subverted to the needs of the plot rather than flowing from the decisions of real individuals. Few of the characters are likeable or even particularly interesting.
Entire groups of people are painted with a rather broad, negative, and unrealistic brush. The politicians are all stupid and bad. The reporters are all stupid and rude. Nearly all of the scientists are stupid and childish. Religious people are all stupid and ridiculous. The black guy calls himself "the token black" for no apparent reason. The gay guy is a simpering stereotype who jokes about seducing little boys. More accomplished writers often have characters which are more complex and who resemble real people: a character can be a scientist and black and religious, rather than a caricature of just a single element. (See, for example, characters in Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun; Card's Speaker for the Dead; Sagan's Contact; etc.)
Another example of deficient characterization and research is Myra Caslon, a Latter-day Saint woman who is one of the Seventeen. Not only is Myra a one-dimensional stereotype, the pages about her church are hopelessly inaccurate, using terminology and concepts totally foreign to Latter-day Saint doctrine and culture. For no apparent reason, both the Pope of the Catholic Church and leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declare the regressed children to be non-human and "outside the grace of God" or some silly thing. These actions are apparently derived purely from uninformed prejudices held by the author, because nothing in the text indicates why such actions would be taken. Latter-day Saints, in fact, are the only Christian denomination known to have scriptures and doctrine which explicitly affirms brotherhood between humanity and people of other worlds. This, along with incorrect terminology, makes Terry England's Latter-day Saint references particularly unbelievable.
One also wonders why, six years after the aliens have arrived, a lone woman with no apparent professional expertise was sent from Salt Lake City to investigate the Holn for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints committee. In some counties in New Mexico Latter-day Saints make up more than ten percent of the population, and their numbers include a large number of scientists who would be more likely candidates for such a task. If somebody was to be sent from Salt Lake, wouldn't it be a church leader or a top scientist, rather than a woman who seems like a second counsellor in a ward Relief Society? Top authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear and Harry Turtledove have all written about Latter-day Saint characters and have at least gotten the terminology and basics right. The best example of science fiction involving New Mexico Latter-day Saints is probably Walter Jon Williams' Days of Atonement, which England has evidently not read. Apparently England reserved his research time for learning about biology rather actual cultures and ethnic groups.
Evangelicals are also portrayed as ridiculous in the novel, but this is less open to criticism because England has made up various fictional evangelical churches, One can't accuse him of inaccuracy with regards to any actual church, and the actions and pronouncements of his Evangelical preachers are probably no more ridiculous than what he has heard in real life.
England has unfortunately created a cast which seems to be diverse for diversity's sake, and mangled this effort to do something he shouldn't have done in the first place. These characters really do reflect people one might expect to find at an alien landing site in New Mexico. England's problem here isn't with the diverse background of his characters, it's with the forced, overly conscious and sometimes stereotyped way these backgrounds have been included. Fortunately this one-dimensional multiculturalism isn't the focus of the book and detracts on only a few pages. To his credit, the multiculturalism is relatively understated and not as expansive as it could be: none of the Seventeen are Asian or Arab or Hindu, etc.
Seventeen rewound adults, plus over half a dozen scientists studying them, plus various bad guys, supporting characters, etc. makes for a large number of people. Keeping the names and faces straight wasn't always easy and I found myself having to leaf back through the book to connect names to background. The plot premise presents a daunting task in character management and description, and to his credit, England does a pretty good job of it. Good, but far from perfect, and keeping track of some of the bit players was sometimes distracting.
It would be hard to decide whether the religious characters or the politicians act more unbelievably. The book takes place while a presidential election is underway. The candidates, especially the Vice-President, dictates that the Group of Seventeen and the incredible story surrounding them be "swept under the rug" because they are taking away media air time from election coverage.
In the book, the people of Chicago are especially stupid. The brother of one of the Rewound Children is forced to sell his successful sports gym because he is criticized on the radio by a ranting televangelist for harboring his brother. England thinks that enough people in Chicago would respond to a nutty televangelist to close down a business? Has Terry England every been to Chicago? Has he ever been anywhere outside of his own paranoia?
Three of the Seventeen are murdered by their own family members, who thought they might be alien, even though they looked exactly like nine-year-old children. Others are repeatedly attacked by vandals, hate groups, evil pharmaceutical companies, etc. I tried to suspend disbelief at these actions, thinking that maybe the Seventeen had actually been altered by the aliens to emit some kind of mind-altering effect that would trigger such actions. But, no, it was simply hatred of the unknown.
Is there a lot of hatred in the world? Yes. But England never makes a case for the sudden outpouring of violent hatred toward a group of seventeen apparent children who are the result of actions taken by an alien race which has been universally viewed as benevolent and helpful. Looking at the last twenty years of American history and media coverage, one would expect that the Seventeen would be overwhelmingly popular celebrities, able to write their own ticket. Instead, they become impoverished, stripped of their belongings and legal rights, even their right to vote. I know people wouldn't react like that in Santa Fe, New Mexico (where England lives). Does England think that America outside Santa Fe is like that?
One unintentionally hilarious, but annoying, example of England's bizarre worldview is this missive about the woes of how America treats children (page 255):
"This also challenges us on how we think of our own children," she said out loud.So, Americans hate their children? Having kids drop a video tape in a slot in the rain (heaven forbid!) is akin to slavery? What? Maybe England's sum knowledge of the world comes from reading Charles Dickens novels. Actually, though this passage may seem to be the rantings of an eighty-year-old church lady, England's positions at times seem to stem from an almost NAMBLA-like interest in kids.
"How do you mean?" She was live again [on TV].
"Watch the video-return slots at your local video store. A car comes up, adult driving, passenger, a kid between the ages of six and eighteen. Who gets out to put the tape back, no matter what the weather, now matter how bad the traffic, no matter what the crime rate? And who stays in the cool/warm/dry/safe car, waiting? That's what I mean. Free labor, no rights, no pull against the big and powerful adults... that's how the culture thinks of little humans. Just things to be tolerated as long as they stay in their place... and we act surprised when someone loses control and does some harm. What hypocrisy!..."
Not as bad as the characterization and unbelievable plot points, but still annoying in places, was the dialogue. The book is full of lengthy patches of exposition which might have been acceptable as narration, but which are delivered as dialog. In the year 2008, all people apparently speak in well-articulated essay-like speeches full of meaningful trite insights, using imaginative phrasing and imagery. Some of this would be fine, and certainly an author should be given leeway in using dialogue that doesn't exactly mimic normal speech when writing about intelligent speakers and interesting ideas. But this sort of dialogue seemed to come from everybody, and was inconsistently used. Halting speech ("uhm", "er", etc.) was used in some places, and eloquent soliloquies was used elsewhere, by the same characters. The dialogue, like the characters, seemed subverted to the needs of the plot. There are numerous moments of excellent, convincing dialogue, which are then interrupted as if the author pasted part of his outline into a placeholder marked "Author Inserts Explanatory Expositional Essay Here." All too frequently the book's dialogue forced me to stop reading and think to myself, "This doesn't sound like how real people speak." It was a distraction and a further blow to the book's believability.
Some of the essay-like expositional speech seemed more like an editorial from a college newspaper rather than dialogue. These speeches were where Rewind is most preachy. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but while Rewind often feels preachy, it's not clear what it's preaching about. Are we supposed to feel more compassion for adults who are regressed to physical childhood by aliens? Is this a frequent problem? Is it about gays? Or is England's point simply that politicians are bad, the media is bad, aliens are bad, Hawaiian land development is bad, lawyers are bad, religion is bad, but homeless people are authentic and charming? This seems like a rather simplistic and juvenile "moral to the story," and not very original. The book doesn't even succeed in showing that any of these things are bad because their proponents in the book all act so stupidly and unrealistically that the book loses credibility. The book only serves to convince the reader that England has a one-dimensional view of the world. The book's "message" wouldn't necessarily be such an issue, except that because it so often seems to be sending a message, one wonders what that message is. Maybe there is no single message -- just lots of artlessly delivered little ones.
Speeches at the end of the book seem to indicate that the message is "hatred is bad." Okay. But why does England hate so many people? Is it really necessary for one of the supposedly good characters to punch out a gay AIDS activist with little provocation? Even worse is the way Rewind seethes with hatred towards Evangelicals. The pinnacle of England's disdain is reached during a nationwide news show when two of the main character scientists deride an Evangelical preacher named Goff by making fun of his name, calling him "Gulp" and "Goof," etc. This preacher, like most of the book's characters, is a caricature, and he is reprehensible. But this irrational name-calling semed to come from bigotry and hatred, not from moral outrage of the scientist characters.
Rewind is unusual in that I found the speculative science more believable than the portrayal of real life culture, politics, religion, media, and certain individual characters. Despite these problems, I found Rewind an entertaining book to read. (Although it was often annoying as well.) The book presents a great idea and follows it through very thoroughly with an interesting and often surprising plot. I did want to know what would happen next. But the book doesn't ring at all true. It succeeds on one level but fails on another.