Fiction Reviews

Old Twentieth

(2005) Joe Haldeman, Ace, 6.50 (approx), pbk, 285 pp, ISBN 0-441-01343-0


Not long into the 21st century and biomedicine had advanced to such a level that there was a major breakthrough in antiagetics so that human longevity increased so much that people were effectively immortal. In the 22nd century the first starships set off for Beta Hydrii where a planet with free oxygen and water has been detected. Old Twentieth is nominally the story of this small fleet of ships setting out.

Now I say 'nominally' because actually the plot and the action, though embedded in this journey, are actually not really what the book is about. First off the starships are not of the faster than light (FTL) or jump drive type. It is bog standard Newtonian-Einstein, which means getting to Beta Hydrii is going to be a long slog. But this is not a problem for a crew of near immortals. What is a problem is boredom, being cooped up for decades and centuries. However this is overcome by virtual reality and the popularity of the earlier and simpler time of the 20th century (the first century from which there is sufficient photographic documentation to base a virtual recreation). This then is from whence the book's title Old Twentieth comes.

All fair and square, but there is a problem that forms the plot's fulcrum: people are beginning to die in this virtual reality and, according to reports, back on Earth too. What is going on?

Now we do not often review North American books not available in the UK but Old Twentieth has attracted a fair bit of favourable coverage on the other side of the Atlantic, and of course it is becoming increasingly easier to get imports over here not to mention these days, with the strength of the pound, often at no extra cost. So what is all the fuss about?

Well the answer probably is that Old Twentieth has enough sense-of-wonder for two novels! The first third of the book sets up the situation explaining how longevity increased and its impact on the global society. This includes war and many billions dead. This alone contains enough ideas to fill a novel itself. So the first third of the book rips along at a cracking pace with part of the time spent in the 'old twentieth', part on a starship and part filling in the history of the 21st century. And then there is the final third of the book which sees the unfolding of the mystery of the deaths in virtual reality with a neat (albeit a little obvious to those versed in SF) twist at the end. I will not spoil this last for you as you will either see it coming, or not, but just one example of previous usage is by Philip Dick (1970). I should also say that this is not to decry Haldeman as not only does SF have its oft used tropes (such as space travel), but fiction is replete with well worn plots (such as boy-meets girl and variations and extensions thereof). However given the balance of the reasonably inventive 21st century given us in the book, the old twist may not live up to what a seasoned SF reader might expect. The other thing that gave me slight pause, was that after a really cracking and fast paced first third, the plot does not just shift down a gear into cruise mode, but seems to go really slow with some messing around in the ship's galley as a means of establishing detail of the onboard scene. Maybe it is just me?

Aside from the afore, Old Twentieth is at the end of the day an above average hard SF yarn. Haldeman delivers his war scenes with a bit of a hard edge: something we expect of him. Other than the mid-section, there is plenty going on, and the reader has an enjoyable ride. While Old Twentieth will not be remembered down the decades as has been his Forever War, it is a sound read and Haldeman's regulars will enjoy it as will many others. All of which begs the question why is he not published more often over this side of the Atlantic?

Jonathan Cowie

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