When everyone is immortal, death becomes fascinating

August 14, 2005|By Sun Staff

NOVEL

OLD TWENTIETH

By Joe Haldeman. Ace, 257 pages

By John Coffren

If you were virtually immortal, what would you do with your greatest surplus -- time? Science-fiction master Joe Haldeman suggests that you might choose to do nothing more unusual than take a long cruise and watch the History Channel. That is the 23rd-century equivalent of what his immortals do in Old Twentieth. They sail away on a starship bound for a distant solar system, Beta Hydrii, and they while away the millennia-long voyage in a virtual reality / time machine that immerses them in human history.

The cruise goes great until people start dying, a rare occurrence for future humans who take little pills that stop the aging process.

Jacob Brewer, an immortal engineer, goes in search of what is causing the deaths. An investigation leads him to an artificial intelligence living inside the system's software with an agenda all its own.

The novel's title is Brewer's preferred destination, so this work of science fiction is also part history, which makes Old Twentieth particularly accessible to those new to the genre. Most of the action takes place in the last century. There are no bug-eyed aliens, or space battles, or other traditional trappings of sci-fi.

Along the way, Brewer rubs shoulders with famous figures such as Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Einstein, even if they're only simulations. Detailed accounts of a tour of the 1939 World's Fair or a Cotton Club concert make the seductive lure of this device evident, but Brewer's trips to past, bloody battlefields reveal a fascination that immortals have for what normally is beyond their experience: death.

Haldeman's vivid prose captures these tense, violent encounters.

"The man next to me stood up and fell down, a small bullet hole between his eyes and his brains sprayed out over two or three people behind him. A man to my left was hit and doubled over, screaming clutching his elbow. We hustled out the half submerged door and jumped in, holding rifles high."

Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran and author of the award-winning Forever War, knows from personal experience the grunt's-eye view of combat; that lends a power and impact to the passages. He doesn't glorify war but, instead, shows its ugly, human face.

And everyone and everything, from the near immortals to the powerful A.I., want to explore their own humanity, whether it be through time travel or assuming a human form inside the computer program.

The science of interstellar space travel appears sound and rooted in fact. The fleet uses celestial bodies and gravity to slingshot across the cosmos, and spends half the trip accelerating and half breaking.

Even repairing the deadly time machine seems plausible. The engineers don't spout technobabble. They sound suspiciously like tech support fixing a faulty hard drive or Internet connection on a personal computer.

The day-to-day life aboard a generational starship tends to meander a little (especially the "How to Prepare Roasted Duck" section), but don't give up. Haldeman has a kicker that comes in the waning pages of the book that makes this trip worth your valuable time.

John Coffren is an editorial assistant for The Sun. His short story, "Future Shock," appeared in the Pocket Books anthology, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds VII.

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