Joe Haldeman,
Old Twentieth
(Ace, 2005)

With more Hugo, Nebula and other prestigious awards than he can probably keep track of, Joe Haldeman is a modern-day master that needs no introduction to science fiction fans. His 1975 novel, The Forever War, to take just one example, is unquestionably Science Fiction 101 material. In his latest offering, Old Twentieth, he offers a nostalgic look back at the good old 20th century from a distant future where interstellar travel is practical, warfare is a relic of history and man has seemingly gained immortality.

As we soon learn, however, this idyllic new world hundreds of years in the future came at the heaviest of prices. Ironically, the seeds of man's self-destruction were sown in its greatest triumph, the Becker-Cendrek Process. With the introduction of the BCP pill, man finally attained the ultimate prize of immortality. You could, of course, still die in some horrible accident or fall victim to a devastating attack, but death by natural causes suddenly became a thing of the past. Unfortunately, only the rich and powerful could afford BCP pills at first, and this eventually led to a cataclysmic war between the haves and have-nots, a war that ended rather suddenly and decisively with the introduction of a biological agent called Lot 92. Seven billion people died, leaving 200 million immortals to rebuild and move on. It was only natural that this new society would eventually reach for the stars.

Jacob Brewer is one of 800 volunteers selected to join a five-ship, 1,000-year mission to an Earth-like planet orbiting Beta Hydrii. His primary responsibility, as chief virtuality engineer, is the management and oversight of the onboard "time machine." This is not a time machine in the technical sense; it's more akin to the holograph decks featured so prominently in Star Trek: The Next Generation. With mind-boggling bits of historical information at its disposal, this machine can, via its virtual reality interface, put you whenever and wherever you want to go in the past. By far, the most popular destinations are to be found in the 1900s, as a majority of these interstellar travelers seem to be fascinated by the prospect of death that defined an individual's life back in Old Twentieth. Fully immersed in the VR experience, you can get yourself killed in the most horrific of ways -- only to arise as fit as a fiddle at the end of the simulation.

Suddenly, though, the unthinkable happens -- a couple of Jacob's clients actually die during VR sessions. As information is slowly exchanged with Earth across the gulf of outer space, Jacob sets out to determine if the machine could have possibly been responsible for these tragedies. As his investigation progresses, he begins to worry that there may in fact be a ghost in the machine -- namely, the machine itself. The impossibility of a time machine's artificial intelligence somehow attaining sentience on its own starts to lose its foundation when the machine's self-produced avatar sidles up to inform you that the two of you need to have a talk.

Some Haldeman fans aren't all that thrilled about the ending of Old Twentieth, and I have to admit its somewhat open-ended nature isn't as exciting or conclusive as I would have liked, but I think it does make for a satisfactory fit with the story leading up to it -- and, make no mistake, this is an author who really knows how to tell a story. The fact that this very good novel proves somewhat disappointing to some of Haldeman's fans just goes to show you how incredibly gifted a writer he really is.

by Daniel Jolley
7 October 2006

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