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Old Twentieth Mass Market Paperback – Unabridged, July 25, 2006
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Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
In Old Twentieth the ideas Haldeman juggles are immortality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and a variant on the generation starship. He is also, as the title tells us, concerned with the 20th Century, the bloodiest century (though the 21st will turn out to be bloodier, says this novel), and the last century in which death was inevitable.
Central to this novel are scenes of war. We open at Gallipoli, one of the worst battles of World War I. But somehow the narrator escapes certain death, and we quickly gather that he is really using Virtual Reality to experience a simulation of an historical situation. He is Jacob Brewer, whose family was rich enough to purchase an immortality treatment before an horrific war between the lucky immortals and the poorer people who couldn't afford the treatment. He and his mother were among a very few survivors, but a couple of centuries later, the world has recovered, and a stable population of a billion or so lives quite pleasant lives. And they have decided to mount an expedition to Beta Hydrii.
Jake is the VR expert on the fleet of starships. His job is to maintain the VR simulation, which is mainly used for immersive experiences in any number of times in the 20th Century. The story concerns the starships beginning their journey. Jake gets married (a ten year contract -- immortals don't marry for life). And as the journey begins, unsettling things start to happen in VR. The most unsettling thing is that people start dying -- immortals. Another concern is some minor inconsistencies in the VR backgrounds. Jake's insistence on returning again and again to the VR tanks, dangerous as they seem to be becoming, puts great strains on his marriage. And he begins to realize that the VR system itself may be showing signs of independent action...
That's the main arc of the "present day" story: a mystery concerning problems in VR, and potential AI activity. And the resolution to this arc is quite surprising, and quite effective. But the story gains depth -- dare I say gravitas -- from the background supplied by the recurring trips to 20th Century milieus: World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, etc. These, combined with Jake's memories of his youthful experiences in the terrible war that nearly ended human civilization, provide a dark but oddly hopeful backdrop to the story of an expedition of immortal humans to another star -- a likely one way trip for no reason but knowledge, and a trip that almost before it starts is ominously freighted with the reappearance of the specter of death.
I hope I don't damn with faint praise when I say that this isn't a great novel: just another very good novel, to add to a long list of very good novels from Joe Haldeman. He may be the writer I can most reliably turn to for a worthwhile SF novel every time out. Old Twentieth is a great pleasure to read, and it rewards your reading not just with page turning interest but with thoughtful speculation. What more do we want from SF?
One of the most interesting of theses scenarios takes us from the far future back to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. Haldeman gives the reader a sobering glimpse of the horrors of the 1918 pandemic which are only vaguely alluded to in current news stories discussing the possibility of a new pandemic looming on our horizon. Oddly, there are relatively FEW examples in literature that attempt to portray an event that killed over 500,000 Americans in a single year. Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider is one of the only examples. This alone makes Haldeman's exposition an interesting read.
Immortality, multiple scenarios of tragic history both past and future, space travel, self-conscious computers.... Only Haldeman would try to combine these wide ranging topics into a single story. As usual, it makes for an enjoyable read. Does the novel have rough edges? Of course it does. It's actually one of the interesting aspects of reading a Haldeman novel. Although there is a distinctive flavor to Haldeman's writing, he is not formulaic. He tinkers and experiments with new ideas and writing styles. In Old Twentieth, he plays with multiple writing styles which make the novel even more complex and a bit convoluted. For instance, the style and flow of the opening chapter struck me as odd, until I remembered Haldeman's unabashed love for Hemingway. Then, everything became clear. Haldeman is a product of his own wartime experiences in Vietnam, and this novel plays with themes seen in his other novels. Old Twentieth is an enjoyable novel that requires some mental gymnastics from the reader; exactly my reason for recommending it!
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I've read 3 or 4 books by him and never got disappointed.Read more
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