Review: “Old Twentieth” By Joe Haldeman (Novel)

Well, after I’d finished reading Joe Haldeman’s excellent “The Accidental Time Machine” a week or two earlier, I looked online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Haldeman’s 2005 novel “Old Twentieth”. Since the cover art and the premise looked fairly interesting, I decided to take a look at it.

So, let’s take a look at “Old Twentieth”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 Ace (US) paperback edition of “Old Twentieth” that I read.

The novel begins in 1915, where a soldier in Gallipoli called Jacob is mortally wounded by a Turkish shell. As he dies, someone shows him a series of pictures….

We then flash forward to the distant future. Jacob is hundreds of years old, because an immortality pill was developed in the past. However, the fact that the pill was initially only available to the wealthy sparked an Earth-wide civil war, which ended with the immortal 3% of the population using bio-weapons to get rid of the 97%. In the centuries that followed, Earth rebuilt itself from a post-apocalyptic ruin and civilisation returned.

However, there were still worries about how long Earth would last. So, after a probe finds another habitable planet, eight hundred people decide to take the 1000 year voyage in a group of five spaceships. To stave off boredom during the voyage and to help the crew emotionally, one of the ships has a virtual reality machine that can realistically simulate many parts of Earth’s history. Jacob is part of the team that maintains the machine and sorts out errors in the program.

For the first few years of the voyage, everything goes well. Life on board the ship is pleasant and Jacob even falls in love with another member of the crew too. However, all of this starts to unravel when someone using the VR machine suddenly and mysteriously dies whilst still plugged in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly atmospheric, intelligent and compelling sci-fi story that is reminiscent of films like “The Thirteenth Floor” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the TV show “Bablyon 5” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World“. Even so, it can be a little bit on the slow-paced side of things, not to mention that it is also a far cry from the light-hearted adventure of Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” too.

Although there are some moments of humour and some rather utopian moments (which are perhaps a satire of “Star Trek”) during the story, this is very much a bleak and dystopian story. On the plus side, it contains some brilliantly chilling and grotesque moments of sci-fi horror but, for the most part, it is a rather melancholy story. It’s a very intelligent, atmospheric and compelling novel, but it isn’t exactly a “feel good” novel.

One interesting thing about the novel’s VR segments is that they are deliberately grim and dystopian, with the grittiness of history being contrasted with the seemingly utopian world of the future (this even extends to some of the deliberately dated descriptions used in the “history” segments). This also allows the story to include some extra worldbuilding and emotional depth since, in a world where people are immortal, realistic simulations of things like disease and death evoke a different reaction than they would do if the characters experiencing them were mortal.

Thematically, this book is fairly complex. In addition to dealing with history, war, capitalism, anarchy, death, psychology and other such heavy topics, it is also a book about virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the meaning of life too. There’s lots of fairly interesting subtle stuff too, such as how a lot of the VR history segments in the early parts of the story deal with the Spanish Flu, which parallels the use of bio-weapons in the novel’s backstory. Or how the narrator’s surname is Brewer, which links into a comment that a character makes about him later in the story.

But, one slightly annoying thing about this book is that it could have been a really brilliant satire of moral panics and it possibly is to some limited extent. Even so, this novel mostly goes down a more serious and dystopian route, with the “dangerous” VR machine being a source of horror and a source of moral lectures from a few of the more curmudgeonly characters (where it is likened to alcoholism, drugs etc..). Still, this novel does pose the question of whether joy and escapism is an integral part of the meaning of life, with the alternative to using the machine being 1000 years of repetitive boredom on a spaceship.

In terms of the characters, they’re ok I guess. The narrator gets a reasonable amount of characterisation, but the side-characters often seem a little bit stylised or under-developed. Although there is a possible in-universe explanation for this, the very slight lack of characterisation can make some of the characters seem a little bit generic and/or annoying. Likewise, it’s kind of annoying that the only bi character (Kate) in the novel is possibly something of a stereotype too.

In terms of the writing, the novel is mostly narrated from a first-person perspective, with a few brief third-person backstory segments. The writing style is fairly descriptive, but readable, which helps to add a lot of atmosphere to the story – albeit at the cost of slightly slower-paced storytelling. Even so, the writing in this novel is kind of like a slightly updated version of more classic sci-fi narration.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 285 pages in length, it never really feels too long and it manages to pack quite a bit of storytelling into a reasonable amount of pages. On the other hand, whilst this novel does become more and more compelling as it goes along, the pacing is a little bit on the slow side of things. Yes, this adds atmosphere and suspense. But, on the other hand, a faster pace would have made this story even better.

Still, the novel has a rather dramatic ending though. However, if you’ve seen a fair number of sci-fi movies/TV shows, then it might be at least slightly predictable. Even so, it’s a reasonably clever way to end the story nonetheless.

All in all, this is a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric and suspenseful sci-fi novel. Yes, it’s slow-paced, a bit depressing and it possibly needs a bit more characterisation, but it is still a reasonably good novel. Even so, I enjoyed Haldeman’s “The Accidental Time Machine” slightly more than this novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

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