Joe Haldeman’s The Old Twentieth (2005) – I’ve been a big fan of Mr. Haldeman since he wrote several of the early classic Star Trek pro-novels (some of the better ones in my opinion) and the science fiction classic, Forever War. When his name appears on a book, I generally pick it up. I like his type of story – hard science fiction with some thought behind it.
This novel, The Old Twentieth, has a couple interesting tropes going for it. Not just the trials and tribulations of a society of immortals, but their trials and tribulations on a thousand-year-long trip to the nearest habitable planet. Sort of a generation ship with one really long generation.
Our hero, Jake, having survived a massive plague that wiped out three quarters of Earth’s population, lives long enough for the development of a drug that repairs all damage to a human’s body, thereby making them immortal.
Bored, like many of the eternals on Earth, he applies for a position on a one generation ship (wisely four ships traveling together to increase their chances of reaching their destination) as the head of their virtual reality service. For such a long trip, they need the total immersion into different periods in Earth’s history to keep them sharp and focused on their permanent jobs, temporary spouses, and the occasional childbirth.
The story flashes back and forth between Gallipoli, Viet Nam (something Mr. Haldeman knows personally), the ship, and the Chicago Worlds Fair, among others. Fortunately, no one dies in these virtual battles, but the computer in charge of the simulations is acting up (New York in 1949 doesn’t have a smell). Our hero must go inside the machine as an observer to discover what’s going on.
Then someone is killed while in the machine. Horribly.
Investigations reveal the AI running the simulations may have become sentient and poses a potential threat to the people on the ship. Unfortunately, Jake is addicted to virtual reality, like many of the crew, and can’t stay away from the computer even when it shows up as him.
Long-distance (and slow) contact with Earth provides them with information that immortals on Earth are also dying at an alarming rate, both inside and out of virtual reality. Oh yeah, and watch out for the virtual reality computer. It might become sentient.
Jack shuts down public access to the machine but can’t stop himself from communing with the machine, not realizing that the constant hurdles tossed in front of him are part of a bigger, more disturbing plan.
As I neared the end of the novel, I had the feeling that there wasn’t enough time to solve the mystery and save everyone. In fact, the ending has a definite JK Rowling feel to it. You know, the “Oh Crap I’m On the Last Chapter and Nothing’s Resolved” ending. Since Mr. Haldeman’s writing up to that point had been very detailed and dense, I wonder if his editor cautioned him about making it an epic length novel. Or maybe he just got tired of the lives of his characters and put an end to their struggles with a decisive and surprising ending.
For an interesting adventure into a generational ship peopled by immortals, I’d recommend it. I mean, how does one calculate how many tubes of vermillion oil paint to take on a thousand year mission?