BUYING TIME

by Joe Haldeman

Avon Books

0-380-70439-0

295pp/$3.95/1990

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Many science fiction novels over the years have deal with the dichotomy of a world in which wealth can be used to buy the latest technological and, more recently, genetic advances. One of the most famous recent examples is Nancy Kress's "Beggar" series which began with Beggars in Spain (Avon 1993), in which the wealthy can arrange to have their children live life without needing sleep, thereby giving them an advantage over their normal peers. A few years before Kress published this novel, Joe Haldeman published Buying Time, in which the wealthy could afford medical treatments which would permit them to live forever.

In an interesting twist, Haldeman's "immortals" are not actually purchasing immortality, but rather 10-12 year life extensions, at the end of which time they must take another treatment. In between, the immortals must scrounge to raise the 1,000,000 required for the procedure, which costs the million plus anything else they own. The novel enters with Dallas Barr, one of the oldest immortals, coming out of one of his renovations and being contacted by a cabal of immortals who know the proper way to govern the world. To lure Barr into their group, the cabal has already lined up Barr's love, Maria Marconi. When the attempted recruitment fails, Barr and Marconi find themselves on the run from the immortals.

Much of Buying Time reads like an old pulp science fiction adventure, including personal interplanetary spacecraft, disintegrators, and Turing personalities. Rather than a quest, Barr and Marconi are fleeing for their lives, leaving a path of destruction behind them. This flight permits Haldeman to present the reader with a sort of gazetteer for the world he has created: The Conch Republic made up of the Florida Keys, Novysibirsk among the asteroids, and so on. These places add to the pulp feel of the novel.

Haldeman does use an interesting narrative technique throughout Buying Time. He alternates viewpoint characters between Maria Marconi and Dallas Barr each chapter, but the end of most chapters are told by a third-person omniscient narrator who seems to know how the story ends. Frequently, rather than advancing the story, this third-person narrator provides a little more depth of detail for the society the immortals move through than Haldeman was able to work into the chapter. Although a little strange at first, this style ultimately works for the novel.

Buying Time does not have the feel of a novel written in the 1980s, despite making use of research and technology from that period.  Instead, it feels as if it were a novel written in an earlier period which wasn't published until 1989.  There is a simplicity and innocence in the scheming and counter-scheming as well as in the ease of interplanetary travel which makes Buying Time seem as if it were written decades before Beggars in Spain rather than a mere few years.


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