Buying Time: Immortals running for their lives

Buying Time by Joe Haldeman science fiction book reviewsBuying Time by Joe Haldeman science fiction book reviewsBuying Time by Joe Haldeman

Dallas Barr is a Stileman — one of the few humans who’ve paid a million pounds and given up all their assets to have their bodies rejuvenated. These folks need the process repeated every decade or so, so they spend that decade earning the money needed for the next treatment. To keep the Stilemen from gaining too much wealth and power, they’re required to give up their assets each time. This leads to the funding of many philanthropic initiatives around the world.

When Dallas and his girlfriend Maria discover a conspiracy affecting the Stileman Process, they are forced to run for their lives. If they can’t shake their pursuers and don’t solve their problem in time, their immortality will run out.

Joe Haldeman’s Buying Time (1989) is a short science fiction thriller. It’s got an imaginative but believable premise, lively and mostly likeable characters, interesting applications of technology, exotic far future locales, a quick pace, a touch of humor, and lots of adventure. I especially liked visiting all the places where Dallas and Maria tried to hide from their pursuers, particularly the Conch Republic, an outlaw planet where you can easily have your face changed if you have enough money. Also admirable is the way that Haldeman uses different formats to tell the story. I loved the tabloid reports and condom commercials. I also loved the abrasive AI that piloted one of their ships. But then there were some strange POV choices that didn’t work very well and it’s really hard to feel much empathy for characters who are “immortal” and not especially good people, besides.

The plot of Buying Time was not always believable, especially Haldeman’s lack in imagining that his future high-tech world would contain some of the technology that we already have today. It makes the story feel a little old-fashioned. I remember 1989, when this novel was published, and we knew it was just a matter of time before people were carrying around their own phones, but nobody in Buying Time seemed to have one. Also, while Dallas and Maria are on the run, they seem to carelessly leave identifiers behind such as thumbprints which they use to sign transactions. And a million pounds doesn’t seem like nearly enough money to keep the Stileman Process so exclusive. But, whatever, I was willing to overlook these little things just because the story was so entertaining.

Buying Time doesn’t really try to be more than a slick and fun sci-fi thriller and I liked the audio version I listened to, which was narrated by Eric Vale. If you want to read a more thoughtful novel with a similar premise, try Jack Vance’s To Live Forever.

Published in 1989. In the 21st century, immortality via the complex operation known as the Stileman Process is attainable by a few wealthy and determined individuals, but the motivations that drive humans to live forever remain shrouded in mystery until “immortals” Dallas Barr and Maria Marconi stumble across a dangerous secret and find themselves fleeing for their lives–which have suddenly become very short.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. There is a slightly less-than-inspired SF movie called In Time, with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, that might be based on this — or at least they might have used it as a jumping off point. It came out in 2011. Most people die at the age of 26, but rich people can “buy” other people’s time and extend their own to virtual immortality.

    It had interesting moments but I wouldn’t recommend it.

    • I thought of that movie, too, when I read this review! (And I wouldn’t recommend it, either — it truly does have some interesting moments, but most of the movie is just meh piled on meh.)

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