Tau Zero by Anderson, Poul, 1970

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Tau Zero is often touted as one of the best hard science fiction novels of all time, and in fact the best hard science fiction story ever. I personally do not count it as either, but whatever it is, it is one darn good yarn in the hard SF tradition that takes a passable and very unique shot at a deep-space/lost-in-space story with a healthy dash of social engineering. Where it does really succeed is in evoking a from-the-gut "WOW!" over its eye widening scope and idea. I give this three stars out of five, reduced from four out of five for some particularly silly and very dated elements described below.

This is a tale of Swedish ascendancy in the world. And coming from a man named Anderson (should be Andersson), I am not surprised. By way of background, a nuclear war a few centuries before the beginning of this novel unequivocally removed the Soviets and the USA from prominence. Thereafter the nations of the world got together and decided that Sweden should make all the big calls, and moved the administrative center of the world to Stockholm. This I consider as strike one against this novel, and I shan't say more.

But the novel is really not about that. It’s about the third interstellar colonization ship that the world has put up into space. The Leonora Christine is powered by a hydrogen ram scoop. It is launched from orbit towards Beta Virginis, where the Sweeds suspect an acceptable water-heavy world exists in the planesphere. On the way to their destination, the Leonora Christine runs through a very vast moving nebulina, and the braking system is essentially destroyed. This leaves the crew of the Leonora Christine with only one option: Keep accelerating or die. When the ram scoop is on, all free gaseous material is siphoned through for fusion and drive. If it were to be turned off, then the gas molecules would not be diverted, the hull would be bombarded, and deadly gamma rays would be released into the ship. But if the ship stays at a constant velocity, then the crew just waits around for death from old age. To solve this dilemma one member of the crew came up with a radical plan whereby they would increase velocity and decrease the tau factor by flying through the hydrogen dense center of the Milky Way, thereby gathering molecules to increase speed, until they have enough velocity to go to the space between galactic clusters where interstellar gas is very sparse. In that area they theorize that gas atoms are so sparse that they can in relative safety turn off the scoop, exit the ship, and repair the braking system. Other than the obvious, they face two big problems that cause depression and hopelessness to settle in. First, by the time they get enough speed and get out of the galaxy the relativistic time slip will make them only a few decades older, but the galaxy will be millions, and maybe billions of years older. Second, as they gain speed Einstein's famous equation shows that they will gain relative mass. They fear that should they die on their trip, the hurtling and still accelerating carcass of their ship will eventually gain enough mass to suck in entire galaxies.

The science in this book is some of the best, top notch science-fiction science writing that there is out there (but not the best, IMHO). Anderson really seems to understand this stuff, and slips into a voice that is clear, concise, convincing, and maybe a little bit excited, as he occasionally switches pace to describe the working of the plan from the ship's point of view, then back to the crew’s. He seems to relish any opportunity to do so, and really impresses with his skills in this area. Anderson was saying was that as the crew decreased the tau factor, the ship would increase in smaller and smaller increments to just shy of light-speed. As it did so, its mass would increase exponentially (thus the ability to mow through suns without any ill effect) and time dilation would change in a similar way. The ship never did get to light-speed, but because of time dilation, it seemed from an outside the ship perspective that they were greatly exceeding it. As to reaching light speed, I think that Anderson was saying something like this...Have you ever considered that game where you try to get closer and closer to a wall by decreasing your distance to it by 1/2 each time you move? Eventually of course you will be playing an impossible game, as the distances are too small for a human eye to measure. But I get the feeling that is how the ship approached light speed. It accelerated constantly, but by decreasing its tau factor in incrementally small amounts so that it would never actually reach light speed (or a tau of zero), which is a theoretical impossibility.

Unfortunately Anderson's enthusiasm for the technical aspects of the story did not transfer well to all other aspects of the book. Ignoring the implausibility of the government that designed, built and launched this craft, Anderson really does a very poor job dealing with his female characters. His starship is populated by a United Nations type of crew that seems more heavily weighted with men. A silly idea for a colonization ship, in my opinion, but note that the silliness does not end there. Anderson did put women in positions of power and authority, but never allowed them to capitalize on what they had going for them. Every female on the ship seemed to be a glorified June Cleaver, who would do anything for any man in front of her, and who was frequently told to shut-up. One woman, a world class chemist whose skills were going to be necessary and vital to supporting the new mission of the ship actually thanked the chief of security for allowing her to live with him, just because he operated with brutal efficiency and took crap from no one. Every other female character served the whims of the males, no matter what their role on the ship. Vaginas for everyone! Those passages, and there were lots of them, were laughable.

One element of the story that I went back and forth on was the main character, Charles Reyment. Reyment was the recipient of the thank you above, and was the chief of security on the Leonora Christine. He was essentially an overblown Cadman Weyland type character (see The Legacy of Heorot, by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes, or just wait for me to get to it here). He was very annoying in that whenever any stress hit the crew, he made himself ready to respond with armed force. He seemed to me to be a character pulled directly from the pulps of the 20's and 30's. A strict disciplinarian, he could not relate to women at all, lived under a militaristic mindset (and alone on a colony ship, no less), and treated every element of ship's life like it would be better if it were managed under a police state. On the other hand, he was the big mind that came up with the plan for survival. He also came up with a pretty complex and interesting plan where he would separate the captain from daily ship's life in an attempt to deify him, became even more rigid with his tasks so that he would be viewed as the harsh school-principle type, and set up the second-in-command to become the ultimate judge of daily issues, who would dispense kindness and leniency. It was a very interesting play with archetypes that led to believable conflicts and compelling resolutions.

I'm generally not a big fan of Paul Anderson, but this book is one that I keep in my collection. I have never read anything else by him that has kept my attention or stayed in my memory. As a hard SF tale, there really isn't much better out there, save for Niven, or Bear, or a few others. But to enjoy Niven, you really have to either appreciate or know how to laugh at right-wing political BS. The book does have some crossover appeal, and should entertain even those who are turned off by hard SF. If you're looking for a truly mind-expanding novel, this is a good choice that takes to you, literally, to the end of time and the beginning of the next universe, and goes to a place that where no other book goes.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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