Tau Zero: A mythological journey in hard SF form

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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson science fiction book reviewsTau Zero by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson is, and mayhap always will be, the speculative fiction writer who most integrates myth and legend into fantasy and science fiction. The former is relatively easy given that myth and legend are typically already half fantasy, the latter is the more difficult given that one of the aims of science fiction is believable futuristic extrapolation. Failing spectacularly with The High Crusade (a novel that sees Medieval knights take a space ship to another planet to fight blue-skinned aliens), his 1970 Tau Zero is a more subtle mix. While lacking in fully humanized characters, it nevertheless captures the ideal of a mythological journey in hard SF form.

Tau Zero is the story of a group of fifty astronauts on a mission to a distant star system. The journey was planned to take five years subjective time, thirty-three years actual time, so the group know they are leaving their loved ones behind for good; the Earth they will return to in sixty-six years will be in differing circumstances. Their ship, the Leonora Christine, the most sophisticated, technologically-advanced spacecraft ever assembled by humanity, is capable of accelerating the vessel to near light speed with its massive Brussard ramjet. Blast off goes without a hitch, but when the ship flies through a nebula, a wrench is thrown in the works. The gas pedal is essentially stuck to the floor, and the astronauts must find a way to remove the figurative wrench as they inch closer to light speed and further from the reality they are most familiar with.

Tau Zero operates at two surface levels and one sub-surface. The science surrounding the Leonora Christine, as well as astrophysics at large, play a significant role in the narrative. Anderson takes small breaks to explain various technicalities and pass along bits of knowledge relevant to theoretical space flight. Characters occupy the other significant portion of the narrative. As relationships form and break, much of the story is the interpersonal interaction amongst the crew, which, in politically-correct form, contains the token ethnic representatives, Swedish most prominent among them. The vast scale of the venture is combined with the human expectation and reaction to the events which occur forms the subtext: a people caught in an expedition beyond their ability to immediately influence. Or, in other words, a boat caught in a storm on a journey to a place none can predict. With Anderson’s penchant for Norse myth, there are parallels. The connection to myth likewise offers an explanation for the limit of one, sometimes two dimensions of the characters.

Lacking fully fleshed-out characters, the main issue with Tau Zero is the lack of realism and empathy generated by Anderson’s descriptions of humanity. Many of the characters are archetypal rather than real, which wouldn’t be a problem were the narrative to have maintained a mythic tone — as Anderson successfully does with many other of his stories, e.g. The Broken Sword. Attempting realism, yet not wholly succeeding, the result is a juxtaposition of tone: somewhat exaggerated characters attempt to convey realistic emotion and behavior. This gap becomes particularly obvious as, among the several facets of humanity Anderson attempts to portray, one is the most difficult subject to capture realistically on the page: love and relationships. Lingrid and Reymont, for example, mostly feel as though they are going through the motions of getting together, breaking up, etc., rather than innately involved as living, breathing humans. Had Anderson kept his character profiles simpler (like real myth), the balance of science and plot would have been more effective. As it stands, the attempt at realism falls mostly flat.

In the end, Tau Zero is the straight-forward story of a crew of astronauts who embark on an interstellar journey aboard a highly technically conceptualized spacecraft. Part hard SF and part legend, the human stories do not color fully and would have been better as pale representations. But the journey they undertake — and are taken on — is all the stuff of legend, literally.

Tau Zero — (1970) Publisher: Poul Anderson’s book Tau Zero stands out in the genre in large part because it does precisely the thing that one so rarely sees in science fiction: it takes a keen interest in the emotional lives of the characters in the novel, which the novel combines this with a general fascination for all things scientific. In Tau Zero, these two often competing themes in the genre work together with a synergy that makes the novel much more than just another deep space adventure story. From practically the very first page, Tau Zero sets the scientific realities in dramatic tension with the very real emotional and psychological states of the travelers: you have the time factor and their emotional response to the consequence of traveling at this high rate of speed and the time that has passed. This tension is a dynamic that Anderson explores with great success over the course of the novel as fifty crew-members settle in for the long journey together. While they are a highly-trained team of scientists and researchers and therefore professionals, they are also a community of individuals, each of them trying to create for him or herself a life in a whole new space (or literally, in space). It isn’t too long, however, before the voyage takes a turn for the worse. The ship passes through a small, uncharted cloud-like nebula that makes it impossible to decelerate the ship. The only hope rather, is to do the opposite and speed up. But acceleration towards and within the speed of light means that time outside the spaceship passes even more rapidly, sending the crew deeper into space and also, further into an unknown future.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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10 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    I’ve long wanted to read this one. Thanks, Jesse, for your sharp review. But I have to disagree with you when you say that “The High Crusade” “fail[ed] spectacularly.” I really did love that book, as I recall from a few decades back, when I first read it. The book has just been rereleased recently, with an enthusiastic intro by Robert Silverberg, who says that the novel is now deemed a kind of classic. Guess that’s why there’s vanilla AND chocolate out there….

  2. S. C. Flynn /

    Second reference.to High Crusade in as many days, must make it TBR.

    As for Tau, I agree with many of the points made, especially re the poor characterisation.

  3. Death of MythI read this my freshman year in college. It is a great story and Hard SF is not myth or trying to be. Back in those primitive days of merely landing on the Moon characterization was not ballyhooed so much. The title says what the story is about, PHYSICS. I was taking electrical engineering so I asked a senior physics major about Einsteinian physics. I will never forget his shocking answer, "Don't try to understand it just memorize and apply the equations." Of course now the really interesting thing is that the story is based on the BIG CRUNCH but we now know that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Science Fiction is not about being "good literature" it is about wringing good stories out of scienceand imagination. Advancing science requires imagination.
  4. Tau Zero is the definition of ‘hard’ science fiction.
    It is magnificently written and mind blowing novel consisting of the relationships between humans and the order of the cosmos in the most explorative and timeless fashion.

    https://thebookwormbookshelf.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/book-review-tau-zero-by-poul-anderson/

  5. Interesting debate here – I’ve heard Tau Zero described as “diamond-hard SF” about the limits of physics, but it also seems Anderson wanted to explore the limits of human relationships in extreme circumstances. Whether he succeeded is clearly up to each reader. I’d imagine this book was more impressive back in 1970 than today from a literary standpoint, and the physics may also be dated, but it still represents an important work in that sense.

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