Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Anthony G Williams

Apr 18, 2007
Poul Anderson was one of the most productive SFF writers of the second half of the last century, publishing about a hundred books and winning seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. His first book was published in 1953 and his last fifty years later, two years after his death. Tau Zero was published in 1970 and was nominated for a Hugo. When it was selected for the reading list of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClassicScienceFiction/) I was surprised to discover that I had never read it, so I obtained a new copy (published by Gollancz under the SF Masterworks label).

The plot is simple: a colonisation ship with fifty people on board leaves Earth for another solar system where a probe had reported a habitable planet. En route, the ship runs into trouble and cannot decelerate. The only chance of survival is to keep accelerating closer and closer to light speed in order to maximise the time dilation effect and travel as far as possible; initially to find space empty enough to shut off the drive and protective screen in order to carry out repairs, and secondly to find a zone where the conditions are right for them to stop and find a place to live.

There are two threads running through this story: the first is a very technical, hard-science description of the functioning of the Bussard ramjet, the implications of the ship's velocity getting ever closer to the speed of light, and the structure and evolution of the universe. The second is the human story of the effect of their situation on the crew and scientists on board the ship, as time outside passes at an ever-increasing rate compared with time inside.

Like nearly all SF of the period, this story is about ideas more than people. If the title had not already been pre-empted by the famous short story, the novel might accurately have been called The Cold Equations. Having said that, the main characters are drawn well enough to carry the plot, while time has not been kind to the science. The effectiveness of the Bussard ramjet concept (very popular in the 1960s and 70s) has since been questioned and the future of the universe is now believed to be somewhat different from that shown in the book.

This story makes an interesting contrast with Niven's A World Out of Time published a few years after Tau Zero and reviewed on this blog recently. This also features a Bussard ramjet making an enormous journey to gain the benefit of time dilation, but Niven's story concerns itself much more with the social, genetic and technical changes which take place on Earth over the aeons and, to me at least, is all the more interesting and enjoyable as a result.

Tau Zero may not be the most enjoyable of tales, but it is deservedly a classic for its exploration of the science of relativity and its potential consequences.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
I just finished this, with mixed feelings.

The opening is intriguing - Sweden as a centre for world peace and governance, and people looking wistfully at earth before leaving it forever. The writing is fast and fluid - for the most part - allowing for an easy read.

But it soon becomes apparent that the characters are too limited to serve any purpose other than mark time and a degree of psychological development on board the Leonora Christine. 50 people are mentioned as passengers - potential colonists - but only a handful are ever named, let alone shown to any degree. The lack of discipline and any conflicts seem forced to bring some degree of life to a forgettable crew.

These moments are interspersed with "hard science" elements, where Anderson gives a vision of the universe and astrophysics that, while fascinating, have no resonance with modern science. The one area that it holds consistent with is the effect of time on a mass moving towards light speed - I have my doubts as to the realism of how it's applied here, but this is the one interesting part of the book.

In effect, the story is nothing more than an idea - what if a star ship had to keep accelerating towards the speed of light to keep safe? It is an interesting idea, taken to a resolution that - thankfully - avoids easy cliches. As it's a short book it's not hard on the eyes, but the distant narrator jars when so much fiction nowadays actively seeks to emotionally invest the reader in the story.

In the end, an interesting book and a short read, but one that hasn't aged very well as a science fiction novel - but could be easily revisited as a story idea for a modern film.
An interesting follow-up to my review: I read this book less than four years ago, but I only have the vaguest recollection of it and have no idea how it finished!
They effectively reach the end of the universe, after a "big crunch" - then ride the wave of the next "big bang" to select an appropriate planet at will upon which to settle on. Luckily, all Genesis metaphors are avoided! - the first child is not called "Eve", and the planet they settle on looks nothing like earth.

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