Vintage Science Fiction Month: Tau Zero

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

“Their flight was not less exhilarating for being explainable.” – Tau Zero, Page 19

Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero follows the story of the starship Leonora Christine, a colonization vessel staffed with 50 of the best and brightest that Earth has to offer. Their goal is to travel to a distant star system using a Bussard ramjet to accelerate at a modest but constant rate until they reach an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. This makes their voyage subject to relativity and time dilation; it will take 5 years from the crew’s subjective, while 33 years will pass on earth. Tragedy strikes when the ship passes through an unexpected nebula, damaging the deceleration capabilities of the ship. Since the ship’s engines must be kept running in order to provide protection from stray objects and radiation, the crew is doomed to continue accelerating ever closer to the speed of light, thus increasing time dilation and traveling ever farther from home in terms of both distance and time. Will the crew manage to find a way to slow down and find a suitable planet for colonization in time to create a viable population that can thrive?

So this book has a reputation as a classic, and indeed, the hard SF bits are nice and chunky giving the reader that sense of wonder so many of us crave from our SF. Alas, it’s the crew interactions and character touches that didn’t quite connect with me. I find this to be a relatively common challenge with novels from this period between the New Wave in the 60s and the hard SF revival in the 80s (another example of great hard SF ideas mixed with middling character work from this same era is The Mote in God’s Eye, even if that remains one of the great first-contact stories due to the lower proportion of character work there).

To be fair, much of the interior reflection in the novel works. The crew handles their initial setbacks well, but as the true implications dawn, there are some pretty weighty troubles to deal with. It doesn’t take long before they realize that while only a few years have passed for them, it’s likely that everyone they have ever known has long since passed away. Once they reach a speed where millions of years are passing for every one year of travel, these implications start to take a even more of a toll on the crew, as it becomes clear that all of humanity as they knew it is probably long gone. Unfortunately, much of the crew interactions feel forced and unrelatable. Old Earth politics, love triangles, cheating, authoritarian controls on various aspects of life aboard a spaceship are all viable story components, I guess, but I found myself not caring much about these aspects of the story, which actually do comprise a sizable portion of the narrative.

The hard SF bits are harnessed into an effective driver for the story, even if some things don’t quite fit with the current science and cosmology. I mean, yeah, at the speed they the ship was moving, it would be blueshifted far enough to kill people instantly from radiation poisoning, but that would make for a pretty anticlimactic story. Similarly, the “Big Crunch” speculated in the book probably wouldn’t work that way and even if it did, the ship’s odds at surviving are doubtful. None of this is enough to totally outweigh the sense of wonder brought on by a ship traveling so fast that it could witness the end of the current universe, the big bang of a new universe, and travel billions of years into the span of said new universe to find a planet that would be habitable in a timeframe that would allow for 50 people to create a viable colony. (Spoilers, I guess.) All in all, Anderson evokes the grandeur and scale of the universe well enough that it kept me motivated to get past the characterization bits.

So it’s a neat idea, reasonably well executed, but the character work is middling at best. In this way, it also reminded me a bit of Gregory Benford’s Timescape (cool ideas bogged down by inane dinner parties), which is funny, because I recently read a Benford short story called “Relativistic Effects” which recalls Tau Zero to such an extent that I have to believe Benford was directly inspired by Anderson’s work. Another runaway ship witnessing a new big bang, and so on, but captured in a tiny fraction of Tau Zero‘s already pretty short length (approximately 200 pages). Incidentally, that short story collection that had the Benford work also contained an Anderson story called “Kyrie” that also deals with time dilation (as it relates to black holes). That story really kicked me in the face and was the inspiration for picking up Tau Zero in the first place. Ultimately, I’m glad I read this and hope to read more Anderson at some point, but I’d recommend checking out The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF and reading the two aforementioned stories rather than Tau Zero… which I guess says something about this book. On the other hand, I can see why it’s hailed as a classic, the science bits are interesting, and it’s definitely worth reading for students of the genre. However, back on that first hand, while I generally don’t mind the stereotypical flat characters of hard SF, I feel like this book shot for some ambitious litfic characterization and didn’t quite clear the bar on that front, which lessens the overall appeal some.

Will I manage a third Vintage review this month? Only time will tell, but I do have a book lined up (assuming I finish the two I’m currently reading…)

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