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Awe dwelt beneath the prosaic words
on 22 August 2012
The blurb on the back of Poul Anderson's 'Tau Zero' lauds it simply as, 'the ultimate hard science fiction novel'. This does not necessarily denote that the book is going to be hard to read, or that the science side will be too overbearing to enjoy the fiction. The term is generally applied to a sci-fi story in which everything has to "add up" and make sense, so that a scientist of the relevant field could read the book without ever saying "it does not work like that". The term "hard sci-fi" can also be used to talk about books that do not work on "realistic" scientific principles, as long as the science of the story universe is carefully explained and does not contradict itself, which can be a difficult task for even the most creative writers, especially as sci-fi fans are notoriously picky about such things. The main thing that "hard sci-fi" is not, is traditional "pulp" sci-fi, which is primarily concerned with creating a sense of the fantastic and escapist, and which is quite happy to wave away any glaring plot holes with the use of what is referred to in the post-Buffy era as "Applied Phlebotinum", where the writers make up some mystical or futuristic pseudo-science to drive the story forward, or to sidestep out of those situations where the author realises they have put themselves in a corner. Again, this kind of storytelling has its rightful place, and fans of the TV show 'Futurama' can see how the genre's penchant for Phlebotinum can be treated with love and humour. However, I came to 'Tau Zero' to try challenging some of my prejudices about more serious science fiction, and the experiment was largely successful.
Attempting to write hard sci-fi does not preclude an author from writing something exciting and escapist, indeed 'Tau Zero', set on a spaceship in the 23rd century, and designed to explore the outer limits of space and time through the eyes of its crew, promises the reader about the most fantastic premise it is possible to present under the banner of realistic fiction. A skeleton crew of fifty of the greatest minds of their generation are selected to board the 'Leonora Christine' and guide her to a remote planet that has been identified as having potential for colonisation. The early part of the story is driven by deft sketches of the crewmembers, and how their differing cultural and training backgrounds influence their experiences of long-term space-travel, and their interactions with each other. During this period, there is also ample time to explore the romantic possibilities of this highly-talented micro-community, creating drama from the tensions of various couplings, while marriage and childbearing is strictly forbidden until successful colonisation of the destination planet has been achieved.
This exposition is all good fun because of the unusual environment (at least for a reader like me; perhaps it is quite boring for the sci-fi faithful), but the key event in the story comes fairly early on: the navigators become aware that the ship is on course to pass through an interstellar dust-cloud, which cannot be avoided using the ship's carefully-explained control system. The crew is informed that they will have to take cover until they pass through, and then assess their status on the other side. A night of terrible shaking and shuddering noises passes, and all initially seems fine the next day (in ship-time). However, it is rapidly discovered that the ship's braking system has been badly damaged, posing a conundrum that will challenge the crew's will to survive. The system cannot be fixed without turning off the ship's radiation shield, and this cannot be done without travelling far into intergalactic space, where there is no radiation. The distances involved require the crew to commit to accelerating the ship to almost light speed, in order to achieve their goal within their lifetimes, but in doing so, time around them will pass faster and faster, leaving their generation behind back on Earth. The time acceleration is handled gradually, showing the characters dealing with the milestones one by one, starting with the loss of a living connection to their home planet, and then much farther forward, through the probable extinction of the human race and the death of the planet itself, and eventually to the observation that the stars are not behaving in a manner familiar to the experts on board, and the impressively understated realisation that this is because they are witnessing the universe getting older.
Poul Anderson does a fine job of balancing the reader's interest in the science behind the story, and the lives of its many characters, along with a few passages about the political background of 23rd century Earth, and I had great fun living through the various stages of the characters' experience, coming to terms with each new state of affairs and the dilemmas it presented. Unfortunately, I think the ending was very rushed and disappointing, considering the very measured approach employed throughout the majority of the book, which kept my interest even when it became a little too preoccupied with the relationship woes of the crew. I don't want to give away any details about the ending, as it would spoil the experience of the rest of the story for any interested readers, but I can say that Anderson ends up falling into one of the sci-fi writing trope-traps, concerning the description of unfamiliar environments (ironically one whose definition is attributed to James Blish, the author of the aforementioned blurb praising the novel); surprising considering the breadth of his knowledge and his attention to detail throughout the first 180 of 'Tau Zero's 187 pages.
Overall I think it was a good choice of novel for the sci-fi newbie, as it combines the excitement of the fantastic setting with the grounding of its focus on human emotional responses. The author writes with passion and conviction about his subject, with some wonderful descriptive writing that is terse and pragmatic, even when going to the trouble to describe what it clearly considers beauty. Okay, the handling of the human stories is at times clumsy, but never so much as to detract from the enjoyment of the interplay between the relationship dramatics and the over-arching roman-a-thèse frame. The chaos of the 'what if' is perfectly controlled in order to permit its full exploration, and it never relies too heavily on theory and its understanding for a sustained period. It will make you feel clever and humble and infinitesimally small all at once. If only he had devoted some more time and attention to bringing the conclusion up to the standard of the rest of the story, then I would have given it full marks.