The book moves quite slowly, and the only flaw is that it could be quite a bit longer.
Now then, I have to say this, with as much care as I can. This is THE only ScFi book I have ever read where it is certain, quite certain, that everything could actually happen. This is quite a remarkable claim, and I have to be very cautious! Perhaps some of the real terror in the book is becasue of this extreme realism. The ship could be built. The navigational difficulties would indeed be related to the spacial distortions of the star field. And the red shift and blue shifts are just like that... What we know about relativity points to the bizarre flight of the ship really holding up.
Poul makes a real attempt to convey the awful separation and exile of the inhabitants. To lose not only the earth... but anything which could remotely be called human, or even his descendants... This is the basis for the worst sort of nightmare for many of us. The claustrophobic nature of the ship and the equalling unsatisfactory nature of the relationships... And yet, there is an ending which satisfies in some sense.
This is novel in which there is a overwhelming, quite overbearing sense of grandeur. You will probably read certain sections quite frequently - I have literally worn out previous editions. But beware, you will feel a strong empathy for these lost souls, and my goodness, it would be nice to make sure that you don't sleep alone, Pascal was right when he spoke of the terror of the great spaces.
on 15 June 2012
Tau Zero exemplifies much that came out of the pulp SF tradition. On the credit side, the idea is brilliant, and it's eloquently described in the Amazon "Product Description". The novel is probably SF's most thorough attempt, at least at time of publication, to explore the implications of relativity for travellers on a starship that's approaching light speed.
The trouble is, those implications are so far-reaching they don't really leave any room for a plot - they ARE the plot. Anderson correctly realised he needed some strong human interest to make this into a novel. Unfortunately, he wasn't up to the task of providing it. The weak characterisation, which comes as standard with a lot of SF, is more of a problem than usual because Anderson is trying so hard to avoid it, but failing so badly. The attempts at characterisation mainly come from dialogue rather than action, and said dialogue is among the most excruciatingly implausible you'll ever encounter (I kept hearing Tony Curtis, in Some Like It Hot, imploring "No-one talks like that!" as I read it). The cast speak in psychobabble paragraphs rather than demotic conversational language. And they all sound the same, so it's really hard to tell who's who. The only character who stands out at all is the hero, the ship's security chief Charles Reymont. Unfortunately, he's a Randian superman, or, in plain English, a complete eejit, and he causes irritation after irritation as he goes through his obligatory duties of demolishing straw man arguments and giving some sweet space lovin' to the women on board, all of whom, as nothing more than wish-fulfilment figures, can't resist whatever it is he's packing in his spacesuit.
Tau Zero is highly regarded by a lot of SF fans, possibly because it reasserted "traditional" SF virtues at the height of the New Wave era, possibly because it at least tries to have some characterisation and human interest, and possibly because Anderson was so widely liked in the SF world. To be fair, while he was never a great writer, he was far from negligible, and he wrote much that is better than this.
I read to the end with increasing annoyance but stuck with it because I was genuinely interested in what happened to the ship. I didn't care about the people on it though. Which is odd, because I'm not normally a huge fan of hard SF. So: five stars for the idea, one star for the characterisation, three stars as the halfway point between the two.
on 17 February 2009
'Tau Zero' achieves a very difficult task. This is a 'Hard' sci-fi book that bases a story upon what could be some confusing scientific ideas. Time dilation and relativity are the key ideas that propel the story. Were they presented in a way that was superfluous to the story, or incomprehensible to the reader, the book would flounder. Instead, it soars.
The crux of the plot is simple. A 'generation ship' a vessel full of families that will take several generations to reach it's destination, is sent to establish a colony on a distant planet. During the journey, there's an accident, and the ship is left unable to reduce it's speed. As the vessel accelerates, the time outside the ship speeds by faster and faster, meaning that days, months and eventually years pass in what the helpless crew would perceive as meer seconds. Unable to stop or get off the ship, the protagonists hurtle towards the edge of the universe, and the end of time itself.
Tau Zero is a success because it balances characterisation, scientific concepts, and a compelling plot perfectly. The story is more than a show-case for clever intellectualism and the drama as the crew resolve a problem only to face something much greater is superbly written. Anderson expertly portrays the fear, hope, despair, ingenuity and even tedium experienced by the heroes on their eon-spanning journey as the story heads towards an amazing, but credible ending.
If there's anything bad to say about the book, it's the rather tepid scene-setting at the start. But once the ship is underway and the plot properly kicks in, it's an utterly thrilling, white-knuckle ride that's as smart as it is entertaining.
I read it one sitting during a night-shift at work, and, ironicaly, didn't realise where the time had gone. A superb story.
This is a space odyssey tale unlike any other I've read. Fifty colonists, made up of scientists and ship crew, are heading off to a planet in Virgo in the expectation that when they arrive, a century will have passed on Earth. They will achieve this in less time, relative to themselves, by travelling extremely fast - at something approaching lightspeed - then gradually braking.
The story starts slowly as the main characters linger on their last evenings on Earth, detailing the chaos and resolutions that have occurred and why the Swedish are now in control. They don't know it, but this is going to become meaningless to them.
Once travelling fast outside the Solar System, the spacefarers' lives settle in to a round of maintenance, hobbies and partner swapping. I wasn't convinced that there would be a swimming pool. Then a collision occurs which damages the ship propulsion system. They can't slow down. They can't turn off speed, because that would remove the shield of ionised particles created by the propulsion system which is stopping them from being irradiated. In order to get to a safe place to turn off the system, they need to put more speed on first. This would also reduce the potential for damage from other impacts, because although they can't achieve lightspeed, the smaller the tau - the difference between their speed and lightspeed - the more massive and fast they become, relative to the rest of the universe.
Keep those words in mind - relative to the rest of the universe. At the same time as we're watching a breakdown in discipline, or hearing a report on how long life support is going to last, we're also being told what the ship now consists of in comparison to the rest of matter and time. This story appears to have been written before the general acceptance that a giant black hole is at the centre of the Milky Way and doubtless other galaxies, but there is plenty of astrophysics told in relatable ways.
Ultimately this is a story about the endurance of hope and the human spirit; about endeavouring to stay alive and find a better future against astronomical odds. Tau Zero is not a long book and deserves to be read by anyone who wants to understand spacefaring and relativity.
on 23 February 2006
Tau Zero has been called the greatest hard science fiction novel of all time and I think there are few people that would disagree with that. As I am not a massive fan of this kind of SF I was pleasantly surprised when the novel managed to sweep me in into its simple yet descriptive narrative, well-thought out theoretical physics and interesting personal relationships.
The story is of a space ship with a crew of 50 (25 men, 25 women) who set off on a long voyage to possibly colonize another planet when mid-way through their journey their engine is damaged and they keep accelerating forever. This in itself is a great premise as the author can explore ideas like inertia, time-dilation and a theoretical type of near-light speed engine all so well-explained that even somebody with just a cursory knowledge of physics would understand. What gives it life though, is the 60’s-influence through the whole book. As in keeping with other novels of the time seemingly everyone is sleeping with everyone else. I didn’t mind this until a particular passage where a woman offers herself to a needed scientist who hasn’t got any in a while. It just seemed a little too optimistic to me. I’d like to believe that a pretty woman would offer herself to me if I was feeling depressed and I was a vital team member but it just doesn’t seem realistic. Maybe in 1970 it was. I was also strangely disturbed by the future presented where Sweden is the near-fascist world ruler. Quite chilling because the author wasn’t being sarcastic.
The book is quite short at 190 pages and it does go by pretty quickly but because the subject is about one ship and its voyage there are no annoying sub-plots or out of place scenes thrown in to shore it up. Neat little book!!
on 6 November 2008
As the blurb on the front cover suggests this really is hard sci-fi at its finest.
The novel opens with a rendevous between a man who turns out to be the mission security officer and a woman who is to be second in charge on the ship. What they arrange is a relationship of convenience for onboard and after - they take a deposit before.
Their mission is to colonize a like Earth planet in another solar system. On board are 25 men and 25 women who will have to pair off on or before arrival in order to populate the new planet. The mission would take lifetimes if not for the ability to travel at almost the speed of light. Relatavistic effect means that time will move slower on the ship the faster they go whilst time outside will seem to accelerate. Simple.
Not so simple. There is a malfuction after a collision which means that they can not slow down while they are within the galaxy - so they must leave it and in doing so travel so far into the future that they will have left everything they know behind. Then the crew start to break down and relationships become strained, especially when the two mentioned protagonists seperate because of an infidelity.
The action is good and the tense atmosphere on board is thrilling. How far from home must they travel? How far into the future must they go? How will they cope? What we have here is a story of a love that spans and transends space, time, infidelity, the universe and creation itself.
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.
My mission to get to know some of the masters of science fiction continues and although it's barely begun I consider myself very fortunate to have read Poul Anderson's Tao Zero. First published in 1970 and now part of Gollancz's SF Masterworks (reissued 2010), it is a little short of 200 pages in length and yet the story has such a depth and scope to it, it is in every other way a substantial, hefty piece of literature.
Tao Zero tells the story of a starship, the Leonora Christine, and the 25 couples aboard who set out in the 23rd century to colonise a planet 30 light years from earth. These men and women, with their different skills and personalities, are setting out to establish a new frontier, leaving everything behind and with little hope of returning to earth, at least during the lives of their loved ones. The clock of the cosmos means that journeys through space are also journeys through time. It is supposed to take the ship five years to reach the planet, thanks to the forces that reduce Tao to zero - matter is used to create and increase acceleration, sending the ship speeding through space and time while, inside the vessel, lives continue on a human clock. But when the Leonora Christine encounters a young nebula, the catastrophic collision destroys the decelerators and sets the ship off with infinte acceleration into the universe. With no way to stop, the ship, ever increasing in matter, passes through millennia and galaxies.
There are two perspectives to the story. One is outside the ship, giving us the background to the science, charting for us the path of the vessel through the universe and counting down the vast ages of time. Within this universe, so economically and quite beautifully described, we have the story of the 50 men and women aboard who, already faced with the stress of leaving earth and their families, now have to deal with a lifetime in transit from one star system to another, knowing that so much time has passed that not only all their loved ones on earth have died but even that the earth and its solar system are now destroyed.
Each of the crew must deal with their condition in his or her own way. The reality of spending a lifetime confined in a vessel with the same people, the relationships formed and broken, the desire to continue the human race while knowing that they are its end, the need to search for solutions and keep self-control, the attraction of an easy mass suicide - these questions and dilemmas face everyone from the captain downwards.
The brevity of the novel means that we don't get to know many of the characters in much depth. Instead there is a focus on a handful of key personnel and friendships and animosities. Their problem-solving exists side by side with their desire to form lasting relationships as the physical and psychological distance from earth increases.
There is a fair amount of science here and I'm not going to pretend that I understood all of it or even most of it - I still couldn't tell you what Tao is. However, my lack of scientific background didn't impede my enjoyment of this compelling book. It's a work of art painted with exquisite sentences; the universe it presents is a thing of beauty and the resilience of humanity is inspirational. My only complaint would be the length - the end felt relatively contrived because there weren't enough pages given to it. Nevertheless, Tao Zero is one of those books that will stay with you for its ideas and storytelling - how would I deal with such a situation? - and I have no doubt it's one to which I'll return.
on 3 August 2013
I read this book a couple of years after sitting my A level physics exam. I wish I had discovered it sooner. One of the problems with Relativity Theory is that it's so counter intuitive, ditto modern cosmology and concepts like "deep time." This book makes its protagonists experience this stuff in real time and makes it significant in their lives. All kinds of half understood concepts suddenly clicked into place for me, truly magical, I loved every minute of it. If only Mr Anderson had been my physics teacher (sigh,) maybe I would have a got a respectable grade.
This is one stunning story, in concept and execution, detailing how a small crew of an interstellar starship react when they realise due to an incident during their voyage that they will never be able to return home.
In terms of space-novels this is the single story that has most accurately been able to give an impression of the sheer vastness of space and time, and what pointless forgetable little blips human lives are in it. The story itself is comparable to an old lost-at-sea story, the crew is stranded aboard their ship, not entirely certain that they will ever be able to find a place to call their home again. In many ways this crew almost becomes a microcosm of the human species in the ways that they interact together and ultimately how they survive with each other.
An truly inspired story, I would consider an essential for any science fiction reader.