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on 3 December 2017
Not his best but still very good. A clear attempt to bring relativity to the masses. The concept has been overtaken by today' view of the universe and the expansion-contraction theory.
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on 31 October 2017
the characters are a bit 2 dimensional particularly the lead.The heroic hunk who can sort all problems. Cliché!,
Not sure how accurate the physic is but an interesting view on relativity
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VINE VOICEon 19 November 2001
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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 March 2015
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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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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.
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on 1 April 2012
This book explores the twin paradox and the related psychological and philosophical questions a faster than light journey raises:

- What would you do knowing you will never see your family again? What about your species?
- What if you were all that was left of humanity?
- In a galaxy or family of galaxies completely alien to you?
- Will you ever find a home? Will anything you find ever feel like home?
- How will you live in a ship with no prospect of a future, a family, a lineage?

However, the main draw of the book is the sheer scope of the journey, the timescales and distances involved. One is forced to think of their own lifetime as just a speck compared to the lifespan of the universe. The journey boggles the mind and in the end it reaches a very natural and satisfying climax.

The only minor annoyances are that many philosophical questions are touched on but not delved deeply into, sometimes leaving the readers journey through the book as ethereal as the journey of the Leonara Christine. Also, a lot of assumptions are made (necessarily!) about how such a futuristic society works (politics, relationships etc) which don't seem fully justified and are a little nâive. This breaks the fourth wall a little sometimes, but is easily forgiven.

However, unencumbered by over-thinking, the journey is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking ride from start to finish.
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on 1 May 2017
First reviewed at tbirdstudios.com:

This week I thought I would go slightly retro and take a look back at some classic 1970s hard science fiction with Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero. This is the story of the stricken interstellar colony ship Leonora Christie, which suffers damage to its deceleration systems, forcing the ship to continually accelerate using its relativistic “Bussard Drive.” The crew experience delirious disparity between the years on-board the ship, and the eons of time passing beyond the whickering electromagnetic force shields of their lonely vessel.

A veteran of the genre since 1947, Poul Anderson demonstrates with this novel just why he was so lauded as a science fiction writer. The ideas and premise of the novel are a fascinating thought experiment, extrapolated through a lean and tightly-plotted 189 pages. The novel’s science could be daunting perhaps to a novice, but I do enjoy reading sci-fi which has done its homework. Anderson avoids breaking Einstein’s theory of relativity, going into exhaustive detail to ensure the novel maintains a rock solid air of plausibility.

The only real cheat is the Bussard engine’s ability to avoid near infinite mass at significant fractions of c. Physics has moved on in some areas covered by the book (particularly at the thrilling climax), but that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. Tau Zero feels in a way like a Jules Verne novel for the twentieth century. A fantastical voyage that, whilst it may prove to be errant in certain details, remains remarkably prescient and grounded in solid science of the time.

However, as with the best science fiction, this novel is not just a stolid technician’s manual on intergalactic flight, but a conversation on monumental ideas. These include the end of the universe, the responsibility of the Leonora to avoid harming developing life, on the existentialism of outliving all of human civilisation in a matter of a year. It also asks if it is right for the crew to reproduce, and potentially doom their offspring to a curtailed life in a steel prison for the rest of their life, like living corpses watching the universe flourish and blossom and perish around them.

Anderson’s prose is at its most beautiful when depicting the sublime enormity of the universe outside the ship, conjuring up surreal images of a vastly accelerated universe from the point of view of the colonists. Red shifting galaxies, the whirl of lurid colours when the Bussard ramjet drives through nebulae to refuel. The juxtaposition between the mundane and the extraordinary is a key recurring motif, exemplified in this wonderful line towards the climax:

"The baby's first cry responded to the noise of inward-falling worlds."

That’s just magic.

I won’t go into a full examination of the novel, as I wish to keep this review relatively short and spoiler-free if possible, but it is dense with meaning waiting to be unpacked in a closer reading of the text.

With such a vast scope of cosmic import, the novel does not really have the space to really develop its characters, who feel a little unnatural, more ideas and mouthpieces of philosophical musings than real, living characters. In part I think this is a structural issue. To keep the story thundering along at a brisk pace, there are numerous jumps in on-board time, months and even years. We simply don’t get enough time with them for my liking. Each time we return to the ship, the characters feel like they are compelled by authorial fiat to impart lengthy expeditionary dialogue to explain what they have been doing since we last saw them.

This feels particularly redundant when we consider this is a crew of about fifty people living in close confines. This is not helped by the main protagonists, Lindgren and Reymont (whose main character trait is his inscrutable stoicism), both putting on an air of aloof detachment as a ploy to keep order on-board the ship. Beyond some impotent wrath and low level discontent, any conflict within the ship remains muted in favour of the cosmic ballet unfolding outside, and the crew’s attempts to survive it.

Even with these reservations, Tau Zero remains an excellent piece of work. Anderson’s ideas about the effect of relativistic travel on the human psyche, only touched upon here, tap into the zeitgeist of his contemporaries, most notably in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. That novel depicts the disorientating experience of fighting an interstellar war, and was written just four years after Tau Zero. The depiction of the relativistic flight of Alastair Reynolds’ light-huggers in Revelation Space owe a lot to Leonora Christie, in particular the strange view of the stars distorted into clusters fore and aft of the ship as major red shift makes itself known.

In the end, I like Tau Zero for its ideas and the lasting effect they’ve had on the sci-fi which followed it, and for the courage of its author to plunge headlong into a narrative as huge as a voyage to the end of the universe, and actually do it justice. This is a very hard science fiction, so is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I would highly recommend this mature and ferociously clever book.
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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.
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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.
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