34. ‘Tau Zero’ by Poul Anderson

A little while ago I had a mini sci-fi book-buying binge, and Tau Zero by Poul Anderson went to the top of my to-read pile for this wonderful blurb:

“During her epic voyage to a planet thirty light-years away, the deceleration system of the Leonora Christine is irreparably damaged. Unable to slow down, she attains light speed, tau zero itself, and the disparity between time for those on board and external time becomes impossibly great. Eons and galaxies hurtle by in the blink of an eye as the crew speeds helpless and alone into the unknown…”

I mean, sold.

tau zero poul anderson sci-fi

First, let me make one thing clear for those who spotted the problem with that blurb: the Leonora Christine does not achieve light speed. That’s impossible for anything with mass, like the Leonora Christine. No, instead the ship gets increasingly closer to light speed, getting faster and faster (but never achieving light speed itself), and gaining mass in the process.

Tau Zero is known as a ‘hard sci-fi’ novel (meaning it focuses on scientific accuracy), and I think it’s the first one of those I’ve read. It contains real, difficult science – one page even has a mathematical equation! – and Anderson interweaves this beautifully with his story. It takes a little getting used to, but I think this is the great strength of the novel. The balance between meticulous science and intimate, human stories is really fantastic, and Anderson has, at times, a beautiful, poetic turn of phrase. He will start a section at a distance, explaining what forces are acting upon the ship, how fast it is moving and where in the universe it is, and then he will dive inside the ship and focus on one or two characters and what it feels like to be on the Leonora Christine. With the passengers we get into the psychology of long-term space travel, and how the crew cope with hurtling past their original target with little hope of stopping.

To begin with, I thought Tau Zero was quite different from the problem-solve-y sci-fi style of something like The Martian, but as the story goes on the crew do come up with ideas to escape their speeding prison. However, the focus here is really on psychology and relationships above practical science, and I loved it for that. Our male protagonist (there is a large cast of characters, but there are two main ones) – Constable Charles Reymont, whose job it is to keep order – uses every trick he knows to keep the increasingly disillusioned crew in order. Throughout the book, hope fluctuates; at times they have it and at times they don’t. This isn’t a simple, linear story.

In some ways, of course, this book is a product of its time (it was first published as a novel in 1970), particularly in its depictions of men and women. In terms of intelligence and capability the genders seem basically equal, but differences arise when it comes to emotions. The men in Tau Zero are steadfast and stoic; they’re also loyal to their lovers (and there is a lot of pairing off and sex in this book). The women are more emotional, prone to crying, and also more promiscuous and more likely to cheat. It’s interesting how a writer from the 70s could envision a future in which education and work lose their gender biases, but behavioural stereotypes still persist.

I really loved the concept of this novel and I think Anderson balances hard science with human relationships brilliantly. As the story hurtles towards its dramatic end, I found that I just had to keep reading, and I thought the ending itself was really fantastic. I stand in awe of what Anderson has achieved with Tau Zero.

“Their flight was not less exhilarating for being explainable.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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