Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tau Zero - Poul Anderson

I decided to sign up for the 2012 Grand Master Reading Challenge, organized by World Without End. The goal is to read and review a work by a different Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award winner every month. I decided to start with Poul Anderson, who was honoured with the award in 1998. Tau Zero (1970) is one of his better known works. It was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1971 but lost to Larry Niven's Ringworld. It is a very good example of hard science fiction, written in a time when the direction of the genre was being drastically changed by the arrival of new age authors. The novel is an expansion of the short story To Outlive Eternity which was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1967. I'm not going to hold back on spoilers in this review, the title of the short story gives is one already anyway. You have been warned.

Fifty men and women are sent on the spaceship Leonora Christine to explore and, if possible, colonize a planet more than thirty light years away. To make the trip in a reasonable span of time, the spaceship has to approach the speed of light and make use of the time dilation effects that become appreciable at such speeds. Before deceleration can be set in, the engines needed to slow down the ship are severely damaged. Repairing them would mean shutting the acceleration engines off as well, which would result in a quick death from intense radiation. The ship's speeds keeps increasing, hurling the crew ever faster through space and time. Unless they can find a way to slow down the crew is doomed to live out their life on board the space ship.

Tau Zero is science fiction so hard it cuts diamonds. A physics lesson and a novel rolled into one. The publisher kindly provided the formula for the time contraction factor Tau, which equals the square root of 1 minus v squared divided c squared, where v stand for velocity and the constant c is the speed of light. In other words Tau equals zero when v equals c (everybody still with me?). In a more practical sense, the closer the speed of the ship gets to the speed of light, the larger the difference between time passing for the crew and time passing outside the ship. I understand that Anderson's use of Tau is a bit unorthodox but for narrative purposes it serves very well.

In a way, Anderson uses Tau to show us just how large the universe really is, something he is rather fond of doing in his other science fiction novels as well. As the velocity of the ship approaches the speed of light, minutes, hours, days, years and eventually aeons pass for every second of ship time. Galaxies are crossed, then clusters and super clusters to the point where time and distance becomes meaningless. In the end, Anderson takes us to the death of the universe itself and there a bit of speculation seeps in. The debate about the eventual fate of the universe is still raging, Anderson assumes the universe is cyclic and will eventually contract into a new singularity and expand again after a big bang. Although science has not come up with the proof for this yet, in literature the death and rebirth of the universe does make for a wonderful theme.

That's quite a lot of physics and cosmology for the reader to take in. The more experience science fiction reader will have come across these elements before. Alastair Reynolds for instance, include much more exotic science into his works. Anderson explains the physics clearly, even the more counter intuitive elements of relativity, but spares us quantum mechanics. Personally, I enjoyed the scientific passages a lot. That is my personal taste however, it will no doubt put some readers to sleep in a few pages. This novel requires some interest in physics and cosmology to really appreciate.

One might think that this would be enough science for a single novel but Anderson also throws in quite a lot of detail about the Bussard engine of the spaceship. This theoretical way of propelling a ship was first proposed in 1960 and has appeared in a number of science fiction novels by such authors as Larry Niven and Carl Sagan. It is basically a fusion engine which uses the minute quantities of free hydrogen in space to propel the ship. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not a ship powered in such a way would actually be able to reach relativistic speeds, but it's an ingenious idea anyway. Again Anderson explains the design of the engine and its limitations, which play a large part in the efforts to slow the ship down, very clearly. I thought the engineering was a bit less interesting than the cosmology but it is central to the plot and Anderson makes sure not to overdo it.

Hard science fiction has a reputation of paying less attention to character and character development. For Tau Zero that is definitely true. I guess you could consider the two people we meet in the opening chapter, the compassionate Ingrid Lindgren and the brusque Charles Reymont to be the main characters. They appear to be the people who keep the crew together and sane as Earth becomes an ever more distant memory. They are mostly people dealing with problems of the crew's morale and organizing efforts to solve their technical problems. Although towards the end of the book things get a bit more philosophical (the death and rebirth theme does have an effect on them), there is very little in the way of development in their characters.

Most of the novel is set in space so the future history of Earth is not all that important. We do get a glimpse of a society where Sweden has become the centre of power in the world after a nuclear war that almost doomed the planet. IKEA everywhere, surely this must count as a dystopia. Anderson, American of Danish descent, also weaves in some reverences to Scandinavian mythology, something that returns in many of his novel. It's a bit of an odd contrast really, the cyclic nature of the universe as described in this novel, reminded me more of Hindu mythology.

According to the blurb on the cover, James Blish considers this book the ultimate hard science fiction novel. There is something to be said for that. I have rarely read a novel with such rigorous scientific underpinnings. Anderson had a degree in physics and in other novels it is quite clear that he thought about the properties of fictional planets he created. In Tau Zero he takes it way beyond that and makes physics the main character. The scope of the novel, in time and space is almost beyond comprehension (something the author points out several times in the text). Anderson takes hard science fiction as far as it will go, in that sense it is the ultimate novel in this particular sub-genre. That being said, it does not escape the shortcomings generally associated with the sub-genre. I'd say it is a must read for fans of hard science fiction only.

Book Details
Title: Tau Zero
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 190
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07732-4
First published: 1970


  1. Good review val. This book has been on my "to read" list for some time now and this review has made me even more eager to start reading this one in the near future.

  2. As usual when I read one of these classics I wonder why I didn't get around to reading it sooner ;)

  3. Excellent line: “Tau Zero is science fiction so hard it cuts diamonds”.

    I had one Poul Anderson book on my to-read shelf, and it wasn’t this one. So I added this one. The physics geek in me loves hard science fiction. Your review makes you sound like you were excited when you read this book, as if the amount of detail Anderson includes and the concepts he throws at you were invigorating. That’s cool.

  4. In a way I was. I'm not particularly good at mathematics so physics was never my strongest subject. Anderson manages to make lot of concepts very clear in the text and I thought that was an impressive bit of writing. Also a bit of writing that wouldn't get past the slush piles these days. So in a way it is refreshing. I am still fairly new at classic SF I guess.

    Just because I am curious, what is the Anderson novel that was already on your to read pile?

  5. I'm a character girl, blood to bone, so I've never done Anderson. I may know more about the physics in Anderson than your average nonreader since one of my tight friends in a physics proff. (He can explain exactly why you shouldn't go through those big, round, X-ray machines at airports. Trust me. Opt out.) Sometimes he likes to talk hard science fiction, focusing on the physics and other science parts. He has a disturbing way of describing exactly how or how it wouldn't work and where the physics is faulty or good. He's a fan of Anderson.

    I know that you are doing a specific set of books right now, but have you heard of the
    Russ pledge? It addresses the invisibility of writers in sci fi (more genres as well, actually), and commits to seeking out female writers. Go to for Murf's analysis. It's great.

  6. I imagine Russ would have something to say about the list of Grandmasters. I think there are four women on it? Including this year's winner Connie Willis. I was hoping to read something by Le Guin and Willis later in the year but it depends a bit on the book buying budget. Not sure about McCaffrey. I read the first Pern book and I can't say I was impressed. Is there any of the non-Pern novels you'd recommend?

    I've read some of the reactions on that Guardian list last year, including the post by Nicola Griffith and the Mistressworks project by Ian Sales. Much to my surprise I had even read some of the novels Sales list. I must admit that in general, I don't read enough novels by women. Last year about a third of the total (across all genres). I'm determined to do better this year and so far I am doing OK. Not sure if I can make it 50/50 though. Right now I am working on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes and I hope to read Fool's War by Sarah Zettel sometime next month.