(Anita Siegel’s cover for the 1970 edition)
Nominated for the 1971 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (1970) exemplifies the type of SF I no longer enjoy. A younger me would have gobbled up the magical phrases: A Bussard Interstellar Ramjet! Disaster in space! Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity!
At one point Anderson’s adventure-heavy SF formed my bread and butter. Over the years I’ve reviewed thirteen of his novels and short story collections, most recently in 2013 — There Will Be Time (1972), Brain Wave (1953), and Time and Stars (1964). I have sat on this review for months in a state of indecision debating whether or not to insert my sharpened awl into the novel’s brittle hide so repeatedly tattooed with the words “CLASSIC.”
In a future where Sweden is the superpower, the Leonora Christine, crewed with the best twenty-five men and twenty-five women, sets off to colonize another planet. There’s time dilation galore and lengthy lectures on SCIENCE…. Soon the “hysterical gaiety” (22) comes to an abrupt end as the ship encounters an unexpected nebula that damages the ram scoops. As they cannot slow down due to other damaged systems, the ship is doomed to accelerate and accelerate. Cue angst:
“…Millions of years in the future. Millions of years hence. The human race most likely extinct… in this corner of the universe. Well, can’t we start over, in another time place and time? Or would you rather sit in a metal shell feeling sorry for yourself, till you grow senile and die childless?” (83)
In order to implement a plan for survival, the captain implements strict decorum between crew and scientists maintained by force if necessary. Charles Jan Reymont, our authoritarian “I’d be happier in a police state” everyman enforcer, is the perfect man for the job. His motto: Tote the rope, smack the slob who twitches.
One would think that the best crew that Earth could provide would be highly skilled in all things related to the function of the ship, especially a first officer. Apparently not.
“[Ingrid Lindgren’s] hands fluttered in her lap. “No. Please. I’m not bad at my work. But it’s easy for a woman to rise fast in space. She’s in demand. And my job on Leonora Christine will be essentially executive. I’ll have more to do with… well, human relations… than astronautics” (5-6).
Ingrid Lindgren, the second officer of the Brussard ramjet Leonora Christine, spends her time solving relationship problems by sleeping with depressed male crewmen. Charles Reymont, quickly in her bed, calls out her general ignorance on page one: “You’re the first officer, and you don’t know where your own vessel is or what she’s doing?” (1-2). And finally, the captain, after the disaster, must also inform her that she really needs to stop visiting so many men…
Scenes with women inevitably fall into the same patterns: discussions about decorating the spaceship pool (27); let’s hook-up (6) (19) (49); lengthy descriptions about body shape followed by a passing note about the specialty of the woman in question (18) (22) (29); confrontations about cheating (54); inquiries between women on virginity (you can’t be a virgin on this ship, we’re out to repopulate the world!) (31); additional discussion of “the curves of breast and flank […] not stuccoed on, as with too many women” of a “boyish” Asian woman while in bed (57); etc. I stopped counting.
These are the best twenty-five men and women. These are the people who will affirm humanity (and science!) in the face of certain disaster. These are not the monstrous disasters of men mechanized by the lies of the fragmenting future in Malzberg’s fiction. Authorial intention is important. Anderson wants them to have some flaws, but he also wants them to be heroes. What positive behaviors do Ingrid and Charles model?
Whereas many Anderson novels rely on effective storytelling unencumbered by interior reflection, Tau Zero (1970) tries so desperately to be more—a hard SF novel and a series of character studies.
On the first count the novel succeeds. The scientific premise suitably fascinates and facilitates the plot’s descent into the more metaphysical and universe-spanning reaches that so many SF novels inevitably attempt to say something meaningful about. The endlessly knowledgeable about “the science behind science fiction” Winchell Chung informs me that Anderson’s treatment of Bussard Interstellar Ramjet provides an “intuitive feel” for Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. He even provides an image of what the Leonora Christine would look like! [his article on ramjets and their use in SF –> here]. He proclaims “run, don’t walk” to get a copy.
On the second count the novel fails. Like puzzle pieces, the indications present themselves almost immediately (discussed above). Bluntly put, no wonder fans of hard SF dismiss character-driven SF. The authors of the former are absolutely shoddy at the latter. To give one additional example:
Ingrid wants to go into space due to the sheer romanticism of it: “ever since I was a child, I thought I must go to the stars, the way a prince in a fairyland must go to Elf Land” (5). Yes. That’s how I describe my passions and goals. Charles, on the other hand, fights to the top through great adversity from humble beginnings, step by step gaining authority and prestige (all spelled out at length). For him, the journey into space is the final culminating step of his career. Men receive complex motivations and backstories while women are flimsily drawn and driven by romantic whims.
And should I mention the prose? A passing example for the curious. Anderson’s grand intentions yield clunky prose peppered with schoolhouse illusions: “[The sunset] was as if the dolphins were tumbling through their waters, Pegasus storming skyward, Folke Filbyter peering after his lost grandson while his horse stumbled in the ford, Orpheus listening, the young sisters embracing in their resurrection—all unheard, because this was a single instant perceived, but the time in which these figures actually moved was no less real than the time which carried men” (1).
Anderson sometimes evokes the grand nature of it all, but the edifice all comes crashing down at the mention of stuccoed on breasts, women in “neomedieval” garb (2), and Charles’ uncomfortable authoritarian desires.
Recommended for fans of hard SF or those interested in reading the cornerstones of the genre. It is easy to see why Anderson’s novel inspired future authors who wanted to write science driven SF. I, on the other hand, will avoid the novel as fervently as “a prince in a fairy land must go to Elf land” (5).
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(David Egge’s cover for the 1981 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1976 edition)
(Geoff Taylor’s cover for the 1980 edition)