Book Review: Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (1970)

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(Anita Siegel’s cover for the 1970 edition)

3/5 (Average)

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.”

Brief Analysis/Summary

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 speciality 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?

Final Thoughts

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

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(David Egge’s cover for the 1981 edition)

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(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

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(John Holmes’ (?) cover for the 1973 edition)TZRJTFLLLM1976

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1976 edition)

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(Geoff Taylor’s cover for the 1980 edition)

44 thoughts on “Book Review: Tau Zero, Poul Anderson (1970)”

  1. No wonder I remember so little from it other than a “sense of scope”.

    …haha, I just struggled to have something – anything – else to say.

    I think Tau Zero is the only Anderson book I’ve read. (Hmmm, maybe I’ve also read Brain Wave…) I’ve tried reading others – Harvest of Stars – but find little of interest in the prose, even though the concepts sometimes make me want to read the books. I remember Dad reading The Boat of a Million Years and not being overly impressed.

    1. I think you are on to something. People remember the book due to the scope and sense of wonder. Both are present, and both are punctured repeatedly by other flaws.

      It is certainly not the first time the classics don’t inspire me. I would be more forgiving if more of the novel appeal, or, if he could craft a beautiful sentence.

  2. Paul Anderson – what a guy! The Broken Sword was about the most brilliant book ever, he came in with the best and obviously he gave himself an extremely hard act to follow. I don’t know exactly how many books he wrote but, like the leaves on the tree it was many – of the ones I’ve read some were unputdownable and a couple were not worth finishing, at least from my point of view. The Trader books were great though, at least the ones I’ve read. One can only wonder about the why of the great disparity of quality, I’m sure he always did his best – still maybe he had to pay the writing fairy in virgins blood in an electrum vessel by the light of the new moon, in order to fire up a really hot one…

    I’ve never read Tau Zero, could be an interesting story though the neo medieval thing sounds worrying.
    The Boat Of A Million Years didn’t do much for me either, but as I say there are a few I’ve read which hit the spot, Sword being my number one

    1. Peter, to assuage one of your worries, the “neomedieval” garb only occurs on the first few pages while they’re on Earth, when she can’t find her spaceship in the night sky as other officers can…. Charles’ desperation to institute a police state (he’s supposed to be the everyman which makes it more disturbing) occurs throughout.

      The premise is great. Perhaps that is why people latch onto the work? The sense of wonder and all is there, although I found my wonder derailed by the novel’s flaws.

      Maybe its worth the read if you like his other work? The thing is, I still like many of his short stories and his novel There Will Be Time (1972) but not this one.

      1. I might read Trader To The Stars again, out of the other 130 or more novels he wrote I’m sure there are a couple more worth while ones, he was basically pretty good at gripping adventure writing – I seem to remember There Will Be Time, maybe I’ll check that out. Sadly though there was a lot of dross in his output, as though he had a bad ghost for when he was too knackered to write? Maybe his kids wrote a couple, or the next door neighbour? But seriously, 130 novels – wow

      2. I’ve read a handful of stories in the Trader to the Stars sequence in various collections of his. They strike me as the straightforward adventure tales which he cranked out so compulsively (as you indicate). They are harmless fun. This novel tries to be more…. Again, perhaps reason why I was so harsh.

        I read an article that I can no longer find about how Poul Anderson was one of the major moneymakers in SF at the time. No wonder considering his outrageous output and general adherence to what was commercial.

  3. Thank you for your incisive but not very enthusiastic review.I don’t have to tell you I’ll be staying from it,but I expected as much.

    I’ve said it before,Anderson has never really appealed to me,and I never read him until the 1990s.He was one of those authors I hadn’t read,that I thought I ought to read.I thought his prose and narrative style,were weak.

      1. I’m still of the opinion that, like myself at one time, one may dismiss Anderson as a corny writer, only to stumble upon a book like The Broken Sword – which really made me sit up and take notice

            1. Ballentyne greatly exceeded my expectations – he sets a great tone and maintains it throughout, not at all your run-of-the-mill robot world

  4. Lol. I was hoping it would be at least slightly better than the other Anderson books I’ve read, since IT IS an SF Masterwork. Apparently this is one to dread as well. His books have never bothered me in any major sense, but they are a slog to work through and overall bland. I’m usually annoyed by his characterization of women, but I always feel like he thinks he’s doing something positive with them, which is just as annoying. He just seems like a writer who is out of touch with people.

    1. His characterization of women had not bothered me until this novel. It is almost every few pages that one of these comments I noted above crops up! I guess as he was compelled by the plot to include half the cast as women (it is a colonization ship after all), he went all out telling the reader how each and everyone titillates (or doesn’t).

      Perhaps I am so harsh on this particular novel as he tries to go beyond what so many of his others novels do, and fails (in my eyes) in everything other than the science. There Will Be Time (1972) was the far better novel in terms of characterization and delivery.

  5. I must have been keen to read it when it came out in paperback in the UK as I actually bought that dreadful (to me, at least) Coronet cover with the starchild hatching!
    I enjoyed it enough as a hard sf story but it didn’t survive my first major cull of books a few years later.
    I took a look at it more recently (um, well, 10 years ago now!) when it was re-issued as an SF Masterworks edition and barely got a couple of pages in. Just didn’t care for it, but I’ve yet to come across an Anderson book I have liked much – maybe The Makeshift Rocket, but that’s more of an extended joke than a serious work.

    1. You quit at the right spot! Those first five pages are not only the most overwritten but also lay the framework for almost all future interpersonal relationships.

      The Coronet cover makes me laugh. I wish they were better at citing artists, I’d love to know who to tease….

  6. Anderson is one of those authors I wish I’d discovered as a kid, because I probably would have loved him then… decent escapist adventures, occasionally with some interesting concepts. Now, I’m finding his SF novels a bit too bland and technical, though some of his short stories have been real gems. Then again, I was never much of a fan of Hard SF; I just tolerated the science exposition and shallow characterization better than I do now.

    I own the Powers cover for this one—I ended up buying a bulk lot of Anderson novels on eBay at one point. (This was mostly an add-on to meet the seller’s free shipping, since I was also buying lots of D.G. Compton, James Gunn, Russ/Tiptree, etc from the same guy.) I liked The Enemy Stars fairly well, and I’d hoped this one was similar in execution, though I’m not looking forward to it given your description of Ingrid…

    1. The Enemy Stars: from what I remember I enjoyed his treatment of the characters but was dismayed by the ending…. Not sure what I would think now.

      Some of Poul Anderson’s stories can be brilliant and I plan on reading all that I encounter in various anthologies I own.

      “The Disinherited” (variant title “Home”) (1966) in Orbit 1 wasn’t half bad.

      And I remember enjoying his Hugo and Nebula winning novelette “Goat Song” (1972) in his collection Homeward and Beyond (1972).

      My single favorite might be “Epilogue” (1962) in Time and Stars (1962). The collection also has an achingly beautiful Powers cover.

    1. Thank you for the comment! It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from you.

      I must confess your review mystifies me as you hardly mention the characters (and when you do not by name). I would argue that Anderson set out to do two things things simultaneously in this novel, 1) a character study of men and women under stress AND 2) convincing stress generated by a Hard SF premise. I can’t untangle the two from each other! They are equal elements of the story. There is as much interpersonal dialogue among characters as discussion of the science behind the premise.

      I agree that the premise was intriguing. But as half (if not more) of the novel was about the crew and their lives I can’t ignore those elements….

      1. Yes, I actually agree with you, yet, my experience was entirely different. I remember skimming over the “boring” parts, those that didn’t interest me, so in the end, when I finally got to write the review, I has for the most part forgotten about the characters. My “reviews” tend to do that, talk less about what was in the book (so I seldom have spoilers) and more about what the book did or didn’t do for me. Thanks for the comment. I check your blog quite often mostly to find reading material!

        1. If I am forced skip any part of a novel that is a bad bad sign. I apologize if my comment came off as a critique of your review style. I only meant to imply a different focus on what you remembered. And if you don’t remember the characters, then you too probably had similar issues with them.

          Speaking of spoilers, I didn’t talk about the ending. And…. not thrilled with it.

          Good good. Read any memorable SF novels/stories recently?

          1. Oh, I took no offense. No apology needed. Check my blog for category SF and you’ll see my reading lately. I have been on a Poul Anderson binge, although I rate most books two stars or so, as it turns out. The most memorable recent SF is Seveneves. Some love it, some hate it. I liked it a lot, once to made a few allowances. I do recommend Seveneves and I’d love to see YOUR review on it.

      2. Norbert, I probably won’t be reviewing newer books anytime soon. There are plenty of other sites for that. I’ve read a few of Stephenson’s books in the past — The Diamond Age, Snowcrash, I even slogged through half (?) of Cryptonomicon (no thanks!).

  7. I read Tau Zero back in the 1970s, so I barely remember it. I remember the science fictional gimmick, but not the characters. It was both a “Wow!” novel, and a “kinda boring” novel.

    The only novel by Poul Anderson that I really enjoyed was Brain Wave and Joachim, you barely liked it.

    But the problems you mention in your review were common problems for a lot of science fiction written back then. SF writers got an idea, assembled a cast of characters to illustrate the idea, and then hacked out a novel. Too often SF writers used social commentary for characterization. Tau Zero is only a classic because of its main idea.

    I haven’t studied Poul Anderson, but I have noticed with Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg, that the novels they wrote where they spent more time on them, are among their better novels. For example, The Man in the High Castle and Downward to the Earth. I assume if Anderson could have spent more time on Tau Zero he could have fleshed out the literary aspects to go with the sense of wonder.

    1. Did you read There Will Be Time (1972)?

      Yes they might be “common problems” but plenty of authors hacked out quality novels. Also, authorial intention remains important, this was not trying to be some tapestry, it focused on two characters over a lengthy period of time and their interactions with others on the ship.

      What was the social commentary here? I don’t completely understand your point.

      He DOES try to be literary! It is weighed down by clunky metaphors (I quoted a few) and references to Norse epic. He does try to flesh it out. This feels like a novel he sat on for much longer than his normal stuff. This is why I was so harsh…

      1. I haven’t read There Will Be Time, but I bought it last month when it was on sale for the Kindle. Do you recommend it?

        I believe we have different definitions for literary. Metaphors and similes, and other kinds of fancy prose is not my definition of literary. I just call that being writerly. Too often it leads to bad prose, or even purple prose. I have a simple measure for literary writing – do the characters feel like biography, autobiography or memoir? Great literature is often autobiographical, or based on discerning observations of real people. The more the characters feel real, the more literary a story is to me. If you read the latest Best American Short Stories you’ll see what I mean. Great writers can invent characters you swear are based on real people, even when they are entirely made up.

        Because science fiction is often set where no real person has ever been, it’s hard to convey a sense of reality about the character. But good SF writers do sometimes. When reading Tau Zero did you ever feel the characters conveyed something real people would have felt if they had experienced such a profoundly unique experience? I thought Isherwood in Earth Abides acted just like he actually experienced the events.

        I consider characters used as social commentary when they’re invented just to make a point that supports the author’s views. Later Heinlein was particularly bad about doing this. I was suggesting this from your review and not my memory of Tau Zero.

      2. James, the operative word in my comment was “try.” The book is in no way literary but he tries to be. I agree completely with your statement: “Metaphors and similes, and other kinds of fancy prose is not my definition of literary.” It is entirely what an author does with language that defines “literary”. So we are in agreement on that point.

        I did not get the sense that Anderson was desperate to comment continuously about our world i.e. social commentary. Characters rarely espouse directly political comments etc. At least that I could detect.

        I wrote a review of There Will Be Time (1972). If it appeals, give it a read (we have different favorites so I don’t know if you’d like it. But it’s the best and most “mature” novel of his I’ve read). I read it three years ago so my memory is slightly fuzzy.

        https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/book-review-there-will-be-time-poul-anderson-1972/

        1. Joachim, your review of There Will Be Time might be the one I read when I decided to buy the Kindle edition on sale. It seems familiar. Hopefully I can read it in the near future, because it does sound good. I really admired Dying Inside.

          For weeks now I’ve been working on the new edition of the Classics of Science Fiction. It’s lots of data entry. And I’ve often felt, “Gee, I’m tired of studying science fiction, I sure wish I could read these books I’m writing about.” When we finish, I’m going to gorge myself on SF.

      3. James: it’s definitely NOT Dying Inside quality. But, I think his aims were similar, although, as we’ve indicated collectively, he has nowhere close to the skill. But then again, few do.

    2. I think you could say that about a lot of authors.Whatever you like depends on personal taste,but Dick and Silverberg are two of my favourite authors,whom I regard as being far greater than Anderson.Do you really think he could have produced a novel to equal their best?

      “Brain Wave” is the only Anderson novel I read,which was little more than acceptable I thought.

        1. Most of Silverberg’s stuff is very readable I think,including the later “Lord Valentine’s Castle”,which is far below his best work and can be said to be “middling”.I am using this subjectively to judge the Anderson novel you cite.

          I didn’t think “Thorns” was as nearly as good as most of the later novels of his I’ve read,but was above “Middling”.

      1. Richard, I don’t think Anderson is in the same league as PKD, or even Silverberg. Anderson cover a lot of topics, especially adventure and history, that I wasn’t interested in. He was a solid Analog type writer. Anderson sometimes came up with a clever idea that made me read his books, like Brain Wave, The High Crusades and Tau Zero. I’m sure he has lots of fans that love him, but don’t love the writers I love. It’s hard to judge a writer in absolute terms. I’m very partial to PKD, but I know many people can’t stand him.

        1. I know many people can’t stand him,which which was why he wasn’t recognised or very well known in his lifetime,especially in the USA.Despite his entry into the Library of America,grey areas still remain I assume,and he is still unknown or disliked by a wide readership spectrum.I suppose Anderson is more preferable due to an older conservatism in science fiction,that is completely different to Dick,but Dick might have a wider audience outside of the science fiction genre.

  8. I read this as a teenager when I was frankly much more forgiving (possibly even welcoming at times…) of slightly dodgy gender representations than I am now. I’d forgotten that bit, but I do remember loving the premise and finding the execution just awful.

    Broken Sword is his masterpiece, leaving aside the odd foreword where for some reason he feels the need to insert some vague scientific justifications for what’s clearly magic. Otherwise, eh, he wrote plenty of solid tales, but here he takes a great idea and just drives it into the ground.

    Nice review.

    1. I think you’re narrowing in on a real issue, the fact that a lot of readers (not you!) actively deny (in part because of our memories and reading contexts) that the nostalgic novels of their youth really are offensive in many ways. There are many other flaws with the novel for sure…. But that struck me in particular, and rather different than a lot of Anderson’s works which strike a different tone (perhaps in part because he has way less women characters on average but needed an equal number for the plot in Tau Zero).

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