Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

The epic voyage of the spacecraft Leonora Christine will take her and her fifty-strong crew to a planet some thirty light-years distant. But, because the ship will accelerate to close to the speed of light, for those on board subjective time will slow and the journey will be of only a few years’ duration. Then a buffeting by an interstellar dustcloud changes everything. The ship’s deceleration system is damaged irreperably and soon she is gaining velocity. When she attains light-speed, tau zero itself, the disparity between ship-time and external time becomes almost impossibly great. Eons and galaxies hurtle by, and the crew of the Leonora Christine speeds into the unknown.

tau-zeroGollancz released their Totally Space Opera range a few months back and I’ve picked up a couple of them, although Tau Zero was one that got my interest going more than Ringworld. Looking at the blurb made me wonder just how Poul Anderson was going to tell this story, what it would focus on and how easy it would be for someone like myself who doesn’t usually enjoy the really hard science side of sci-fi novels. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found, but some aspects just went over my head…

The Leonora Christine is soon to set off to a new star system where drones have shown the promise of a habitable world. This isn’t the first such flight as humanity is now reaching the stars, albeit by slower-than-light means, and has colonised planets already. Although travel and communication are limited by light speed, the relativistic velocities mean that a voyage to a star fifty light years distant will only take the crew a decade or so ship time.

This is the first thing that you have to understand with Tau Zero and one of the most important aspect of the novel – it is a story about a crew that, due to their circumstances, have to speed up and get ever closer to the speed of light – tau zero. The technical and hard science aspects of the story are all to do with travel at that speed and the effects that getting closer to tau zero has. This is examined through the crew and they way that individuals and groups cope with the possibility of an eternal voyage.

I thought the whole aspect was handled extremely well and the characters were developed enough to add the depth and human factor needed. However, the science side can get you bogged down very quickly if you’re not careful. I’m clued up enough to understand the basic concepts of the relativistic effects such a speed has, but occasionally I found myself skim reading the technical sections simply because the prose felt clunky and inconsistent with the more humane story.

On the whole this was a great look at a journey where things go wrong and the way the characters got on with life. I wouldn’t even say that the novel felt dated (it was written in 1970) and that it is probably one of the best examples I’ve read of long voyages in science fiction. It’s well worth the effort to read it, it’s just a shame it won’t be as accessible to those who don’t like the hard science aspect shoved in their faces.

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