Emerging from the Golden Age of science fiction rose Poul Anderson, whose first novel, Vault of the Ages, was published in 1952. Through the next two decades, Anderson more than dabbled with historical elements in The High Crusade (1960) and The Corridors of Time (1965), future history in Three Worlds to Conquer (1964), and also with conventional spaceships in The Makeshift Rocket (1962) and The Star Fox (1965). He hadn’t written a “hard science fiction” until Tau Zero, but he stuck to his romantic roots even after the popularity of Tau Zero. Largely hitting the mark more often than not, Anderson’s novels tend to be loquacious—even poetic at times—and nostalgic; in Tau Zero, this romanticism is infused with science savvy and sexual swashbuckling. No doubt it had won the Hugo award for best novel in 1971!
I had read this in 2007 and held romantic notions of the ship’s near-luminal voyage through space and time. I wanted to reread this to dispel any fantastic notion I held… or to simply enjoy a great novel during my 5-day island holiday. Like the first time, I wasn’t disappointed.
Rear cover synopsis:
“During her epic voyage to a planet thirty light-years away, the deceleration system of the Leonara Christine is irreparable 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 in the unknown…”
In orbit around the Earth sits the Leonara Christine waiting for her crew of fifty souls. On Earth, those souls are spending their remaining days on Earth sightseeing and pairing off for the voyage to Beta Virginis, 32 light-years distant. The craft utilizes a tried-and-tested Bussard ramjet, which uses invisible magnetohydrodynamic fields to funnel hydrogen into the engine in order to create propulsion. The mission of the crew is to study the pre-selected planet for a matter of years and return to Earth… or colonize the planet, acting as a stepping-stone for humanity’s reach across the galaxy. The five-year subjective voyage by the crew will be witnessed by the universe as taking an objective thirty-three years.
Once aboard the Leonara Christine, the bonds of pairing off become loosened as the members are sensitive to the emotional needs of others. This empathetic attention causes first officer Charles Reymont to dissolve his own partnership with the bountiful beauty of Ingrid Lindgren. Some are reclusive by nature, involved in their own scientific observation while other are reveling in the atmosphere of free love; all, however, keep a regiment of assisting in experiments so as to ward off boredom and ennui for the five-year voyage.
A probe had earlier traversed their path towards Beta Virginis, but when the Leonara Christine crosses the near-vacuum of the voyage, it encounters an unusually dense concentration of nebular gas. This alarms the crew who consider two outcomes: (a) they pass through with ease, only gaining speed or (b) they meet a spectacular, cataclysmic end. Little regard to paid to the third option, a combination of the other two options: they will survive the collision, but their control severely limited. After passing through the cloud, their gratitude of immediate survival offers no relief to their hopes for long-term survival.
The passage through the nebular cloud disabled their decelerating field and repair on the equipment is impossible without being bombarded by radiation from either the ship’s exhaust or the colliding particles between the stars. Their only course of action is the primary mammalian motivation: survive. A circumnavigable course if plotted around the Milky Way so that they will forever remain in motion and consuming fuel before the ship either ceases to function or the universe ceases to exist.
Prior to their eventual death by cosmic radiation or by the collapse of the universe, the fifty-strong crew deal with the self-exiled captain and the growing authoritarianism of First Officer Charles Reymont. Thankful that their wait for death is cut short, they are also witness to the passing of millions and billions of years in the universe. As matter becomes rarer, stars burn out—they become witness to yet another spectacular sight, a sight which makes them cringe in the face of the unknown.
Though written in 1970 during the New Wave of science fiction, Anderson still exhibits some “classic” habits of the science fiction from yesteryears. Anderson has a tendency to ham-fistedly insert background material into the chapter, like Charles Reymond’s personal and professional information on page 10 which were put into brackets to section it off from the rest of the narrative (because this is the only example in the book, it’s awkward and unnecessary). Anderson is guilty of similar block data insertion in The People of the Wind (1973) where numerous blocks of data are framed and separated from the narrative.
However, Anderson also shows that he is up to the challenge of writing for the New Wave movement. More so than any other Anderson novel that I can recall, Tau Zero has a fair amount of sex, though much of it is directly indicated rather than explicitly written—Anderson ever so modest. Even the sexual relationships between the crew are a new facet to Anderson’s New Wave writing, where partners are shared and marriage shunned, perhaps for the mental welfare of the close-knit crew or because the possible need for DNA variation for colonization.
The crew on the Leonara Christine is diverse in namesake but their actions are stereotypical to their respective race. The Chinese Chi-Yuen is poetic and in naturalistic, the Swede Telander is strong and silent, the Indian cosmologist Chidambaran in nerdy and pragmatic, and the Russian Lenkei is heated and controversial. But there is one character that breaks the mold of conformity, one entity that stands out among the rest and makes a name for herself: the one and only Leonara Christine.
The colloquial use of she in regards to the Leonara Christine eventually defines the ship itself as a character in the book, worthy of sympathy. The humans within her hull are confined in their microcosm, subject to whims of personal glory or self-destruction, interpersonal agitation or intrapersonal angst; yet, the Leonara Christine maintain her plot amid the stars and between nebulae while protecting the precious fleshy cargo within. When dense gas clouds and even denser stars blockade the advancement of the crew’s passage, the Leonara Christine must persevere and succeed. When her successive mechanical failures demoralize her crew, she must endure the passing time and coddle her embryo-like humans.
Akin to the cordoned off block of personal data on page 10, Anderson begins each chapter with a snapshot of Leonara Christine’s passage through space at her terrific near-luminal velocity. This would normally detract from the characters’ narrative elements, but the result of the updates is a characterization of Leonara Christine. The voyage gains peril and the ship earns respect while the crew twiddle away their miniscule lives in a universe devoid of all humans other than the fifty within the Leonara Christine’s hull.
I can appreciate Anderson’s experimental work—trying to infuse his Golden Age charm with New Wave elements, but the result is a blocky mosaic of the two. His characterization may have been stereotypical and weak, aside from the pleasantly plump and accommodating Ingrid Lindgren, but his characterization of Leonara Christine won me over. This is a foray into coping with the end of lives, the end of humanity, and the end of the universe through the eyes of the Earthy carbon life forms and the metallic hull who transports them through space and time. One of my favorite Anderson novels!