Tau Zero – Poul Anderson (1970)
Based upon Anderson’s short story “To Outlive Eternity” (Galaxy 1967), this is a marvellous exercise in exploring the concepts of Einsteinian physics, and one which surprisingly is for the most part character based. The interstellar ship ‘Leonora Christine’ is carrying a cargo of colonists and scientists to Beta Virginis. Anderson does a marvellous job of describing the ship which uses the Bussard Ramjet principle of capturing loose hydrogen atoms in flights and converting them to energy, gradually increasing acceleration toward the speed of light.
Not long into the flight, however, the crew discover that a cloud of interstellar gas has drifted between the ship and its destination. The ship is moving too fast to change course and must therefore risk damaging or destroying itself by flying through.
The ship survives but the crew soon discover that the deceleration unit has been crippled, which means that the ship and its passengers will continue to accelerate toward the speed of light.
Anderson manages to balance the mind-numbing complexities of the science with the human dramas being played out inside the ship. There the effects of time dilation mean that time is passing increasingly faster in the outside Universe than for the humans in the tin can.
Some of the characters such as Lindgren, are Scandinavian, since Poul – although born in the US – was of Scandinavian parentage. He also spent some time in Denmark it seems and employs his background to good effect here. Refreshingly, the crew are multinational, including Japanese, Russians, Canadians and one particularly obnoxious American, although it’s not known if this reflected Anderson’s personal views on the country of his birth.
There is an interesting situation on Earth at the outset, where Sweden, who were in charge of a worldwide nuclear disarmament programme, have become effectively rulers of a worldwide Swedish Empire.
It is interesting to note that current American SF, particularly the mainstream novels, tend to be somewhat insular, what I have elsewhere described as Americocentric. Jack McDevitt, Geoffrey A Landis and to a certain extent Greg Bear (coincidentally Poul Anderson’s son-in-law) to name but three, tend to write SF which postulates a future seemingly dominated by American culture or a near future in which everything happens in the US and the rest of the world is not really considered. Anderson was never that lazy.
For its time it’s an amazing piece of Hard SF in which the backdrop – measured by time and space – expands exponentially throughout the novel as the small dramas of the crew are acted out.
The denouement – which probably wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny today, if indeed it was able to in Nineteen-Seventy – is an uplifting joyful moment and brings the book to a satisfying if somewhat improbable conclusion.