In my attempt to read a decent sample of the classics and enhance my understanding of the history of science fiction, Tau Zero was a logical choice, as it is heralded as one of the prime examples of hard SF. Moreover, I hadn’t read any Poul Anderson – both a science fiction as a fantasy Grand Master and winner of numerous awards, most notably seven Hugos and three Nebulas.
Tau Zero follows the crew of a colonization vessel launched from Earth, aiming to reach a nearby star, without FTL. But naturally something goes wrong, and the ship can’t perform the planned deceleration during the second half of the journey. On top of that, they are subject to time dilation. All and all, the setup is great, and Anderson has plenty of building blocks for an exciting story.
Similarly, the predicament the protagonists find themselves in potentially offers an examination of some fundamental questions about the purpose and significance of human lives.
Sadly, Tau Zero was a bit of a letdown on either front. I’m having a hard time coming up with a solid angle for the remainder of this review, so I’ll just do a quicky, and use a bulleted list. Easier for you to read as well: win-win!
- There’s a fair amount of positive reviews for Tau Zero online, written in the last 10 years. People still seem to like this for the science – everybody admits characterization is off. The problem with that approach is that I’ve also read quite a lot of reviews claiming Anderson’s understanding of relativity/physics is shaky at best. As I read some of these critical reviews prior to me starting the book, they seriously handicapped my enjoyment: I didn’t take Anderson’s science seriously, and was left empty handed.
- I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the social sciences are science too, and it would be nice if more authors would write social stuff that is realistically conceivable. Tau Zero is about 50 people trapped on a spaceship hurtling through space, I’ll buy that gladly, but the group dynamics that unfold are ridiculous at times.
- There’s some redeeming qualities to the book though: occasionally Anderson shows a real command of language, and manages to write poetic sentences here and there – really way above average. Sadly, most of the dialogue is bland and wooden, and the scientific bits are rather dry & boring.
- The other redeeming quality of the book is its scope. The first third of the book was kinda interesting, but at the halfway mark I was struggling to continue. I’m glad I made it to the end, as the book has an epic span rarely seen in SF. I can’t think of anything else but Last and First Men by Stapledon that has a – more or less – similar reach.
- When all is said and done, those 2 redeeming qualities didn’t save the book for me, and it will go to the second hand store. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, unless to die hard fans of older science fiction.
- While I wouldn’t go as far and call this book misogynist – the use of that term has inflated to the extent it’s starting to loose its practical value – this book is partly dated in the way gender-roles are described. To be clear: misogyny has to do with either hatred towards women, and there’s none of that in this book, or with prejudice against women, and there’s none of that to be found either. Granted, certain women are depicted stereotypically – but so are the men, and some of the women aren’t fully stereotypical either. More important, there is a big difference between stereotype and prejudice, and I’d never call a book misogynist because of the inclusion of a bit of stereotype.
- There is a bit too much stress on relationships and sex in the book. Not that I think this book is demeaning on that front to women – again, I don’t think the book is inherently sexist. It seems to me as if Anderson wrote this in the spirit of the sixties & free love, rather than from a macho point of view. In that sense, the book is more progressive than those that accuse this of misogyny claim it to be. Either way, this aspect of the novel is all pretty cartoonish and pulpy, and, worse, repetitive. Even though they feature prominently, relationships are underdeveloped – in line with the fact that most, if not all, characters are cardboard.
- On a sidenote: both the first cover (pictured above) as the cover of the first paperback edition (below, 1971) feature the female form prominently. This was marketed towards a male audience.
- Anderson never manages to evoke a realistic picture of the 50 person strong community on the Leonara Christine, the ship driven by a Bussard ramjet. He focuses on 10 characters only, and even those are interchangeable most of the time. The 40 other passengers are there, but we don’t get to know them, nor their group dynamics.
- Did Kim Stanley Robinson get his idea for Aurora in this book? “True, the closed ecology, the reclamations, are not 100 per cent efficient. They will suffer slow losses, slow degrading. A spaceship is not a world.”
- Ultimately, I can handle bad science or outdated sex stuff or weak characterization – especially in older SF. The main problem I had with this book was “Carl Reymont, a macho alpha male who beats people into line for their own good”, as a reviewer on Goodreads wrote. It is the entire ideological setup of the novel that bothered me most. Anderson writes about a character that knows best, and assumes the 50 scientists that people the ship could not function as a healthy group without a Machiavellian hero/leader/brute. It’s the kind of thinking that results in justifying violent dictatorship via elitist conceptions about the masses. Paternalistic bullshit. Yuck.
I think the review on Speculiction hits the nail on the head when it says that Tau Zero would have worked a lot better if it had been written as myth – a storytelling mode that doesn’t hinge so much on realistic characterization. And it’s exactly that sentiment that makes me look forward to Anderson’s other classic, The Broken Sword, even if Tau Zero was an absolute disappointment.