TAU ZERO – Poul Anderson (1970)

Tau ZeroIn 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.

Tau Zero paperback


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Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

64 responses to “TAU ZERO – Poul Anderson (1970)

  1. I bashed the book on my site…. and angered the entire Poul Anderson online fan club. Their comments make fun reading.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve only read two fantasy novels by Anderson, and I can appreciate his imagination, but I couldn’t enjoy his writing. Or his characters. Never felt a need to dig deeper into this well.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I read this one a few years back and I had mixed feelings about it. I gave it an ok rating but looking back I am not so impressed.

    My review: https://jeroenthoughts.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/poul-anderson-tau-zero-1970/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seems like I missed a lot of my fellow bloggers reviews. Seems like yours and Chris’s aren’t one Goodreads, or I must have missed them for some other reason. Will remedy that in a bit, thanks for the link.

      As for Tau Zero, I have the impression it might have aged more badly than some other older stuff in the last 10 years.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Anderson is an uneven writer. I’ve liked some of his fantasy titles, especially the Norse ones. Hrolf Kraki‘s Saga was quite good, and the Broken Sword also. No details in my memory anymore, it’s been more than 20 years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, shoot. This actually was on my ‘to review’ list. Though I have to say I am intrigued by how you describe the end of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The actual ending isn’t fully successful either, but if you’re intrigued and interested to read the founding works of SF, I wouldn’t advice against reading this.

      Like

  6. That cover at the beginning of the post is amazing.

    Regarding people claiming the author didn’t understand physics:

    I’m having a tough time understanding why people think a fiction book would even need to be an accurate interpretation of reality, even if we did know exactly how time dilation, space travel, physics worked. I’m not trying to be rude, but did they miss the fact that it is fiction and not suppose to be like reality? 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The only Poul Anderson I’ve read is The High Crusade, which is great fun. This is the second review of Tau Zero I’ve read in the last few weeks; neither left me with any desire to read it. Better to read the other Anderson I own (Fire Time) or find a copy of The Broken Sword or Three Hearts and Three Lions.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree with your appraisal — not bad, but not good by the standards of what could have been achieved. ‘A novel of its time’ is how I described it (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-tauzero) and it’s as a period piece that I think it gains its significance. Bearing in mind your notion that it could have succeeded as a myth, it’s interesting that I originally brought out its cultural roots in my review.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m tilting more to bad than good for this one, but agreed, it could have been so much better. And damn, seems that I missed your review too before I started writing my own. Will remedy that, thanks for the link.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Well surprise, surprise, another SF Classic bites the dust at the hands of the jolly Dutchman. Our hero takes exception at the 50 year old technology ,poor characterisation and wooden dialogue of Tau Zero. Well I’ve got news for you pal, many people read SF precisely for all those terrible reasons. Considering the plaudits and absurd psedo-analysis you heap on the steaming pile(s) of crap that constitutes 95% of Frank Herbert’s oeuvre, I am not terribly surprised. Your overly verbose, psudo intellectual “reviews” take a predictable arc. If a book is regarded as a “classic” it must be trashed for an assortment of shallow, and woke-ish reasons. Misogynist, racist, elitist, colonialist , etc etc etc, the usual. These Dead White Men sure couldn’t write their way of a paper bag, especially if the books were written at least 50 plus years ago. Weren’t we silly in the old days!!
    Set and up and knock ‘em down boy!
    Instead of wasting your and our time tilting at strawmen, windmills and trying to re-write the history of speculative fiction, why not concentrate your undoubted “talents” on reviewing obscure art history.
    Leave SF in the gutter, where it belongs.

    Like

    • Most of my Herbert reviews have been negative – the only one of his non-Dune books I like is Soulcatcher. As for the Dune books: all of my rereads of 2 to 4 have been disappointments, so far, although each has some redeeming qualities too. Plaudits? Not really.

      As for the predictable arc in my classic SF reviews: I would be a foolish masochist if I kept reading older SF and didn’t like it.

      In 2020 I wrote glowing reviews of Solaris and The Day of the Triffids, and rather positive ones of Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze, Canticle for Leibowitz, Starship Troopers, Ubik and The Gods Themselves. I didn’t actually write any negative review about a classic – unless you consider Bear’s 1985 Eon to be one, but I didn’t pan it for any of the reasons (misogynist, racist, elitist, colonialist) you mention. In 2019 the only really critical review I’ve written about older SF was on Destination:Void by Herbert, and in 2018 the only negative reviews I wrote were about The Wind-Up Girl (2009), Red Moon (2018) and Calde of the Long Sun (1995).

      Of the 24 titles I name on my favorite SF list, 8 were written pre 1970 – at least 50 plus years ago. That’s one third. I’m not the old SF basher you make me out to be.

      I’m no woke SJW keyboard warrior either – I don’t even remember panning a book because it is misogynist or racist or colonialist in the 200+ reviews I have written so far. I even tend to think that contemporary books that are too transparent about such themes are uninteresting (like the Fifth Season on racism; or Memory Called Empire on colonialism).

      As for Tau Zero: I explicitly state I do not think the book is misogynist or sexist, and even defend it against people who do claim so. I don’t even talk about old technology in my review, and just to be fully clear: I didn’t have any problem whatsoever with the book’s technology. On the contrary, I thought the main technological idea in the book, the Bussard ramjet, is interesting – that’s why I linked to its Wiki-page.

      As for strawmen or windmills, I have no problem discussing those, if you would be so kind and point out specific examples.

      I also don’t think I try to re-write the history of speculative fiction. I only try to give an honest appraisal of how I personally feel about books as a reading experience today. As you can tell from the list I’ve provided: there’s plenty of old SF that I feel is still highly enjoyable – even great literature, I’d say.

      I’m sure Tau Zero is still enjoyable to others, taste is personal, like you hint at. I provided a link to positive reviews, and I’m sure that, if people pay attention and read other reviews too, they can make up their own mind whether a book might appeal to them.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Well done for your moderate reply to StefanBadass, reasoned, calm but firm in refuting his criticisms.

        He reminds me of the fanboy cultists who attack me with scattergun ad hominem insults when I dare to criticise their demigod pseudohistorians on Arthurian matters. Unfortunately the only way to deal with their dispiriting invective is to give them enough rope to hang themselves and then mute them.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks. Part of the aggression might stem from the fact that some people feel a rather negative review as a personal attack on their own tastes and preferences, which it surely isn’t meant to be.

          And I can understand a certain resentment from people that have been bashed by the woke community/cancel culture police just for liking white male literature, and such bashing is obviously a form of intolerance in and by itself, so I tend to not get into shouting matches on the subject. Respect is key.

          But I will not abide characterization of my own viewpoints that stem from sloppy reading of my actual reviews.

          Liked by 2 people

  10. You really think “social sciences” are real science?

    Like

    • oberon the fool

      Of course they are. Why would you not?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes indeed. I agree at times some social scientists have used bad methodology, but that happens in other sciences too.

        Like

      • Because it is more art and interpretation than concrete experiment, repeat, same results. You can ask 10 engineers if a plan is structurally sound and all 10 will give you the same answer because of scientific principles. Good luck getting 10 psychologists to give you the same thing for a mentally disturbed person.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed that social/psychological stuff is more complex than structural engineering. That results in more different opinions. That doesn’t mean that it’s less science, only that some of its conclusions are less sure.
          The last decades enormous advances have been made in methodology, and lots of psychology uses repeatable experiments too nowadays.

          Liked by 1 person

          • More complex? I agree, people are much more complex than iron and steel. We’re also not just meat robots that you can push and we do the same thing. You’re thought that it is science seems to rely on the idea that we’re nothing but material.

            I was very serious with my first question, not “just” being passive aggressive 🙂 WHY do you think it is “science”? If you have some links or a good book, I’d be willing to check them out. But so far, all you’ve said is what I could say for surveying. And surveying is NOT a science, it is an art. Anything where there are ambiguities and interpretations, I won’t call that science.

            Liked by 1 person

            • No worries, didn’t interpret you as being passive-aggressive.
              As for the question at hand: it’s obviously partly a matter of definition. To me ‘science’ refers to the scientific method: people discussing observations and interpretations of data sets and (preferable repeatable) experiments, and these discussion result in deductions and inductions of the observations. Or, as wikipedia has it: “Science is a systematic enterprise for obtaining knowledge through testable explanations and predictions.”

              I agree parts of economics and sociology and history are hard to test, especially not in double blind testing situations. But we are getting better and better in extracting patterns & predictions from data that is ever more and more available, and a such these softer sciences definitely partake in the systematic enterprise of obtaining knowledge.

              I also think you may underestimate the number of interpretations and ambiguities in the so called hard sciences. Physic, cosmology, biology, medicine, math, … all have their share of interpretational problems, and ambiguities exists in each of those.

              Am I right in thinking that science for you can only be about the ‘material’, or do I interpret your first paragraph wrong?

              Liked by 2 people

              • Thanks. I have a real hard time judging how I come across when I disagree with something. I know what I’m feeling and my intent but the typed word loses all of that and sometimes it comes across as totally different than I intended 😀

                I would concur on the different definitions. And you’re correct, and I agree, a lot of the so-called hard sciences are just as soft as the stuff we’re discussing here. I know we talked about this in one of our various posts about the Bible, or theology or something, but “science” as a term has been seriously overused and and misused, in my opinion, to come to mean “incontrovertible fact”. For example, I wouldn’t call medicine science. It might use scientific principles, but the end result is a doctor making his best guess for his patients.

                I’d concur with your last paragraph in interpreting me and my intent. All that other stuff, that falls squarely in the Philosophers/Theologians realm of responsibility.

                Liked by 1 person

              • A few of the more foundational moments of my adult life has been the times I’ve noticed that doctors at times indeed offer their best guess only, and I’ve noticed these best guesses partly hinge on geography and culture, not on some objective timeless scientific truth.

                Liked by 1 person

  11. oberon the fool

    I’m reading Broken Sword right now, and so far it’s pretty good, so I’ll look forward to your review.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m certain I read some Poul Anderson in the past, but since it was at least 40/45 years ago I can’t remember what titles I read: while it’s possible that the 40/45 years ago me might have enjoyed those stories for the entertainment angle they offered, I seriously doubt that the stereotypes present in the writing would appeal to me now. This is indeed the “danger” of revisiting the classics now… 😉
    Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luckily there’s a fair amount of classics that still hold up today – I do hope Broken Sword is one of them. I do think Tau Zero must have been pretty spectacular when it was first published, time dilation and stuff were fairly new to fiction I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Aonghus Fallon

    Heinlen once said – ‘I have to be aware every minute that I am competing for beer money’.

    I’ve always reckoned that there was a certain type of 60’s – 70’s SF novel that catered to a specific demographic – ie, some (usually male) student lying pleasantly stoned but largely penniless, in his bunk on some campus. These books were big and characterised by a prose style that was as verbose as it was poetic. That isn’t to discount their good points, but I didn’t have the patience to read those books as a teenager, and I definitely don’t now – which is actually a pity, as Dune sounds kind of interesting.

    In terms of long books with big ideas, you might want to check out ‘Neverness’, a neglected classic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks, your comment actually put a smile on my face. I think it surely is on the money, and all that talk about serious SF is overblown at times.

      As for Dune, I think it’s an outstanding book, but you can absolutely live without it, there’s so much great other stuff out there.

      Thanks again for the comment, and I’ll check out Neverness for sure – never heard of it indeed.

      Like

  14. Aonghus Fallon

    Neverness is well worth checking out! (although admittedly, it’s years since I read it) That said, you could probably ignore the next two books in the trilogy.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hahahaha I’m sorry I bashed your hopes for Broken Sword! 😉
    As for Tau Zero, after reading your review I’m pretty sure I’d be bored out of my mind, and infuriated by the characterization to no end. I feel that this might be an interesting anthropological case study though – the dream of the strong rule of one exceptionally gifted individual still haunts us on daily basis…
    As for social sciences – they might be more interpretative than “hard” sciences, and their experiments more difficult to repeat and agree on their meaning, but the difference between “social” and “hard” seems to diminish with time, as we realize everything is subject to interpretation and our penchant for narrative (even physics or biology).
    Great review! And a very cool discussion! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not sure if the anthropologic study would be interesting: it’s rather old hat in this book. As it’s unrealistic, it would only be interesting in a study about Anderson’s ideology.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, but Anderson’s ideology is a product of its times and its culture 😉 Heinlein, for example, is a fascinating mixture of incredibly liberal views on sex and gender, but at the same time is an absolute republican (in the meaning of the US Founding Fathers) conservatist in terms of politics and military – especially in Starship Troopers 😀 I was wondering if Anderson wasn’t similarly revealing, a la Mad Men in space…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that may very well be the case, there’s a kinship between this and ST. I wonder what Broken Sword reveals.

          When I meant only interesting as a study of Anderson’s ideology, that obviously included him being an embedded creature, as we all are… 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  16. I read this over a decade ago, My tastes have changed so much since then, that I’m almost scared to revisit this.

    Upon that first reading, though, I remember instantly feeling as though I’d read a classic. The ending was great, the plot audacious, and the climax mind-blowing. Teenager me had never read anything like Tao Zero before.

    You get the usual flaws of the era, with the hokey characters, but the book was mercifully short, the soap-drama very dry and terse (shades of early Clarke), so this didn’t detract too much.

    I don’t think I’ll go back and revist this. I want to preserve my happy memories. IMO alot of the SF from that era (mid 1960s to the early 1970s) hasn’t held up when I’ve revisted it, outside folk like Le Guin, or authors operating in fields outside science fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, that’s an interesting perspective to add here. I can easily imagine this blowing people away back when it was first published.

      I agree that the soap-drama isn’t that annoying as some other reviewers make it out to be, it’s indeed dry enough, and doesn’t take up that much page time.

      As for your final remark, I don’t think this is something that is inherent to SF of that era. I think most of the SF published today will age badly as well. I also think this is true for all genres – most regular literature from the 60 and 70ies (or the 50ies or 30s or …) hasn’t aged well either.

      Like

  17. I noticed last night on your sidebar that you are reading Nova Swing by John Harrison, and just downloaded a digital copy and have started reading it as well. I’m fifty pages in and like the pulpy, space-opera vibe so far, though this is a genre I’m not usually fond of.

    I’ve never read anything by Harrison before, but I remember reading your reviews of him some months ago (you had praise for “Light” and I think a short story collection), so decided to bite the bullet and check him out myself. He’s got one of those unremarkable names which just seems to recede into a blur (science fiction has too many JOHNS and GREGS).

    Not sure what to make of “Nova Sing” so far; I’m getting a “Snow Crash” vibe, with a touch of Ballard (strange anomaly which radically alters the world?) and William Gibson (noirish cyberpunk?). Wikipedia says this is a sequel to “Light”; do you think it’s necessary to have read that first?

    Anyway, laterz. Look forward to seeing your thoughts on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool! I’m a bit further than the halfway mark, and loving it so far. I’d written down Gibson as well as a reference in my notes, and now that you mention it there is some Ballard too indeed, Snow Crash too.

      I don’t think you need to have read Light at all, this is a perfect stand alone, they really are very different.

      There’s only one review up at Worlds Without Ends so far for this, it kinda helps to understand stuff a bit better, but it has some mild spoilers too. Anyhow, it helped me appreciate it even more.

      I’m very fond of Harrison, but I’d say he has become more of an author on the fringe of SF, using its tropes to do other things. The language on a sentence level is great, the mood too. This might be a 5 star read for me in the end if he manages to keep it up for the remainder.

      I haven’t read any of his early works, but Viriconium and a few others are on my TBR, it’ll be interesting to see how his early work compares to his post 2000 work.

      If you end up liking Nova Swing, there’s a lot more of his oeuvre to explore. His latest (The Sunken Land…) is something else though, more akin to regular literature than SF.

      Like

  18. You might find the Virconium sequence a bit underwhelming after reading the Kefahuchi Trilogy! I read the former years ago – back in the Eighties. The books struck me as the product of an author still trying to work through his influences, specifically Mike Moorcock, and I more or less dismissed Harrison as a result. Decades later I bought ‘Empty Space’ on impulse and couldn’t get over how much he’d evolved as an author.

    If I have any criticism of late-Harrison, it’s that the journey is often more interesting than the destination.

    Funnily enough, ‘The Broken Sword’ is the only work by Anderson that I’ve read. I thought it was pretty strong (albeit as essentially sword-and-sorcery) although the gender politics might be a bit questionable by today’s standards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, that’s good to know. I was planning to finish the trilogy first, and then start with his debut and work my way up. I guess it won’t be as good as his later work indeed – Harrison being one of the very few artists that get better as they age, because he’s relentless in his self-examination and doesn’t seem interested in cash grabs and repeating himself.

      Like

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