SF Masterwork of the Week: Tau Zero

May’s first Masterwork of the Week is Poul Anderson‘s Hugo-shortlisted Tau Zero.

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 irreparably 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.

As avowed science – as well as science fiction – geeks, we love the fact that the book is named for an equation in the derivation of Lorentz transformations in special relativity – in this case: time dilation. Awesome. But rather than go on at length ourselves – and in the interests of  diversity of opinion – we refer you to SF Gateway’s social media curator Andrew Spong, who has run an SF Masterworks review site since 2005. His review follows below the cut (page numbers refer to the SF Masterworks paperback edition) . . .

TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson

What is man, that he should outlive his God?

The Leonora Christine is nearing the third year of her journey from Earth to colonise Beta Three ‘when grief [comes] upon her’ (p. 63) in the form of damage to her Bussard drive’s decelerator. As a consequence, the ship is unable to slow down. The work focuses on the ways in which the crew come to terms with their situation and endeavour to find a solution, whilst dealing with the fact that ‘at each crisis, the folk had rallied. Yet each upsurge of hope peaked lower than the last, each withdrawal to misery went deeper’ (p. 165).

Despite Anderson’s training as a physicist, rather less of the novel than you might expect is in fact taken up with hard SF exposition. Perhaps reflecting the preoccupations of the era in which it was written, there is a good deal of borderline soap-opera melodrama revolving around the bed-hopping antics of the fifty crew members of the ship, although the reader is left at the cabin door.

Of the remainder of the work’s scant one hundred and ninety pages, Anderson explores how he imagines the crew would react under the despairing circumstances they find themselves in. Many different angles are examined as the elite scientists that the man the ship deal with the fact that ‘have lost Earth, lost Beta Three, lost the mankind [they] belonged to,’ and are left only with their ‘courage, love, and yes, hope’ (p. 84).

The crew eventually grope their way towards an outcome which will allow a spacewalk to rectify the damage: ‘if we can find a region where gas is practically nonexistent, we can safely shut down the shields, and our engineers can go outside and repair the decelerator system’ (p. 86). With the drive repaired, and deceleration once again a possibility, the crew now have to confront the fact that they are spatially and temporally far beyond their original destination, and that they must find a new planet capable of supporting life. With some technical innovations allowing them to gather and analyse data at the unimaginable speed they are travelling at, they ‘lay out a course that takes [them] hard by the most promising suns, in sequence, while [they] continue to travel near light-speed. In cosmic time, [they] have hours or days to check whatever planet interests [them]’ (p. 124). Accelerating the Bussard drive by using the matter that they fly through as fuel, the crew endeavours to ‘push tau down as low as can be, no matter what the dangers. Not simply to make the trip itself short enough for [them] to endure. But for the psychological need to do [their] utmost […] Don’t you see? It’s [their] way of fighting back at the universe. Vogue la galère. Go for broke.’ (p. 132)

Time, as you might expect, is a preoccupation of the work, as the crew hurtle ‘five- or six-billion’ (p. 161), then ‘fifty billion’ (p. 166), and finally ‘more than a hundred billion’ light-years (p. 170) from their point of origin. This, in turn, presents the crew with a new, and seemingly insurmountable, dilemma: having endured everything that they have done, they must now acknowledge that ‘the universe – the whole universe – [is] dying’ (p. 170), and that their existence will end with it.

The solution that Anderson conjures up is suitably overreaching, but entirely appropriate in view of the unimaginably large dimensions that the work moves within: ‘we will not be able to stop before the death of the universe[…] I propose we go on to the next cycle of the cosmos’ (pp. 172, 174). I don’t think that there is any doubt that the author was aware of the preposterousness of this trope, even as he was writing it, leading one of his characters to opine ‘but this is too much. We’re – well, what are we? – Animals. My God – very literally, my God – we can’t go on… having regular bowel movements… while creation happens!’ (pp. 175-6).

Nevertheless, he rolls with the idea and makes a fist of conjoining the fact that there is infinite wonder to be found in the study of some of the smallest object in the natural world as well as the contemplation of the most cataclysmic events in time and space, and that both are as extraordinary as the other when considered in isolation: ‘We can’t deny what’s about to happen is awesome. But so is everything else. Always. I never thought stars were more mysterious, or had more magic, than flowers.’ (p. 176). Furthermore, Anderson impishly suggests that life beyond the end of time may be just as prosaic as life before it: ‘I wonder if the biggest surprise in these next months isn’t how stubbornly ordinary life will keep on being.’ (p. 178).

The novel speeds up towards its end, much like the ship and the universe it exists within, until finally the crew sees evidence of ‘the germ of the monobloc,’ and a new beginning (p. 181). ‘On the fringes of creation, through billion-year cycles which passed as moments, the ship of man flew’ (p. 181). I’d be interested to know how many rewrites Anderson treated the scene within which the universe is created to, but he does a fair job, and it is worth quoting in full:

The screen blanked. An instant later, every fluropanel in the ship turned simultaneously ultraviolet and infrared, and blackness plunged down. Those who lay harnessed alone, throughout the hull, heard invisible lightnings walk the corridors. Those in command bridge, pilot bridge, engine room, who manned the ship, felt a heaviness greater than planets – they could not move, nor stop a movement once begun – and then felt a lightness such that their bodies began to shake asunder – and this was a change in inertia itself, in every constant of nature as space-time-energy-matter underwent its ultimate convulsion – for a moment infinitesimal and infinite, men, women, child, ship, and death were one. It passed, so swiftly that they could not tell if it had been. Light came back, and outside vision. The storm grew fiercer. But now through it, seen distorted so that they appeared to be blue-white firedrops that broke into sparks as they flew, fountaining off in two huge curving sheets, now came the nascent galaxies. The monobloc had exploded. Creation had begun. (p. 182)

The reader is left with the impression that Anderson didn’t have a great deal of regard for the social, economic and political arrangements of the late 1960s. ‘No matter how carefully you design a system,’ one of his characters remarks, ‘it will go bad and die’ (p. 13). I don’t think anyone could reasonably have predicted the solution he envisages having developed on the Earth that the crew of the Leonora Christine leave behind them. It takes an imagination of Anderson’s stature to imagine (even in half-jest, as I suspect this is) a world where Sweden was in control. Only some of Scandinavian descent could: ‘who can we trust with a monopoly of the plant killer weapons and unlimited powers of inspection and arrest? Why, a country big and modern enough to make peace keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone. In short, Sweden’ (p. 13). Why, of course! When the crew does finally emerge into the newly-born universe and identifies a suitably planet in the final pages of the book, the overarching idea is that they will ‘need to take from the past what’s good, and forget what’s bad.’ (p. 188). Despite the power that he has wielded during the voyage, Charles Reymont — the emotionally robotic and ‘inhuman’ chief of security who acts variously as ‘a fire, a whip, a weapon, an engine’ (p. 162) to the rest of the crew — suggests that the society that they may go on to develop is unlikely to be autocratic one: ‘once a crisis is past, once people can manage for themselves… what better can a king do for them than take off his crown?’ (p. 190)

This is the first work by Poul Anderson, who died in 2001, that I have read, and his only appearance in the SF Masterworks series to date. I would be interested to spend more time with his oeuvre for a number of reasons, not least of which would be to discover a little more about his view of the cosmos and the actions of the human animal through the mouths of his characters.This site declares him to have been agnostic, but I get more of a sense of humanistic atheism emanating from his work. I enjoyed the idea planted in the work that the characters in Tau Zero are participating in an analogue of ‘the Wild Hunt of the damned’ (p. 136), as well as Anderson’s invitation for the reader to hear the echoes of Melville resounding through his work: ‘did you ever read Moby Dick?… That’s us. We’ve pursued the White Whale. To the end of time. And now… that question. What is man, that he should outlive his God?“‘ (p. 171).


You can find more of Andrew’s reviews at SFandFantasyMasterworks.co.uk, and read more about Poul Anderson in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.


Tau Zero is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook, and you can find more of Poul Anderson’s work by following the links on his author page at the SF Gateway.