Tau Zero (Paoul Anderson)

Author James Blish considered this book the ultimate hard science fiction novel. There is something to be said for that. Praise indeed… I have rarely read a novel with such rigorous scientific underpinnings. Anderson had a degree in physics and in other novels it is quite clear that he thought about the properties of fictional planets he created. Anderson had a degree in physics and in other novels it is quite clear that he thought about the properties of fictional planets he created. Anderson takes hard science fiction as far as it will go here.

The book follows a group of colonizers sent from Earth to start anew on a more-or-less Earth-like planet orbiting a star a few light-years down the road. They run into trouble in the form of a rogue phantom nebulina whose dense particles damage their ship so that they can’t decelerate, ever. They immediately acknowledge their predicament and more-or-less accept their fate: an endless journey to the end of time and space, forever alone, with no hope of returning to Earth or reaching their new home. When the catastrophe hits, Anderson uses the opportunity to explore two major ideas. The first is the science and philosophy behind and implications of Einstein-ian relativity and near-light speed space travel.

The book almost presupposes a familiarity with relativity, but Anderson does step aside several times to refresh the reader on the concept (which is singularly fascinating, to be sure). He points out an ultimately gigalithic (made up word) consequence of traveling at any sizable fraction of the speed of light: time dilation. This means that as a person, let’s say, moves faster and faster relative to another, less time passes for him or her than for that other person. This is explained in mathematical terms by Anderson. As the colonists’ ship, the Leonora Christine is forced to continuously accelerate, as its “Tau” decreases, more and more time passes for the universe outside while it remains constant for the people onboard.

While there is a limit to a body’s velocity (the speed of light), there is no limit to a its “Tau factor.” Ten billion years can go by for everyone else in an hour of your time if you are moving fast enough, relative to them (if they happened to be moving the same speed as you, they would experience the same amount of time). The scientists and technicians onboard the ship literally watch as the universe ages around them. This leads to the second idea Anderson explores: the interpersonal and psychological effects of such significant time-dilation. The colonizers on board begin their mission hopeful and excited, albeit expecting a degree of loneliness. They know they won’t be able to return to Earth if their mission is successful.

Even if it isn’t, by the time they get back to Earth, many decades will have passed (though only a few years will have for them) and the world may be unrecognizable to them. But when disaster hits, they quickly realize that being cut off from the Earth for a few decades is hardly the worst kind of isolation. Accelerating forever through space means being cut off from the entire universe. Even if they manage to repair the damage and return to Earth in a decade or so of their own time, millions of years will have passed back home, at least, more or less.

Humanity is lost to them, forever – it would be either long extinct or evolved (biologically, culturally, and/or technologically) to an utterly alien state. But chances are that the Leonora Christine will simply accelerate forever through time and space until its life-support systems give out (a closed, artificial ecosystem operating at less than 100% efficiency will never last very long), slowly killing everyone on board. A special kind of loneliness sets in, flanked by hopelessness and despair. Anderson explores the sociopolitical situation that arises (Reymont’s misunderstood and compassionate iron-fistedness is one of the most interesting human elements of the book), along with the psychological states and complex relationships that emerge as coping mechanisms (which are successful to varying degrees).

The human side of the story perhaps isn’t handled as brilliantly or deeply as the philosophical side of the story is, but the characters are interesting and did resonate with me. Tau Zero is far from a perfect, but it has become one of my very favorite science fiction books. To me the scientific theme is the incomprehensible immensity of time, the philosophical one is our ultimately paltry piece of the cosmic temporal pie, and the human theme is humanity’s persistence to survive even in the face of this mind-staggering reality. The book took me to a place only a precious few other books have, admittedly more through its ideas than through its characters. Nonetheless, this is a truly wonderful piece of idea-driven story telling, and is a leading example of why I have come to appreciate science fiction overall. Highly recommended, especially for anyone looking to get into science fiction in general.

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Comments

  1. I absolutely love this book. Its definitely not perfect, but I think the two sides to the story (the humanity and the science) come together to be more than the sum of its parts. Its one of those books that leave you feeling completely depressed and grateful for the somewhat happy ending.

    (Btw, you have a little bit of sentence repetition in your first paragraph.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely put about the ending. And thank you for pointing out my errors – at least three offending sentences. Note to self: re-read post before hitting “publish” next time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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