Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

Tau Zero

I read this book a while back and did a really brief review (it’s a hard title to review!) and figured I should finally just put the damn thing up – there are bound to be a few nuts like me who’ll put their brains through this wringer!

Anyway, to the review! This is a pretty intensely heavy science fiction book by the way, beaten for me only by Last and First Men which I reviewed not too long back.

An unendingly intense read – not one I would recommend to anyone who does not have a taste for science fiction and definitely tread lightly (and read slowly) if you struggle to wrap scientific concepts around your brain! Don’t take this as a reason not to try mind you, because it really is one hell of a saga if you brave your way through it.

One of the most hardcore pure scifi novels I’ve ever read, its a masterfully written piece of work spanning eternity and it does a great job maintaining the tremendous human cost of the whole endeavor around which this book revolves. In a nutshell, it is a story of ship called the Lenora Christine and her crew of colonists who are bound for a distant planet about five years away – now in a change from a lot of science fiction the vessel is not powered to run at light speed or by conventional fuels or fusion engines and such that most are familiar with, in fact it runs on a very real engine style proposed in the 60’s that runs like a Ram-jet (which is actually used in a lot of planes and missiles for speed). For the basic concept, here’s the description of it from NASA:

What a Bussard Engine would look like. (Wicked isn’t it?!) 🙂

Well, rather than bring your fuel along, why not get it as you go. This Bussard Interstellar Ramjet concept, from the 1960’s, relies on scooping up the lonely protons that drift in interstellar space, and then somehow getting them to fuse to make a nuclear rocket. There are a variety of limitations to this concept, such as how many protons can be scooped up, the drag created from scooping them, and, not to mention, the feat of getting these protons to engage in nuclear fusion for a rocket. 

Of course this is more heavy science and being that they will not be breaking light-speed and going super-luminal or anything such, they will feel time-dilation and other effects of such high speeds – what this means is that as they approach light-speed time slows (relativity) and for the five years they are on board the Lenora, over three decades will pass to those of us in “normal” time. Sometime partway through however, they collide with a Nebula and the deceleration module is damaged and due to radiation, their existing speed and a few other factors they cannot repair it. They are forced to continue accelerating and the closer they get to light, the more time slows for them and the further away they get from ever seeing Earth or humanity ever again.

The basics of the engine’s innards and workings!

This forms the backbone of the ships basic plot and in this and all that follows Anderson does a masterful job of not only bringing some pretty intense scientific concepts to bear and contemplating the nature and state of the universe around us, he also manages to do a great job of showing the human cost, the potential impact of such a scenario on a group of people in an enclosed environment with nothing left to lose but themselves and their humanity. What I liked also in part was that he never dives into the needlessly dramatic and the cliche but shows an interesting picture of what such a group of forward thinkers and scientists and great minds would go through – both their brilliance in the face of unthinkable odds as well as their fragile humanity that is pushed to the limits.

Admittedly the interpersonal relationships had moments of weakness in their portrayal, overall the book maintained a good enough balance that it did not spoil the experience of the story for me. Thankfully the bland human description that is found in the opening chapter (truly not an auspicious start, I had to push through most of that part) regarding two of the focal characters interactions prior to their departure was one of only a handful of such moments with the brunt of the book focussing on areas that Anderson is far more at home with and even these flaws become less bothersome as the story progresses. In this I liken him to Jules Verne, who is also an all-time favourite, because like Verne, Anderson excels at the scientific and such aspects of the story but there are many instances where the character development seems unfinished or not enough/less than desired from a readers point of view.

Some of the concepts and detailing is remarkable and compared to some of the lighter tales of science I’ve read, this one was a torrential down-pour of concepts and details that really made my mind buzz with ideas!

If you have the inclination for this kind, HIGHLY AND EARNESTLY recommended. Cheers…

My rating: 3.9 of 5 stars

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. diannegray says:

    I have an inclination towards this so I might give it a go!

    Thank you 🙂

    1. Spider42 says:

      You’re most welcome – Let me know how you liked it!

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