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Book Talk: 'Tau Zero' by Poul Anderson

Alexander Wallace boards the Leonora Christine.
No matter how much books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora try to dim its luster, human beings still dream of colonizing the galaxy. There is something undeniably romantic about the whole exercise, about slipping the surly bonds of Earth and becoming a truly interstellar species. It could be fairly argued that the premise has some unpleasant colonial undertones (or overtones) but the appeal remains.

But the process can be fraught. European colonists in our world had to contend with disease and stormy seas and natives angry at their intrusion. For the stars, there are other dangers. One such danger is the subject of Poul Anderson’s 1970 novel Tau Zero, based on Anderson’s short story To Outlive Eternity.

Tau Zero is the story of the starship Leonora Christine, a massive ship intended to lead a colonizing mission to Beta Virginis. It is launched from an Earth that has seen awful war, and the nations of the globe have given all the world’s nuclear weapons to Sweden for safekeeping. After an interlude in Stockholm, the Leonora Christine launches for its destination. At first, all seems well, with its scientists and astronauts diligently working and amusing themselves as they see fit.

And then, as they zoom through the cosmos, the Leonora Christine passes through a nebula. It damages the ramjets, meaning that they are beyond repair, and the crew is beyond return. What is at first a seemingly optimistic novel of exploration becomes heavy and despairing quite quickly.

After the fateful encounter with the nebula, Tau Zero becomes a story about what it means to be human when the things we take for granted about such are now almost entirely inaccessible. There is a dark cloud of loss that hangs over proceedings as characters try to eke out a future when the rest of humanity has none. Anderson’s character work really shines here; he focuses on many different characters, of wide backgrounds, and how they respond in many different ways in the face of such a massive loss.

Tau Zero is also a story about perseverance, about trekking though the heavens may fall (in this book, uncomfortably close to literally). It is about finding meaning, or making meaning, when all previous meaning has been rendered insubstantial. The arguments among these varied characters are ultimately a long meditation on what we, as humans, must decide for our future.

This is not a horror novel in the traditional sense, but I can confirm that it is scary as hell. The people aboard the Leonora Christine have to find their moorings as the rest of the universe slips away from them, and the time they grew up in becomes a distant dream. This book will imprint upon you a fear of time and its passage in a way I’ve never seen in any other novel, barring perhaps Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships.

Poul Anderson is one of my favorite older science fiction authors, and this impression continues with Tau Zero. It is an ambitious novel, one rigorous in its science and terrifying in its human implications. I recommend it highly.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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