Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ben Bova, and Stanislaw Lew produced some of the best classic hard science fiction. But every list of classic novels in that sub-genre invariably includes Poul Anderson‘s wild ride into interstellar space, Tau Zero.
A great example of classic hard science fiction
In fact, hard science is so deeply embedded into Anderson’s story that you might need a PhD in physics to understand what’s going on. The author, who held only a BA in physics, demonstrates far more than undergraduate-level understanding of the field in the novel. He alternates narrative passages and dialogue with sometimes lengthy explanations of relativity, time dilation, and the nature of the cosmos. It’s hard slogging for a reader like me without a scientific background. Yet the vast scope of the tale and the insightful presentation of the characters under stress make this nonetheless a fascinating and rewarding read.
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970) 230 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Tau Zero begins simply enough. Some two centuries in the future, one of several starships is about to leave Earth orbit for a distant planet. Ingrid Lindgren is the First Officer of the Leonora Christine, and former police colonel Charles Jan Reymont is the Constable. Although we meet a large number of others among the fifty passengers and crew on the ship, the focus throughout is on these two. They set out on a journey of thirty-two light years toward the third planet of Beta Virginis. For decades, humankind has been traveling to the stars. The Bussard engine, a concept developed in the twentieth century, enables their ship to gradually approach (but never attain) the speed of light.
Sophisticated presentation of psychology as well as physics
Anderson demonstrates impressive command of psychology in describing the couplings and conflicts of his fifty characters. Lindgren and Reymont quickly move in together, then abruptly split up when Lindgren strays. Some of the others form casual liaisons; others still enter into partnerships that last throughout. Their lives are stressful despite the many amenities on board, but conflict breaks out into the open nine light-years from Earth when the Leonora Christine collides with a cloud of debris that damages the propulsion system. And that catastrophic accident changes their destiny forever.
Tau Zero presents an intriguing if highly unlikely future for the people of planet Earth. A nuclear war has destroyed the superpowers who waged it and led to an unusual form of world government. Sweden, now the world’s wealthiest country, is at the helm, enforcing the general disarmament that followed the war. Lindgren herself, the ship’s captain, are both Swedes, but nearly all the rest of the passengers and crew represent dozens of other countries as well as a few who have lived on human colonies in the solar system. Anderson does a good job avoiding the temptation to stereotype the different nationalities. (Interestingly, the author himself was Danish-American and grew up speaking both his parents’s language as well as English.) It’s no wonder Tau Zero is so widely regarded as one of the best examples of great example of classic hard science fiction.
For further reading
Poul Anderson didn’t always write great stories. Here’s an example of one that wasn’t: The Corridors of Time (A legendary sci-fi author makes a mess of time travel).
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.