Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – review

I enjoyed Tau Zero, an old hard scifi book about people journeying past everything and back, but it’s also not the most entertaining read in the world. This is going to sound a bit harsh, but what I found most interesting was the book itself. From the library, it is a first edition hard cover from 1970 with wonderful cover work done by Anita Siegel. I hauled the image to the right from the novel’s wikipage and, if everything went right, you should be able to go there for a plot synopsis and other things by clicking the image. I’ll try to stay away from talking much about the actual happenings and goings because there really isn’t much to say that wouldn’t kill what plot the book has.

When saying it is a hard scifi novel, it means it focuses a good deal on the science and less on the people. I’m sure there are hard scifi books out there that do a great job hitting on both, but I don’t know what they are. The effect with Tau Zero is that I found the science a  bit hard to plough through while the characters were a bit hard to care about beyond their rather thin construction.

Which sounds like a devastatingly negative review, I know, but it’s not. It’s still an enjoyable read, perhaps made more enjoyable (at least for me) by getting through it quicker. While the characters really don’t matter a whole helluva lot, it makes up for it at least a bit by where they are going. What it really suffers from is just a general lack of vision. I think Anderson has a clear, strong grasp of the scientific aspects of his novel, and he goes into loving detail about tau – a detail that I just found dense and cumbersome compared to the lack of details he goes into with his characters, settings, and work.

In fact, he seems to go out of his way to not give details about the lead character, Reymont. The captain of the ship is shunted off. The other characters are either nearly as cold as Reymont, aren’t really delved into, or are even shown  as weakened a bit by their emotions.  It really seems as if Anderson just didn’t want to fill his novel out with anything but a framework so that he could talk about the science behind the idea of his story.

Which is a shame. While I wasn’t a big fan of Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, it shows what can be done by cramming a bunch of people into a small area and just observing them and reporting back on what you see. Stephen King makes use of such a theme in story after story after story, trapping people in everything from vampire infested small towns to psychotic monorail trains to under a big invisible dome. However, this is also old scifi, which never really seemed to put an emphasis on the story. That was left to their fantasy tale spinning cousins, I guess.

If you like old scifi, or hard scifi, I think Tau Zero could be up your alley.  If you just sort of go walleyed and feel a tight clenching in your bowels by the idea of having to slog through some mathematical formulas about time dilation or having to keep track of a host of vaguely similar and thin characters, this is probably less for you. As I said, the most interesting part for me was the book itself. An artifact from 1970, its coverwork is distinctly scifi in its oddness and openly interpretive meanings in relation to the work. On the last page there is still a library card in the little paper slot, a single date stamped onto it (May 7 1970), though there are a host of Date Due stickers on the back cover, the most recent being 11-26-01.  Perhaps the best part is the brief synopsis on a little sticker on the cover page:

A space adventure which takes fifty people to the end of the universe, infinity, and the beginning of a new eternity.

Yeah, that sums it up pretty well.

Tau Zero at Barnes and Noble

Poul Anderson at Wikipedia and GoodReads

Anita Siegel’s archived NYT obituary at Legacy and a google image search. There is startlingly little I could really find on her.

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