Posts Tagged ‘scifi novel’

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – review

October 25, 2012

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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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters – a review

August 24, 2012

Right up front here, this is going to be nothing like the recent review of Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. I didn’t keep what was essentially a reading journal with this. I read the biggest chunk of it the other night between midnight and 330am and it’s really just an addictive read. Reading the back cover, it says it is the first part of atrilogy, and it mentions that everything is happening on the brink of apocalypse, giving it a scifi vibe, but it’s not a scifi novel. It’s a mystery novel, a detective pot boiler, and it’s a helluva lot of fun.  That’s something else I want to get out of the way right at the beginning, it’s a great read, it’s a fun read, I can wholly endorse it if you like detective/mystery stories.

That’s also not what I really want to talk about.

While I said it’s not a scifi novel, it is a scifi novel. In their own ways, I think the majority of detective novels are really scifi novels. Whether they have a glaring scifi element, such as an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and all of the social upheavel going on because of it, or if they don’t have any glaring scifi elements. While reading The Last Policeman, the novel that kept coming to mind was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. In each work we are plunged into the head of a detective who is maybe not the brightest flashlight we could pull out of the drawer, but by the end we find them the most reliable.

They are also aliens in their own worlds, as most great fictional detectives are. Even if you remove the End is Nigh plot device Winters uses, his lead detective is still a duck out of water. He doesn’t fit with the other detectives, he doesn’t really fit with the rest of society that he interacts with, everyone just sort of accommodates each other as best they can and try to make the most of it. We see the same thing with the lead character in Motherless Brooklyn, the tourrettes inflicted Lionel. His mental condition sets him apart, makes him alien to everyone else. Sherlock Holmes? He was certainly a bit of an odd-duck, too. As was Hercule Poirot.

If anything, this is part of the wonderful versatility of detective fiction and how it can approach scifi. In scifi, the alien is almost always the other character. They might be protagonists, they might be antagonists, that doesn’t really matter. But they are almost always the other. What detective fiction can do is make the alien the primary point of view, give us a set of eyes to look through that we don’t really get a chance to see otherwise. It allows us to see our own world as the other, as the alien, because the alien’s point of view has become our own.

Okay, back to Winters’ The Last Policeman. It’s a good read, check it out, and there is even some mention of moon bases. You might or might not be better off sitting down at midnight to devour it, though. Here’s the B&N link.