There are obvious dangers serving on a colony ship headed for a potentially habitable planet. Will the crew manage the effects of isolation, zero g, and continuous existential crisis? What about the time dilation effects due to travelling at near light speed – can people cope with the fact that the planet they’re leaving will experience decades of change in their 5 year journey? What if the planet can’t actually sustain life – can you imagine having to go back? Even more practically: will you even survive the journey?
Tau Zero explores all these types of questions before grinning mischievously and throwing one last monkey wrench into the equation: what if the ship is damaged en route – not in a life-threatening way – and now can no longer stop? In fact, it can no longer even slow down; its crew is able to survive indefinitely, but time is dilating further as minutes on board the ship become centuries outside. They can’t land, call back to home, or even make repairs, and the stars and planets and galaxies they’re able to see outside their windows are looking ever stranger and out of reach.
It’s a really cool idea. Tau Zero is a hard science (well, for 1970) sci-fi book first and foremost, but at many points throughout it feels closer to a post-apocalypse story. After the aforementioned disaster strikes, the crew of the Leonora Christine become survivors of a very personal apocalypse. The world they knew is gone in every sense of the word, and they themselves have become ghosts without a home or purpose.
The book excels when it explores these ideas, or when it dips into the poetic to describe cosmic phenomena, or when dives into paragraphs of big, crunchy technical jargon for the all the science work being done. It’s wonderful scifi writing.
The problem is everything else.
A book detailing a disaster really needs to get the human element right. People should respond to it believably, which might mean some acting irrationally, others rising to heroics, still others falling into depravity or doom or hysterics. The drama and tension naturally arise from people overcoming their weaknesses, making tough decisions, and so forth.
But Tau Zero’s characters aren’t really people; they’re barely even 2D cardboard cutouts. They wander from scene to scene expositing dialogue at each other, or saying their internal monologues out loud to advance a thread, or suddenly acting out of character because it’s convenient for the plot at the time. There’s very little conflict (the most physical it gets is a single fistfight over cards) and drama is often resolved with a handwave.
The dialogue is especially embarrassing. There are some scenes early on where characters are literally just stating their backstories to one another intermixed with current world history that would surely be obvious to them. It’s the type of thing that’d get you in trouble with your 9th grade English teacher.
The worst by far is the protagonist. He’s a military man, a cop-esque figure on the ship. But also he knows everything about space and astrophysics and chemistry and planetary colonization and can stand toe-to-toe with experts in their field in any scientific discussion. His arguments are always correct, and those who doubt him eventually regret their words and deeds. He’s a better captain than the captain. He’s a master manipulator, with networks of deputies and secret deputies and spies. He can pilot star ships better than anyone. He’s the best melee fighter, the best at navigating zero-g, and the only one with a gun. He’s also naturally handsome, rugged, and is worshipped by at least two women.
He’s absolutely ridiculous.
It’s such a shame, because I love so much else about this book. Though the science never really rang true to me, I still suspended my disbelief because it’s explained so well. The premise is excellent, equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, and the tension it weaves throughout the book left my palms sweaty.
All it needed was a handful of characters who behaved like humans. Instead, we get these weirdos. You get the sense that Anderson viewed humans as an unfortunate necessity to write about a cool spaceship flight. I wish he hadn’t even bothered and made the Leonora Christine an unmanned expedition.