Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

There are two main classes of SF author: those who have broken into mainstream success, and those who have, while creating a vibrant and diverse body of work, remained largely unknown outside of the hallowed halls of SF fandom. In the first category, you have your Ursula K. Le Guins (who is actually in a category all by herself because dear God is she amazing), your Neal Stephensons, and your Robert Heinleins. In the second category, you have your Roger Zelaznys, your Vonda McIntyres, and your Poul Andersons. The work of those in the second category is not necessarily worse than those in the first. Indeed, many of the ideas explored are right on par or better than those from the first-category authors. Their work simply tends to be less geared towards wider audiences, so it does not have the wider appeal of the first-category authors.

One way to make SF appeal less to wider audiences is to construct a hard SF tale. Hard and soft SF are terms which denote an overwhelming focus on technology and innovation for the one and a focus more on the social developments and psychological effects of technology for the other. In hard SF, you’ll get an explanation of how the propulsion system of the spacecraft works, the main character will be an engineer, and the main conflict will be his struggle to repair the craft before everyone dies. In soft SF, everyone will be on the same spaceship, but it’ll just fly because that’s what spaceships do, and the narrative focus will be more on character development and social concerns. These two directions are not mutually exclusive – you can have good explanation of tech in soft SF, and you can have strong character development in hard SF – it’s just a question of focus. Tau Zero is considered a perfect example of hard SF.

First off, the name itself is a scientific term. Tau is the symbol which denotes proper time in physics. Proper time is time as measured by a moving observer, meaning that at relativistic speeds, proper time for someone in a ship is very different than proper time for someone outside the ship. Time dilation is a central concept of this book, and tau is a central measure in time dilation. According to Anderson (Wikipedia says he fudged this a bit), as tau approaches zero, the gap between experienced and objective time becomes more and more significant. This is the main conflict of the book.

A team of scientists boards the Leonora Christine, a new ship with a Bussard ramjet propulsion system. Bussard ramjets are theoretical engines that use massive magnetic fields to collect hydrogen from space as they travel interstellar distances. The faster the ship goes, the faster the hydrogen is collected. The magnetic fields and the acceleration combine to compress the hydrogen to the point where it fuses and creates a massive amount of energy, which is then directed by those magnetic fields out the back of the engine, creating thrust. This proposed propulsion system solves the problem of holding onto fuel for interstellar travel – no ship would be able to lug around all the crap it would need to burn to get from one star to another – the prohibitively high weight would render it infeasible.

Anyway, they got themselves a ramjet, and they’re using it to go on a twenty-year exploratory mission. The way the trip works is that the ship spends half of its time accelerating and half of its time decelerating, so at the midpoint it turns its engines around and reverses thrust. The astronauts are prepared for time dilation to make twenty years go by on Earth, but there’s a hitch. Right before the midpoint, the ship passes through a nebula. All that dust collides with the deceleration system and renders it nonfunctional. The astronauts cannot slow down, so they sit and try to solve the problem while everyone they have ever known dies on Earth. They decide to accelerate even more and go to an entirely new galaxy, so they kiss human civilization goodbye and ramp up their speed. The main struggle of the book is fixing the decelerator and finding a place to live now that all of human civilization has been gone for millions of years.

The character development of the book is severely lacking. It exists, and it is passable, but it was clearly not a priority. They were so paper-thin that they had less substance than the gangsters from that fake mob movie that Kevin McCallister watches in Home Alone. A grizzled war veteran holds the entire crew together as they bounce from crisis to crisis, never giving up hope because he’s just got too much damned grit. That in itself is a pretty slipshod job of character building, and he’s really the only character I remember from the book. That and the fact that I spent more than half of this article talking about spaceships and about five percent of it talking about characters should indicate the severity of this book’s character problem.

Despite all that, I enjoyed it. The overarching direction of the book is humanity boldly going where no one has gone before, which I’m a sucker for. A very simple, clear, and horrifying problem arises when their propulsion system goes on the fritz, and the hard work of a handful of dedicated individuals solves the problem in a very interesting way. It has a very interesting and clear central idea, but the surrounding elements do not quite come together. It is a novel expanded from a short story, and maybe it should have stayed a short story. Problems aside, you should give this one a shot.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

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