1970’s Tau Zero (an expanded version of 1968’s “To Outlive Eternity”) comes almost exactly at the mid-point of Poul Anderson’s 54-year career. Someone familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre could make an educated guess about when this was written just from the female characters, something more than the trophies seen in earlier Anderson’s, combined with the absence of the libertarianism0 seen in later Anderson but such a reader could also make a pretty guess as to when this had to be written based on the device that literally drives the plot. 1970 was the apex of the heyday of the Bussard Ramjet and this novel is the Bussard Ramjet novel.
The starship Leonora Christine is destined for Beta Virginis, about 30 light years from the Solar System. The goal is to found a community of settlers on that star’s life-bearing world but if that proves impossible there is a contingency plan for the group to return to Earth. The catch is that this is a universe without faster-than-light and while the passengers and and crew will have spent ten years on the round trip, for Earth almost seventy years will have passed.
The people on board Leonora Christine planned for many eventualities but they didn’t plan to encounter a patch of vacuum a little less hard than the deeps of space and while the ship survives the collision, as do the systems provide acceleration and steering, the Leonora Christine is left with no functioning means to slow down. The good news is the ship’s life-support systems were over-designed1 for the round trip and can sustain life for many decades. The bad news is that they may have to.
The deceleration systems were badly damaged but not destroyed and if the ship’s ramscoop fields were shut down, humans could go out and repair the damage. Unfortunately, the same fields that gather interstellar hydrogen also protect the ship from the sleet of relativistic particles that is the Interstellar Medium encountered at near-light-speed. To turn them off is to save the ship from an endless voyage by dooming everyone on it to a quick death from radiation poisoning.
At least, that’s what would happen if the fields were shut down in the interstellar deeps within the Milky Way or even between the galaxies in the Local Group. It’s possible that out in the dark between families of galaxies, the vacuum is tenuous enough that the fields could be shut down and the ship repaired without killing everyone and it is on that slender reed that everyone on the ship pins their hope. The same relativity that makes the interstellar medium so lethal is their friend here; a journey of billions of light years and billions of years measured on Earth, will only take years in the frame of the ship.
The years it will take to reach the deepest deeps are long enough for the people trapped in the flying Dutchman that the Leonora Christine has become to go mad with despair and isolation. Morose security officer Carl Reymont takes it upon himself to keep himself and his fellow crew-mates alive through means aboveboard and below. The ship’s plans may encounter unanticipated obstacles but Reymont is determined that if the Leonora Christine ultimately fails, he and his companions will struggle until the final moment.
The greatest obstacle is the grim fact that the universe is (more or less) uniform in space but not in time. Given enough time even the universe grows old. There is an answer for that but it requires a plan even more audacious than the voyage to deepest space.
As far as I can tell, Tau Zero has never had what I would call a great cover but the cover to my mass market paperback has to be one of the less inspired Richard Powers efforts.
Bussard ramjets were proposed about 1960 and they seemed to offer an easy way not just to prevent the Interstellar Medium from killing occupants of relativistic star-craft but also a way to turn that problem into a resource; the very material that was so lethal could be turned into fuel and reaction mass for a starship. The longer people thought about the idea, the more limiting factors on performance were seen. The nadir probably came in 1978, when TA Heppenheimer showed that ramjets using proton-proton reactions would be about a billion times better at radiating energy than producing it. Ah, well.
The golden age of the Bussard ramjet was fun while it lasted and Anderson uses the device to go effect to explore astronomy and cosmology as they were understood in the late 1960s; “To Outlive Eternity” was published only three years after the detection of the cosmic microwave background. For modern readers this is a snapshot of a long gone moment in science. Granted, it is cosmology as understood (and modified for narrative reasons2) by an SF writer, but Anderson tries harder to play fair than many other SF authors I could name and he is more up to date as well; during the period Anderson was writing this, Pohl and Williamson were writing a series dependent on the Steady State model.
Be warned that Anderson is very comfortable with infodumps but less adept at adroitly slipping them into the text than you would expect, given that he had had over two decades of experience writing SF. On the plus side, he does his best to make sure the reader understands what is going on and the scale of the world:
Thus Leonora Christine, seventh, and youngest of her class. Her outward simplicity was required by the nature of her mission and was as deceptive as a human skin; inside, she was very nearly as complex and subtle. The time since the basic idea of her was first conceived, in the middle twentieth century, had included perhaps a million man-years of thought and work directed toward achieving the reality; and some of those men had possessed intellects equal to any that had ever existed. Though practical experience and essential tools had already been gotten when construction was begun upon her, and though technological civilization had reached its fantastic flowering (and finally, for a while, was not burdened by war or the threat of war) — nevertheless, her cost was by no means negligible, had indeed provoked widespread complaint. All this, to send fifty people to one practically next-door star?
Right. That’s the size of the universe.
Consider: a single light-year is an inconceivable abyss. Denumerable but inconceivable. At an ordinary speed - say, a reasonable pace for a car in megalopolitan traffic, two kilometers per minute - you would consume almost nine million years in crossing it. And in Sol’s neighborhood, the stars averaged some nine light-years apart. Beta Virginis was thirty-two distant.
When the characters are not doing that, the omniscient narrator is.
There’s a passage early that shows one of the costs of relativistic travel even over comparatively short distances. Fedoroff aged twelve years traveling to and from Delta Pavonis but Earth aged forty-three, with this result:
Fedoroff turned to confront her. “We expected people would have died when we came home. We expected change. If anything, I was overjoyed at first that I could recognize parts of my city - moonlight on canals and river, domes and towers on Kazan Cathedral, Alexander and Bucephalus rearing over the bridge that carries Nevsky Prospect, the treasures in the Hermitage-” He looked back away and shook his head wearily. “But the life itself. That was too different. Meeting it was like, like seeing a woman one loved become a slut.”
While that can be seen as foreshadowing the profound alienation relativity is going to inflict on the Leonora Christine, I cannot help but notice that if you add 43 + 1926 (the year Anderson was born), the result is 1969, just about the year Anderson was working on the novel. That is probably a coincidence but it feels like Anderson could be talking about how out of step he felt in a world that had transformed around him.
I complained at length about the way Anderson wrote women in Satan’s World. I am happy to say he’s trying hard to eschew his reflexive use of women as decoration and rewards, and there’s little sign of the attitude shown in his comment
The frequent absence of women characters has no great significance, perhaps none whatsoever. Certain writers […] seldom pick themes which inherently call for women to take a lead role. This merely shows they prefer cerebral plots, not that they are antifeminist.
The women in this play important roles on the ship and while none of them are explored in depth, this is a 188 page novel and there is not room to explore anyone in depth, not even Reymont. Not if there’s to be room for expository and descriptive narrative!
That said, there is at least one relationship that seems to happen because the woman thinks the guy needs someone and she figures she drew the short straw. I don’t recall the mirror of that happening. I cannot say how that relationship works out is much of a case for the “close your eyes and think of the Leonora Christine” model of dating (the crew explore all kinds of romantic failure modes).
Reymont does have some interesting facets to him, the most interesting of which is that he’s much more interested in keeping everyone functional and alive to the end of the voyage than he is in punishing people for bad-think, no matter how he may come across to his companions.
This has some rough edges3 but I would say Tau Zero is among Anderson’s best novels. It’s no surprise that it was nominated for a Hugo in 1971 and I don’t know that I would have picked the novel that edged it out, Niven’s Ringworld4, over Tau Zero. Tau Zero certainly one of Anderson’s most audacious books, taking his characters and the readers across most of the expanse and history of our universe, a worthy effort from an author then at the height of his abilities.
0: Yeah, sometimes I don’t feel like renumbering all the footnotes because I forgot one. There is a libertarian American on board. Anderson’s portrayal of him is not exactly flattering:
“Fourth July,” Williams said. “Independence Day. My country. Wanted throw party. Nobody cared. One drink with me, two maybe, then gotta go their goddam dance.” He regarded Nilsson for a while. “Swede,” he declared slowly, “you’ll drink wi’ me ‘r I’ll bust y’r teeth in.”
Freiwald laid a muscular hand on Williams’ arm. The chemist tried to rise. Freiwald held him where he was. “Be calm, please, Dr. Williams,” the machinist requested mildly. “If you want to celebrate your national day, why, we’ll be glad to toast it. Won’t we, sir?” he added to Nilsson.
The astronomer clipped: “I know what the matter is. I was told before we left, by a man who knew. Frustration. He couldn’t cope with modern management procedures.”
“Goddam welfare state bureaucracy,” Williams hiccuped.
“He started dreaming of his country’s sovereign, imperial era,” Nilsson went on. “He fantasized about a free enterprise system that I doubt ever existed. He dabbled in reactionary politics. When the Control Authority had to arrest several high American officials on charges of conspiracy to violate the Covenant-“
“I’d had a bellyful.” Williams’ tone rose toward a shout. “‘Nother star. New world. Chance t’ be free. Even if I do have to travel with a pack o’ Swedes.”
“You see?” Nilsson grinned at Freiwald. “He’s nothing but a victim of the romantic nationalism that our too orderly world has been consoling itself with, this past generation. Pity he couldn’t be satisfied with historical fiction and bad epic poetry.”
That said, isn’t “When the Control Authority had to arrest several high American officials on charges of conspiracy to violate the Covenant + ‘Nother star. New world. Chance t’ be free.” basically the plot to Orbit Unlimited?
1: Actually, the whole ship is absurdly over-designed or it would fall apart from running into interstellar hydrogen at the say-what-now speeds it achieves after years of accelerating full out.
2: Anderson uses handwavium to give the ship a way to partially shield the crew from acceleration to cut down on travel time and he almost certainly knew the final passage of the Leonora Christine could not work the way he has it work. There’s also the bit where he assumes if the ship is going fast enough with respect to the things it encounters, it can blast through them safely, even though it was a plot point early on that the Leonora Christine ramming a nebulina [sic] at near-light speed is the same as a nebulina ramming the ship at the same speed.
3: And implausible bits like “and then after WWIII-light, we decided to let Sweden run everything.”
4: Although my eye is not so much drawn to the fact that Ringworld beat Tau Zero but among the five nominees is Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun, which would in the mid-1970s figure into a bizarre decision by the John W. Campbell Memorial Award jury. Deeming no contemporary novel worthy of the first place award, they instead gave out a special Retrospective Prize to Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun on the grounds that the [quote] “committee felt that no truly outstanding original novel was published in 1975. 1st place, therefore, was a “special retrospective award” made to a truly outstanding original novel that was not adequately recognized in the year of its publication (1970).” [end quote] What the helling hell, Campbell jury? It got a fricking Hugo nomination!