Tuesday, July 20, 2010

SF Masterworks #64: Poul Anderson, Tau Zero

Words and music by Brian May. Thanks to Larry for eyeballing this before I unleashed it upon the world!

In the year of '39
Assembled here the volunteers

Hello and welcome to my review of Tau Zero. Some of the other reviewers have started with Epic poetry, or book quotes. I’ve started with Queen. Why? Because the song could have been written for the book. And both are pretty darn good, once you understand the basic concept. The start of the book introduces you to some of the key characters as the crew begins to gather for launch. The key character is Reymont, the ship’s constable, but this role and the others all develop strongly as the book runs.

In the days when lands were few.

The book is set in a future where the world has almost been destroyed by nuclear war. To prevent this happening again, the world’s nuclear arsenal were given to a small country that was unlikely to be strong enough to try to invade anywhere. This is a novel concept and considering their continued defensive military stance, Sweden remains a logical choice for the role. Of course, as the centre of the world’s weapons and the security, the country is also the hub of world commerce and the language has replaced English as the world trade language. It also plays neatly to the author’s Scandinavian ancestry, which is demonstrated in the book by references to various pieces of song and folklore.

Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn',
The sweetest sight ever seen.

The ship in question is Leonora Christine, a sleek, elegant vessel designed for intergalactic exploration. The primary feature of the vessel, and the key to the plot, is the Bussard drive. This system scoops hydrogen into the engine, and the faster it goes, the more hydrogen is caught and the faster the ship goes, making the ship capable of reaching remarkably high speeds, close to but not touching the speed of light. This means that it is subject to relativity and time dilation, a key theme of both the book and the song. The changing time is measured by the time contraction factor Tau (τ) from which the novel gains its name. Where and v is the velocity as a fraction of the speed of light. At a given velocity, the duration that is experienced on the non-accelerating Earth may be multiplied by tau to yield the duration experienced on board the ship. Therefore, as Anderson writes, "the closer that [the ship's velocity] comes to [the speed of light], the closer tau comes to zero". This is the crux of the book’s science, there is far more but I’ll just recommend you to read the book (and/or Wikipedia) for yourself to find the rest.

And the night followed day, And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside

Okay, in the book there are fifty, neatly in line with the 50/500 rule of a species put forward by Franklin and Soule, which says a short-term effective population size (Ne) of 50 is needed to prevent an unacceptable rate of inbreeding. This also means that there needs to be a lot of relationships, and the partnering of all the people on the ship, with the attendant effects on the moral of people on the ship and the way it is handled forms another key strand in the book, which is played beautifully with the other factors. The information's conveyance is also interesting, coming from a mix of dialogue between characters and commentary from the writer.

For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Ne'er looked back, never feared, never cried.

One of the key factors in the voyage is that, due to the Tau effect, the world is guaranteed to change behind them and the people they used to know will change or die, as will the cultures and lives they once knew. The ways that members of the crew act to keep themselves active and the mission going forward without sliding into reflective misery is a triumph of the book and a marvelous study in human nature. This becomes particularly important after the accident described later.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Ok, this chorus is largely irrelevant to the review; however it’s rather pretty, isn’t it? And one of the touching scenes (Spoiler!) is the Russian engineer breaking down in tears as the last contact with earth arrives, bringing a cradle song from his childhood.

In the year of '39
Came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day.
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born,

This is where the journey should have ended, as the exploration ends and a new colony of earth is formed in a neighboring galaxy with contact with Earth re-established, albeit with some distance lag.

However, something goes awry when the ship hits a forming nebula, locking the engines in the acceleration position with no ability to disengage them without losing the fields that prevent the ship being shredded by radiation. This means that the crew must take desperate decisions on what to do as the ship’s Tau grows ever lower and both the time and distance from earth rise.

Though their hearts so heavily weigh.
For the earth is old and grey
To a new home we'll away,
But my love this cannot be,
For so many years have gone
Though I'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.

With the engines damaged and the world they knew getting further and further away, the crew’s moods and relationships are tested to the extreme, portrayed beautifully in the book as they look for answers to keep themselves occupied and for a way to stop the ship enough to finally land on a planet before they all age too far to start afresh or the universe winds to its end. “What is man, that he should outlive his god?”

So, what can I say? With a deep scientific aspect to the plot, it can be slightly hard to grasp in places. However, the human element in the book is superb, and there’s a wonderful blend of science, humor, romance, action and raw humanity in the face of adversity. I cannot help but recommend this great book, recommended for the 1971 Hugo Award for best novel but beaten by Ringworld, another masterwork to be reviewed here on SFF Masterworks in the near future. And on that note, I shall leave you with the last few haunting lines of 39’.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away?
Don't you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand,
For my life
Still ahead.
Pity me.

1 comment:

  1. How apt that you use Queen's '39 to illustrate the power of Poul Anderson's Tau Zero! Each mirrors the other in capturing the impact of the esoteric physics of relativity upon the humans subjected to its effects.

    Since the original short story was written, cosmologists seem to have ruled out the positively curved, closed universe necessary to the outcome of Tau Zero. Rather than slowing toward an eventual collapse, the universe appears to be increasing its rate of expansion. Its geometry is either flat (zero curvature) or negatively curved.

    Current science holds that it's flat within a half percent margin of error, so we can readily imagine an alternate universe that has a small POSITIVE curvature. In that universe, Anderson's premise in Tau Zero would hold. What a ride that would be!