A novel of its time

Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons
Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons

Poul Anderson Tau Zero
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2006 (1970)

A few centuries hence fifty specialists, twenty five of either gender, set out on a journey to the star Beta Virginis to colonise a new planet. Their transport is the Leonora Christine, an interstellar spaceship powered by a Bussard ramjet, capable of accelerating to near light speed (tau zero). Just before their halfway point, while still accelerating, disaster strikes with damage to the propulsion, meaning that the craft will continue its acceleration and not only miss its target but potentially never stop. How do the crew cope, and do they survive?

James Blish is quoted as having judged this “the ultimate hard science fiction novel”, and though we now know that much of the technology, especially the ramjet propulsion, has been either discredited or outdated since the book version was published in 1970 (it was based on Anderson’s earlier short story called To Outlive Eternity), there is certainly a lot of science in it; not surprising as Anderson was a physics graduate before he turned to fiction. More recently, the discovery of extrasolar planets or exoplanets in orbit around distant suns continues apace, so that much of the story is plausible, though the idea of interstellar space containing enough hydrogen to provide propulsion and force-field protection for the ship is now regarded as unfeasible. Still, as a plot device the ramjet and its technical potential provide the main mechanisms to push the story forward.

If the science in this science fiction tale has dated, what of the fiction? The idea of a kind of space ark, boldly going where none have gone before, is a cliché in SF, though these potential settlers (almost going in two by two) have personally volunteered and come through a selection procedure, including psychological profiling, to determine their expertise, physicality and team-building capabilities. A space ark treatment which I recently enjoyed was Ursula Le Guin’s novella Paradises Lost, which appeared in her collection The Birthday of the World, and it too explored the social interaction of the crew, though in a more anthropological and impersonal way and over several generations. Anderson preferred to shine the searchlight on the occasionally fraught relationships of some two dozen named individuals, focusing on about a dozen, with special attention given to two: the ‘constable’ of the ship, Charles Reymont and first officer Ingrid Lindgren. The action revolves around these two, especially Reymont, and as the Constable is given the lion’s share of attention it’s hard not to assume the man shares many of the author’s own characteristics.

We meet Reymont at the opening of the book, and it is clear that this logical, rather cold man, seemingly self-contained and single-minded, is going to be the strong individual who will hold things together when the going gets tough. Though theoretically his specialism on board ship is security, his ability to judge human strengths and weakness and act upon those insights puts him in a dominant position, the de facto captain. For a wordsmith and linguist like Anderson, the choice of names for this slightly unsympathetic hero is significant: Charles is derived from a Germanic root for ‘man’, while Reymont (more familiar to us in the form Raymond) means counsellor or protector, both of which are roles that Reymont assumes. As rey is Spanish for ‘king’, it’s also clear that Reymont is being touted as monarch apparent if the crew ever make landfall, though given the stresses of the voyage we may wonder if he will abdicate if journey’s end is ever reached. The other dozen or so characters are mainly ciphers, weak types who are all too easily manipulated (both mentally and physically) by Reymont over the years. Present-day readers are often put off by Anderson’s sidelining of the female crew members, though given that he was writing this novel in the late sixties the surprise is that he gives them any individuality at all. The highest ranking woman officer, the only female officer in fact, is Ingrid Lindgren, Raymont’s partner for a significant portion of the book, and even then she mostly sees her role as a human resources manager.

The overarching trope is of course the perilous voyage, and echoes of literary and historic odysseys, implicit and explicit, might make the reader wonder about possible links. Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale Moby-Dick is mentioned at one point, though only as a criticism of the futility of journeying on into the unknown. It’s tempting to speculate that the name of the vessel, Leonora Christine, may be a deliberate evocation of the Mary Celeste, found abandoned in the Atlantic, though it’s equally possible that Leonora is inspired by the heroine of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio (who rescues her husband from certain death in prison, along with other political prisoners) and that the name Christine is drawn from the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Queen Christina of Sweden (a choice no doubt reflecting Anderson’s own Scandinavian ancestry).

At one point, Arnold Schoenberg’s vocal composition Gurrelieder is evoked. This vast and intense Wagnerian work (the score calls for four hundred musicians) centres on the legend of the medieval Danish king Valdemar, torn apart by the murder of his mistress by his wife, who subsequently leads the spectral Wild Hunt around the castle at Gurre until the sun rises. Anderson’s evocation of this work is deliberate: like Schoenberg’s Waldemar, Reymont is involved with two women, Ingrid and Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling; and like the Danish king Reymont must feel he is leading a wild goose chase around the universe until some cosmic sunrise is reached. Ironically, in view of the Gurrelieder‘s vast instrumental and vocal resources, Ingrid is accompanying herself on medieval lute while she sings a plaintive solo from this musical work.

The incorporation of little details like this gives Anderson’s “hard SF novel” a human and cultural depth even as it looks forward to the far future and the unimaginable reaches of the cosmos. A novel of its time, Tau Zero still has the power to impress in the early 21st century.

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8 thoughts on “A novel of its time

  1. Now that there is serious thought given towards a one- way mission to Mars, it would be interesting to visit some literary works on the subject. How would people cope knowing they were forever cut from their planet?
    Could one remain sane in a spaceship hurtling endlessly through space? Given that “island fever” attacks even those who love island living, these are the types of questions I think about when the subject of space travel comes up.

    1. Psychological profiling is no more an accurate predictor of the future than Hari Seldon’s psychohistory was in Asimov’s Foundation novels. And that I think is a point that Anderson is obtusely making in this novel. In a situation already fraught with dangers you can only guess how individuals may react when the unforeseen happens, never guarantee it.

      And, as you say, what happens when you have time on your hands and you are cut off from your societal and biological matrix, rushing off on what is effectively a prison ship to god knows where? The Apollo 13 astronauts coped extraordinarily well because there was a known goal they could work towards which was time-constrained; with a Mars mission those SMART criteria are stretched exponentially should problems arise — and they will.

      Which is a long-winded way of agreeing with you, Sari, sorry!

  2. “a one-way mission to Mars”? The idea is terrifying — it makes me want to cling to terra firma (as a friend used to say, the more firma, the less terror). I grew up in a house of Sci-Fi readers, so P Anderson’s name is familiar, but I’ve never read anything by him.

  3. During my SF phase I enjoyed Anderson, but missed this one. It seems I would enjoy going back to it. It has often occurred to me that the writers of the quality of Heinlein, Asimov etc deserve a far higher position on the ‘literature’ spectrum than is customarily accorded.

    1. I don’t know. I enjoyed Asimov when I was younger, especially his Black Widow tec novellas, but struggled through his last work Forward the Foundation and have stalled on his first Robot novel — even as a historic piece I find it turgid.

      1. Haven’t read Aziomov in decades, but remember enjoying all the Robot ones. I recall being highly impressed at the foolproof nature of his Laws of Robotics – and then amazed by the loopholes that nevertheless emerged!

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