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Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

01/05/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Tau Zero in the USA - or Buy Tau Zero in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 187 page enlarged paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08258-8.

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Gollancz are re-issuing eight books as their 'Space Opera Collection'. Amongst these is Poul Anderson's 1970 novel 'Tau Zero'. The title refers the velocity formula and as Tau approaches zero, the nearer you are travelling to the speed of light.

The Leonora Christine is a science expedition starship in transit to the Beta Virginis star system, some thirty light years away. This isn't the first such trip and indeed, in this reality, people had returned to Earth from similar trips. On this occasion, the starship encounters an interstellar cloud which its bussard ram-jets absorbs and uses, accelerating them ever closer to the speed of light with no way to stop. Well, actually, they do discover the best way out of the galaxy when they don't take on any more interstellar fuel but that comes much later.

Much of the book deals with the problems on-board the Leonora Christine and how to get on with your life knowing that at relative speeds that nothing of what you left behind is there any more. These days, authors would probably make a book series out of this yet Poul Anderson managed to squeeze this in less than two hundred pages, focusing on only a few of the crew. Principally of these is that of Constable Charles Reymont.

Quite why you would need a police officer on-board might seem a little odd but he's there to maintain the peace and sort out squabbles and fights and keep everything calm. Portrayed as a bit of a cold fish and jobaholic, even Reymont faces the toils of his duties ensuring that the crew survives the hardships and musical relationships that go on. If anything, he sees himself as being the necessary scapegoat to issuing discipline to ensure the velvet glove belongs to the captain and his second-in-command.

It took me a couple chapters to get into this book when not much was really happening. Whether Anderson intended to send your mind to sleep a bit before disaster struck is hard to say but it didn't leave that much of an impression on me. Thirty years on, we'd have probably cut to the chase and then backtrack later but this is a different time. Likewise, Anderson focused on the problems of infinite speed and didn't, until nearer the end, focus on the problems of infinite mass albeit briefly. Then again, hind-sight is a wonderful thing.

'Tau Zero' is regarded as a classic and as pure Science Fiction, what to do when you can't stop your starship is one of a kind and in that respect deserves your attention and time to read.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 55 votes in the sci-fi charts

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