Reading Log: Tau Zero (Poul Anderson)

Paul Anderson’s Tau Zero has been on my reading list for a long time. As in almost 25 years. It lingered unread for no particular reason other than never discovering the proverbial ‘round tuit.’ Having finally read Anderson’s oft-recommended tale of a fateful journey to the stars (and beyoooooond), I’m left with mixed emotions.

The good: it’s easy to see why Tau Zero was an influential novel. The science is hard—I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it’s at least not reliant on the physics-defying magic of most interstellar stories—and the idea fantastic (in both senses of the word): a small colony’s voyage to a nearby star system turns into a potentially endless voyage when their ship’s deceleration mechanism fails.

The bad: Tau Zero just isn’t very well written. The characters are thinner than cardboard and, though perhaps reflective of the time, the women on the ship are more sexual objects than people. Even when they occupy positions of power, they mostly do so through their willingness to have sexual relationships or otherwise engage in sexual politics. The men aren’t much better, being stereotyped stand-ins seemingly placed merely to forward the story. And the problem with the unbelievable dynamic of the relationships begins before the ship launches from earth, so this isn’t about how life aboard a one-way (due to time dilation) journey changes people…they are barely people to begin with.

The worst: the ending—an ending that demands a rather flexible interpretation of the science that until then had informed the novel—not only represents an annoying swerve into mysticism and an accompanying epiphany, but feels absolutely tacked-on to boot. Given that this anemic bookend sits opposite another wasted opportunity at the beginning to dig into the extreme, post World War III political situation occasionally and conveniently alluded to, the unfulfilled potential is almost criminal.

I’m not disappointed I read Anderson’s novel—it’s a quick read that has an important role in the history of science fiction—but I am sad that, historical importance aside, it was disappointing in almost every other way.

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