Thursday, 4 April 2013

Poul Anderson - Tau Zero (1970)

   There is a cliche about hard science fiction, that it concentrates on the science aspect at the expense of the character work necessary to make compelling fiction. This is frequently unfair to a genre that is at its heart about the human condition - great SF is resonant because, however weird and wonderful the world the author creates, the characters still reflect something recongisable back to the reader. This can allow SF writers to ask daring questions about the directions society may be heading in, but equally it can mean an enthusiastic and gifted writer can get bogged down in the technical details. Personally, I don't tend to read SF books based on their 'hardness'; as long as the ideas and characters are compelling I'm willing to allow some pretty flagrant flaunting of the laws of physics. However, I do appreciate authors doing their research, and if the writer can teach you about a new aspect of science whilst speculating entertainingly on how people will use that technology and how it will affect people's lives, you have the makings of a compelling story. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is a fantastic example of hard science fiction taken to the level of high art. Robinson's research on everything from the physics and bioengeneering necessary to colonise Mars to pertinent aspects of psychology for space travel is endlessly fascinating in and of itself, but it's coupled to a complex and tightly woven narrative about personal and social change, told in evocative and lyrical prose. The Mars Trilogy refutes that old cliche about hard SF, but if you wanted a text-book counter-example to support it, you could do worse than point to Poul Anderson's 'Tau Zero'. 

The equation's on the cover because it's the main character.
   'Tau Zero' is a thoroughly frustrating read. It's built around a fascinating concept - the characters travel in Bussard ramjet, a spaceship which is able to accelerate to just below the speed of light, which allows it to travel the vast distances of light years between the stars within a relative shipboard time of a number of years.  The closer you get to the speed of light, the slower relative time passes for you compared to outside the ship. Or at least that's as well as I understand the concept. 

Our hero's first appearance
   Anderson is really good with describing these concepts in a simple and engaging way. Or at least I presume so, for all I know he may be grossly oversimplifying, but I'm willing to take this on trust. And the book takes this core idea to a very interesting place. During their travel, the ship's deceleration mechanism is damaged, which means that the ship has to keep on accelerating, driving tau further and further down, and so  over the course of a number of years relative time, the ship outlives the entire collapse and rebirth of the universe. 
   This is a wonderfully compelling idea. The concept of relativity is a difficult one to intellectualise, and there is a wonderful sense of vertigo induced by that unimaginable amount of time and vast interstellar distances, all shooting by in the blink of an eye. There is something both tragic and heroic about this little ship, this small pocket of surviving humanity hurtling onward into infinity, long after the very galaxy that birthed her has dwindled and died. Plus we see that Anderson is very much interested in the human element. He is concerned with the physical and psychological toll that such a flight into unknown space and time would have on the people themselves. All the elements are here for a really compelling tale. So what goes wrong?
   There are two main problems here - the characters themselves, and how the author treats these characters. Anderson's ship is populated by a diverse, international crew of astronauts and scientists, both male and female. So far, so good. Unfortunately, much of the characterisation is very broad. I'm sure the intention here was to depict a future where minds from all over the world work together in harmony for the good of science, as Kim Stanley Robinson does very effectively in 'Red Mars', but in 'Tau Zero' many of the characters are so broad as to be stereotypes. Also, there is a tendency for the characters most important to the plot to be American or European; several of the scientists with more exotic sounding names only appear in scenes when the author feels like we need more speaking parts to share the exposition. 
   And oh, the exposition. Being a fan of SF, I actually quite like exposition, and am all for a quick paragraph explaining everything nicely and concisely when otherwise you would be stumbling around and hinting at things that later wind up being crucially important to the plot. Unless you're, say, Gene Wolfe, and creating this kind of ambiguity is your intention. But Anderson deals in physical certainties, and boy do we struggle with some truly clunky pieces of dialogue, where characters explain things to other characters who already know these things for the benefit of the audience. You could design a good drinking game around the different variations of 'As You Know, Bob' dialogue he uses throughout the book.
   Then we have the characters themselves. Our protagonist is Constable Charles Reymont, a square-jawed, masculine, no-nonsense kind of guy, who, once the crisis occurs, manipulates everyone so he can basically run the ship, because someone has to keep a level head, especially with all these women faffing around with their emotions. Other characters occasionally grumble about his heavy-handed methods, but the narrative and the author go out of their way to justify every one of Reymont's actions, to the extent that he comes across as somewhat Mary Sue-ish. This could have been made more bearable by having some of the supporting characters have stronger viewpoints or motivations, and allowing the conflict between these characters to play out. Again, Kim Stanley Robinson does this very well in 'Red Mars', where all of the characters have their own motivations and differing political beliefs, and no one really gets favourable treatment from the author. Indeed, 'Red Mars' has a character, Frank Chalmers, who resembles Reymont both physically and in character, and in the course of the book his Machievellian attempts to gain more power and influence over his fellow shipmates and colonists very much comes back to bite him in the ass. It's hard not to wonder if Robinson had read 'Tau Zero' and written the character of Frank Chalmers as a direct response to Charles Reymont. In 'Salt' by Adam Roberts, the central conflict between the two groups of colonists begins on the ship, and the author is able to explore the motivations and the greivances on both sides of the conflict; indeed one of the strengths of Roberts' book is that it explores the hypocrisy and narrowsightedness of both sides as human beings rather than supporting one political agenda over another. Intershipmate tension is a great method to ratchet up the conflict in SF, but by pandering to his favourite character Anderson doesn't really get the most out of it.
   And then there's Anderson's treatment of the female characters, which is just lousy. All the female characters are nominally scientists, which is nice, but the narrative treats them either as rewards or incentives for the important male scientists, or producers of babies. There is actually a scene where the female First Officer basically has to have sex with the brilliant physicist to stop him from having a nervous breakdown, because they need him as a functional member of the crew. There's another scene where a woman selfishly jeopardises the safety of the ship  by secretly allowing herself to get pregnant. It's clear that Anderson shares his protagonist's old fashioned casual misogyny, and one gets the impression the only reason either of them tolerate the presence of women on the ship is because, when the Leonora Christine finally touches down, they're going to have to restart the human race somehow.    
   I found 'Tau Zero' an exasperating read. Here you have a truly engaging concept, and an author with the intelligence and enthusiasm to do the concept justice, stymied by uninspiring writing and casual misogyny. It's a real shame, because there were sections of the book I enjoyed very much, and I still think there is the core of something very good here, but by the end of the book I was struggling to engage with the fate of the Leonora Christine, because, as much as I'm always up for watching something circumnavigate all of space and time, I no longer cared what happened to the people inside that ship. 

1 comment:

  1. Informative review, which I caught on WWEnd. I've been reading a lot of older SF lately, and "casual misogyny" seems to come with the territory more often than not. In order to be able to enjoy the other aspects of the stories, I try to look at it with amusement rather than condemnation, but sometimes it's just too much. It's interesting to me that a literature engaged with speculating about future possibilities, had little interest in considering possible changes in gender dynamics.

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