My mission to get to know some of the masters of science fiction continues and although it’s barely begun I consider myself very fortunate to have read Poul Anderson’s Tao Zero. First published in 1970 and now part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks (reissued 2006), it is a little short of 200 pages in length and yet the story has such a depth and scope to it, it is in every other way a substantial, hefty piece of literature.
Tao Zero tells the story of a starship, the Leonora Christine, and the 25 couples aboard who set out in the 23rd century to colonise a planet 30 light years from earth. These men and women, with their different skills and personalities, are setting out to establish a new frontier, leaving everything behind and with little hope of returning to earth, at least during the lives of their loved ones. The clock of the cosmos means that journeys through space are also journeys through time. It is supposed to take the ship five years to reach the planet, thanks to the forces that reduce Tao to zero – matter is used to create and increase acceleration, sending the ship speeding through space and time while, inside the vessel, lives continue on a human clock. But when the Leonora Christine encounters a young nebula, the catastrophic collision destroys the decelerators and sets the ship off with infinte acceleration into the universe. With no way to stop, the ship, ever increasing in matter, passes through millennia and galaxies.
There are two perspectives to the story. One is outside the ship, giving us the background to the science, charting for us the path of the vessel through the universe and counting down the vast ages of time. Within this universe, so economically and quite beautifully described, we have the story of the 50 men and women aboard who, already faced with the stress of leaving earth and their families, now have to deal with a lifetime in transit from one star system to another, knowing that so much time has passed that not only all their loved ones on earth have died but even that the earth and its solar system are now destroyed.
Each of the crew must deal with their condition in his or her own way. The reality of spending a lifetime confined in a vessel with the same people, the relationships formed and broken, the desire to continue the human race while knowing that they are its end, the need to search for solutions and keep self-control, the attraction of an easy mass suicide – these questions and dilemmas face everyone from the captain downwards.
The brevity of the novel means that we don’t get to know many of the characters in much depth. Instead there is a focus on a handful of key personnel and friendships and animosities. Their problem-solving exists side by side with their desire to form lasting relationships as the physical and psychological distance from earth increases.
There is a fair amount of science here and I’m not going to pretend that I understood all of it or even most of it – I still couldn’t tell you what Tao is. However, my lack of scientific background didn’t impede my enjoyment of this compelling book. It’s a work of art painted with exquisite sentences; the universe it presents is a thing of beauty and the resilience of humanity is inspirational. My only complaint would be the length – the end felt relatively contrived because there weren’t enough pages given to it. Nevertheless, Tao Zero is one of those books that will stay with you for its ideas and storytelling – how would I deal with such a situation? – and I have no doubt it’s one to which I’ll return.