DNF Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson #VintageSciFiMonth

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Genre : Science Fiction

Publisher : Gollancz

Length : 190 pages

Format : Paperback

Rating : 1 star

Publication Year: 1970

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION

The epic voyage of the spacecraft Leonora Christine will take her and her fifty-strong crew to a planet some thirty light-years distant. But, because the ship will accelerate to close to the speed of light, for those on board subjective time will slow and the journey will be of only a few years’ duration.

Then a buffeting by an interstellar dustcloud changes everything. The ship’s deceleration system is damaged irreperably and soon she is gaining velocity. When she attains light-speed, tau zero itself, the disparity between ship-time and external time becomes almost impossibly great. Eons and galaxies hurtle by, and the crew of the Leonora Christine speeds into the unknown.

BOOK REVIEW

The Leonora Christine is a spaceship crewed by fifty people: 25 men and 25 women. The ship is supposed to reach a planet 30 light years away but, because science, for the crew the journey will only be five years long. However, as you may expect, something goes wrong and the ship deceleration system is damaged. The Leonora Christine is now gaining velocity, attaining lightspeed and it is now uncontrollably flying through eons and galaxies.

I don’t usually rate or review books that I don’t finish but, Tau Zero was awful enough that I will gladly make an exception to my own rule. I need to get this book out of my system and I believe a rant review will help me with that! 😀

I put the book down after 50 pages but I struggled with it from the first chapter. I didn’t expect to cringe intensely a few times in a matter of pages but, Poul Anderson did that. Congrats Poul, you managed the impossible!

After a few chapters, I decided that it was time to pull out the sticky notes to mark passages that I found particularly offensive and in the fifty pages I read, I had 7 sticky notes. I wonder if I would have run out by the end of the book but, for respect for my own sanity, I will never found out.

A few days ago, I posted a discussion post titled Should We Read the SF Canon? and, Tau Zero is the text book example of why I’m reluctant to read older science fiction books. For reasons unknown to me, this book is seen as classic and Gollancz decided to include it in its Masterworks line. I’m sure Tau Zero is not the only awful book in the Masterworks line but still, to see it in a collection that also includes The Dispossessed and Ammonite doesn’t sit right with me.

First of all, it’s not even a good science fiction story (or at least, it isn’t now). The technology babble hasn’t aged well at all and it is frankly unreadable. I tried my best to focus on the many dry tech speeches but my eyes just glossed over them all. This book is blurbed by James Blish as “the ultimate hard science novel” and shit, maybe it was in the 70’s but it certainly doesn’t hold up. If someone had recommended me this book as one the best hard science novel ever, I probably would have stayed cleared of the sub-genre forever.

However, I would have excused the boring tech stuff if I had any interest in the plot or the characters but, our dear Poul managed to push all my angry buttons in a matter of pages. The misogyny in this book is intense. Sure, at least Anderson decided to include women in a novel about space travel (#Feminism), hell, they even represent half of the crew! What a progressive author! Or, not.

In the first chapter we understand that women and men are present in equal numbers because they are supposed to pair up and have babies (!!!) and, all the women are looking forward to choosing their male companions according to their physique and/or skills (!!!). Some of them are looking forward to this wonderful prospect so much that they decide to seduce the men of their choice even before the launch of the ship (!!!).

Of course, one of the main male characters, Charles Reymont, a security agent and de facto leader of the expedition, is so good at his job that all of the women want him. Even if he is a bit of an asshole, he’s competent and muscular so, of course he gets all the attention of the “females”. I can’t pinpoint why exactly but I couldn’t not read this as an obvious Anderson’s self-insert. He spends way too much energy describing the bodies of the women bathing in the pool of the spacecraft for it to be innocent (yes, the Leonora Christine has a swimming pool, a night club and lots of alcohol, because, space-travel! 🙄)

However, I realize that I have been ranting about this masterpiece for a while now and that I have yet to highlight my favorite quotes… You’re welcome. 🙂

“I’m not bad at my work. But it’s easy for a woman to rise fast in space. She’s in demand. And my job on Leonora Christine will be essentially executive. I’ll have more to do with… well, human relations… than astronautics” (p.12)

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson

And according to Anderson, human relations are: drinking, comforting men and having sex with them. I didn’t know that they were requirements for first officers but, now you know more about space-travel…!

“She leaned forward, laying a hand over his free one on the table. “I was thinking ahead,” she told him. “Twenty-five men and twenty-five women. Five years in a metal shell. Another five years if we turn back immediately. Even with antisenescence treatments, a decade is a big piece out of a life.” He nodded. “And of course we’ll stay to explore,” she went on. “If that third planet is habitable, we’ll stay to colonize—forever—and we’ll start having children. Whatever we do, there are going to be liaisons. We’ll pair off.” (p.16)

TAU ZERO BY POUL ANDERSON

Because of course, a woman must have children, it’s scientific! And what a wonderful coincidence that there is an even number of men and women on the ship!

“Through the wetness he smelled live girlflesh” (p. 31)

TAU ZERO BY POUL ANDERSON

🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢

“You’re healthy in the head, Emma. What you need is to come out of your shell. Mix with your shipmates. Care about them. Get out of your cabin for a while and into a man’s.” Glassgold flushed. “I don’t hold with those practices.” 

Chi-Yuen’s brows lifted. “Are you a virgin? We can’t afford that, if we’re to start a new race on Beta Three. The genetic material is scarce at best.” (p. 37)

TAU ZERO BY POUL ANDERSON

What?! You’re a woman and you don’t want children? Shut up and go find a man!


So… Yeah, not great. After 50 pages, I wanted to bleach my brain, burn the book and forget about it entirely.

Not recommended. At all.

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Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

Vintage Science Fiction Month is a month-long event celebrating science fiction works published/produced before 1979. The event is hosted by the wonderful Andrea from the blog The Little Red Reviewer.

23 thoughts on “DNF Book Review: Tau Zero by Poul Anderson #VintageSciFiMonth

    1. The aim of the expedition is not too colonize the planet (at least not yet) but to see if it’s possibly habitable or not. The fifty people are scientists, not Adam and Eve. If they went on the expedition with the aim of having babies, why not but, I think that playing shotgun with partners even before the launch is stupid.
      Also, some women are not in fact, “willing to couple for that upfront”, and when they are not, they are pressured to do so by other women and called “abnormal” when it wasn’t a requirement in the first place to find a man and have babies.
      Also, it’s not a point brought up by the novel but, if they were to colonize the planet then, 50 people is not nearly enough people to do so and have a big pool of genetic material. If they want to colonize the planet then they will have to bring other people from Earth, they can’t rely on 25 men and 25 women to do so.
      Also, this idea doesn’t make sense because it’s not even sure the radiations are not going to turn them sterile during the journey, making the whole coupling thing even dumber.
      I agree with you that, if it was precised from the beginning that it if it was actually the goal to have children, then having stable couples at the beginning is probably a good choice but it’s not the case. Sure, there’s an even number of men and women but they don’t know each other, forcing them together is extremely dumb.
      So yeah, I still think this novel is a piece of misogynistic garbage.

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      1. If it is possible yes. But they don’t know fi they will survive the journey or not or if the planet is even habitable or not. Also, since one of the female characters is offended when people tell her that one of her missions is indeed to have babies, she isn’t too happy about the prospect, making me doubt that the intent of the mission was clear from the beginning.

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      2. Ok, you have a point for this one then, I must have been too busy furiously rolling my eyes to caught that! 😂 I understood it more as a “what are you saying, I want a stable marriage but I can’t find it on the ship because everyone is too busy having sex with everyone to find a suitable husband” so I read that more as a critic of the mission than anything else.

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      3. I really think you stretch the meaning of the word misogyny here. The novel doesn’t display hatred towards women, nor prejudice towards them.

        I agree the sexual stuff is a bit odd and outdated, and it’s not realistic to populate a planet like this – they should have enlisted couples indeed – but I get more sixties free love vibes from this, rather than hatred or prejudice.

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      4. We have to agree to disagree then… 🙂
        I don’t see hatred but I do see prejudice. The fact that the role of the first officer is to be good at human relations makes me scoff especially when we learn that she is basically there to comfort men who feel depressed in space.
        I have a perspective of a 2021 reader, sure I try to put the book in its context but, while I don’t see hatred of women (at least, there are women in the book), I don’t like the way they are represented as hysterical, here to fight over men and there to do “human relation” when they are supposed to be competent scientists.
        Maybe I am too easily offended but still, I don’t think you will be able to change the way I feel about the book.

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      5. No I fully agree it’s outdated to a certain degree, and I won’t be able to change your mind.

        That said, I’m 45 pages in now, and didn’t find any hysteria or fighting over men.

        Agreed on the caring part though, that’s stereotypical, but I don’t see writing stereotype necessarily as prejudiced, there’s an important distinction, generally speaking I think an average woman is more caring than an average man, and that resulted in the existing stereotype. One can debate the nature/nurture origin of that obviously, but seen from the 1968 perspective when this book was written, I wouldn’t call that prejudice. Also, I don’t think being a competent scientist excludes being attracted to others and getting into relational drama – that in itself is a stereotype of what a scientist is. I feel a few of the women portrayed are portrayed as the opposite of dainty or feeble, so for me Anderson so far can’t be accussed of writing women fully stereotypical.

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  1. *women, obviously. It was my Dutch autocorrect that occasionally messes with me when I type English.

    The same goes for the even amount of men and women, what would you propose given the ships mission?

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