Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, is a hard science fiction novel from 1970 (the novel was expanded from a 1967 short story, To Outlive Eternity). The characterizations and dialogue are a bit pulpy for my tastes, but Anderson’s imagination is wonderful, and the science is interesting, if somewhat dated (e.g.: in 1978 Thomas Heppenheimer demonstrated the design flaw in Bussard’s ramjet design: when charged particles decelerate, bremsstralung radiation is produced, and the losses associated with the bremsstrahlung process are massive compared to any power that would be produced by the Bussard ramjet. The Bussard design may be ideal for braking a starship, which is, ironically, the problem encountered in Tau Zero). Before reading Tau Zero, I hadn’t read any of Anderson’s works in a long time, and I don’t have any particular memories of his novels, but I recall being fond of some of his shorter works; in particular, Goat Song and Call Me Joe (which should have been given credit by James Cameron for his movie Avatar).
In Tau Zero, twenty-five men and twenty-five women are sent on a reconnaissance/colonization mission aboard a starship (the Leonora Christine) that is propelled by a Bussard ramjet. The ship suffers damage en route and it is impossible to decelerate and stop the vessel at the destination solar system. The crew decides to keep accelerating until they reach an empty portion of space, where they can effect repairs and then find another suitable planet for colonization. They continue to accelerate and the time dilation effect — the relative time on-board ship compared to the Earth they left — becomes ever greater. Everything they left behind — even the rest of the human race and their home solar system — no longer exists.
Psychological problems develop: an iconic, pulpy, alpha-male takes control and the first-officer, a woman, finds the need to sleep with a couple of men in order to alleviate their ennui. I’d prefer more thoughtful leadership in a novel depicting the future; old-fashioned roles are easy solutions for an author.
Tau Zero is an easy book to read and it contains some interesting concepts, but I found it a bit too pulpy for my tastes, and the ending is convenient, but implausible.