Tau Zero — Poul Anderson (1970)


Publisher: Berkley Medallion

First Berkley Medallion Edition, 1976

Cover Art: Richard Powers

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Dick’s hands shook with the effort of tightening the final lug nut on his brand-new 1976 Packard. Just his luck, he had run over a nail as he pulled it into his garage for the first time. His eagerness to show off his purchase around the neighborhood was now shaken, as the spare tire was slightly smaller than the rest. It gave the front of the car a queer lean, as though it were puzzling over a difficult question. He wiped his hands on a yellowing shammy cloth, and, absentmindedly, wiped the sweat from his brow with the same, leaving a dirty streak across his forehead. Suddenly, a scream sounded from within the house. Dick, fearing for the worst, grabbed the tire iron and rushed to see what was the matter. In the living room, his three-year-old daughter sat on the rug, in tears. “Daddy!” she wailed. “Daddy, there’s a spider’s web in the corner!” With a sigh, and noticing that he had absentmindedly carried the shammy cloth in from the garage, Dick resigned himself to one of the lesser duties of fatherhood. There was, indeed, a spider’s web in the corner of the room, one with some freshly-caught prey struggling to escape. Dick took the shammy cloth and splattered the web against the wallpaper. To his chagrin, he then noticed the filth on the cloth, as it had left a dark streak on the wall next to the now-smooshed web. It was then that the phone rang. “Honey, Daddy needs to get the phone, so be quiet, okay? I killed the spiderweb, so just don’t look.” His daughter, sniffling, seemed temporarily satisfied. Dick picked up the phone and, before he could say hello, was greeted by the gruff voice of his employer. “Mr. Powers, your cover art for Tau Zero was due yesterday! If I don’t have a workable product on my desk by the end of the day, there will no longer be any place for you at Berkley Medallion!” At the sound of the connection being severed, Dick cast about the living room, his eyes resting on the recently befouled corner. “Sweetie,” he addressed his daughter, “could you go get Daddy’s camera?”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Tau Zero is a masterpiece of hard science fiction. Besides containing what I believe to be the Cadillac of technobabble, Anderson crafts a beautiful tale, oscillating between poetic science jargon and clever human interest. The jargon incorporates a good deal of honest-to-goodness relativity theory, which makes me smile, even if the science doesn’t ultimately make much sense—look, Anderson doesn’t shy away from explanation, which is more than you can say for most, and he elevates it to a romantic level of prose. There is real, sensical science there, too, explaining time dilation and other relativistic effects with, ultimately, great respect for the subject. Often, the human sections and the science sections are discrete, transitioning with no apparent connection between paragraphs, but this isn’t a bad thing. The intimate intersection between the subjects brings vitality to the narrative, and a uniqueness to the pacing that I found refreshing. Tau Zero is engaging, beautiful, and should top your to-devour-in-a-single-sitting list. Granted, that may be a ten hour sitting, but I managed it in two days and I can’t even read.

Rating: 9.9 Sexually-Promiscuous Swedes

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Why would your mom consent to having her crotch photographed for publication?
  • Aren’t those the things that live by the thousands on your eyebrows?
  • If I had splattered a few insects with this cover before taking pictures of it, would anybody have been the wiser? Mind-bending follow up—how do you know that I didn’t?

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