Tau Zero – Poul Anderson – Book Review

As a much younger person I collected the Asimov non-fiction books and reviews of his books and short stories, he was quoted in one of them as rating this book, Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, as being excellent, not least because its science was up-to-date and the best known at that point.  That’s always stuck with me but I’d never found the book until it turned up in the SF Masterworks list of publications in 2006.

The idea is simple, if you have a ship that accelerates for half your journey, what happens if you then can’t stop it and decelerate at the halfway point?  The answer, as posited in this book, is that you will get nearer and nearer to the speed of light until you finally reach Tau Zero, Tau being the rate that time is dilated for external observers.   Without spoiling too much, the crew of 50, half male, half female, have to deal with a future of either dying instantaneously if they hit a star (or lots of dust) or continuing an eternal journey.

I really like this book, its dark, psychological and tense.  The main character “Charles Reymont” is the constable, reponsible for keeping order both during the journey and while they are setting up the new colony.  When this falls apart and the project is abandoned while they try to find a solution to the problems they have, he becomes the only stable, positive influence on the rest of the crew.

Naturally, with this being a Poul Anderson book, the majority of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, they turn up, have their scene and then wander off again.  Reymont himself suffers his own stress while helping others out and a couple of the female crew help him along.  This is a relatively adult book for 1960s sci-fi, there are bedroom scenes, infidelity, arguments and (soft) violence, its not Barbarella or Alien, but its not a Lucky Starr kids book either.

The reason for this book though is the science, Anderson drops out of the story a number of times to explain the nut and bolts of the Bussard Drive (I guess todays version would be the Ion Drive, low power but continuous drive), time dilation and how the ship is dealing with stresses it was never designed for.  If you liked the Appendices in Lord Of The RIngs as much as the book, or get excited by the technical details of your new phone, this will be a book you will appreciate.  It’s hard science fiction at its’ best, nice and techy and doesnt end up with a superhero saving the day.







Philip K Dick – A Scanner Darkly – Book Review

Philip K Dick - A Scanner Darkly - Cover

Verdict – This is genuinely a really affecting book, read it in as close to one hit as you can.  Highly recommended.

I admit it, I put off reading Philip K Dick books for many many years due to thinking he was a pulp writer.  I was wrong.  A Scanner Darkly relates the darkness surrounding drug addiction, hopelessness and focus that Dick experienced in his young-adulthood.  He was an amphetamine addict for many years, although he maintains that this was the first novel he wrote while not on something.

His was a life of turmoil, 5 marriages, 5 divorces, periods of homelessness, depression, paranoia, suicide attempts (once crashing a car on purpose with a wife as a passenger), plus delusions.  The work that comes out of this is, to say the least, unstable.

You can buy this book at amazon from this link.  I have added some links at the end of this page to more information about the author and the book.

A Scanner Darkly is wonderful, an immersive look at life as an addict of Substance D (otherwise known as Death), and large portions of the book are devoted to Bob Arctur’s search for new supplies of tabs.  Substance D is incredibly addictive and over time, overuse will damage the link between the two halves of the brain.  We follow Bob’s journey through slowly succumbing to this impairment, knowing its happening, but being addicted and unable to stop.  There are some heartbreaking sections where friends and acquaintances succumb along the way, plus of course, we can see Bob’s descent as it happens.

Alongside this, Bob is also an undercover policeman (Fred), running surveillance on both himself and his housemates.  There are several routes through which this conflict manifests itself.  His superiors take precautions about limiting his addiction, although he never does receive any actual help, as they need him to be an addict to protect his cover.

With this being a Philip K Dick novel, there are of course various background themes that complicate and confuse the people in the narrative.  As a policeman, Fred has a clinical view of the house and his actions in it.  As his brain deteriorates, he becomes less able to identify himself as being on both sides of the surveillance cameras.  There are a cast of people who pass through the house during the book and while Bob the addict genuinely reacts to events as they happen, the policeman watching the same events manages to come up with unrelated interpretations based on the same information.

Where this book wins for me is the speed with which Bob and Fred part ways and the believable mental processes both go through during their decline.  It is bleak and funny, harsh and loving, life and death, often in the same page.  There are monologues recounting the effects of addiction and an Afterword/Author’s Note listing real people that Dick lost during his early 1960s/70s addiction.

I love this book, Dick predicts entire communities ravaged by addiction and takes the opportunity to explain, although not excuse, the same addiction.  He makes it seem like a logical place to be, assuming Substance D is a choice that its OK to make.

The film adaptation in 2006 is either loved or hated, but very much worth a look.  A lot of the criticism of it is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, which if the reviewer has not read the book, is probably right.  The sense of dislocation, paranoia, bleakness faithfully comes across and the rotoscoping (look it up, great effect) shows off the down-played, flat colour performances of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder, plus other celebrities in cameos.  It’s a page by page performance of the book with a great cast and while it lost money, you can tell its a labour of love by the Director, Richard Linklater.

More information about Philip K Dick can be found here, and the Wikipedia entry for the book here.