Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson


Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.


It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as the novel, and the ship, accelerates, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but the laws of this new universe are, it is strongly implied, will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.

This entry was posted in Classic Science Fiction, Letters of Marque, movies, Opinion, Science, Science Fact, Science Fiction, space, Space Exploration, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.