I finished reading Poul Anderson's science fiction novel TAU ZERO (1970), the other day. It was the first time I'd read this one and I enjoyed it. Originally published as a short story "To Outlive Eternity" in GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION in 1967, Anderson expanded his story into novel form in 1970. The book received a Hugo Award Nomination for Best Novel in 1971.
The story concerns the star ship Leonora Christine, a massive vessel designed to carry a crew of fifty people (twenty-five men and twenty-five women), to a planet in a distant star system. The plan is for the ship to steadily accelerate it's rate of speed during the first part of the voyage and then begin to gradually decelerate for the second part. But when the ship passes through a nebulina (a cloud of dust and gas) before reaching the halfway point, the crew discovers that they cannot repair the decelerator, nor can they turn off the accelerator.
The result is that the ship becomes a "Flying Dutchman" of space and time as it journeys deeper into the universe at an ever increasing rate of speed. The ship eventually move out into a starless void where the crew discovers that the universe has reached it's limit and is now beginning to collapse back into an immense block of proto matter which is set to explode in another "big bang" event, effectively creating a new universe. Will the ship and crew survive this journey beyond space and time?
Anderson focuses the story on a few members of the crew but his main protagonist is Charles Reymont, the Ship's Constable. He's cold, distant, unemotional and runs the ship with a firm but fair hand. He eventually becomes the de-facto leader of the crew when the ship's captain, Lars Telander, proves incapable of leading. Reymont is in love with Ingrid Lindgren, the Ship's First Officer but during the voyage, she rejects Reymont and takes up Boris Federoff, the Ship's Chief Engineer. Reymont then begins a relationship with Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, a planetologist.
All of this partner switching could easily devolve into soap opera but Anderson deftly balances the immense psychological stresses and strains the crew undergoes with the hard science of the star ship's propulsion system and the sheer wonder, awe and mystery of the universe as it lives, dies and lives again.
TAU ZERO is a good, solid novel. It's regarded by many as a quintessential example of hard science ficiton with the plot driven by technology as much as characters. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading other Poul Anderson science fiction novels. Thumbs up.