The funny thing about this one is that, until recently, I thought I already knew the title and author of the novel in question! For many years, I honestly believed that what I am about to describe was the Poul Anderson novel called Tau Zero. But then I found myself reading something online about Poul Anderson's works which told me the general plot of Tau Zero, and it also mentioned that this was just an expanded version of one of his previously-published shorter pieces: "To Outlive Eternity." (I first read that one just a couple of years ago.)

So, since I now realize (after many years of confusion) that the book I am remembering was not Tau Zero, that means it may not have been written by Poul Anderson at all. So let's take inventory of what I still believe is accurate in my recollection (after more than 30 years).

To cover some incidentals first: I'm sure the version I read was a hardback, checked out from a public library, sometime in the range of 1982-1986. I think the book jacket, inside the plastic covering, had a lot of dark brown in the design, but I could be thinking of some other book. The story was in English, and I'm reasonably sure it wasn't a translation from some other language. If it wasn't by Poul Anderson, then I don't know who wrote it. (I'm certain I would have run across it again if it were by one of my favorite big-name SF authors of the mid-to-late 20th Century, such as Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, or Zelazny.)

Plot Points That I Can Remember:

  1. The story is written in the third person. The main characters are humans aboard an interstellar vessel. They are already in mid-voyage as we first meet them in the opening chapter, so we don't actually see them get recruited and trained and gradually become acquainted with one another as newly-assigned shipmates. I think the entire crew of the ship is quite small -- say, less than twenty; maybe less than a dozen? (I'm sure that the number of human characters with significant speaking parts in the scenes set on the bridge was quite small, but it is possible that I am forgetting references to other people whose duties kept them elsewhere.)

  2. There is a big war with an alien race. This has been going on for quite some time as the story opens. If I recall correctly, neither side has discovered any means of FTL travel, which means it can take years for news to reach Earth (or the alien homeworld) about any victories or defeats in other systems. The aliens seem to be our technological equals, or even somewhat superior. Near as I can recall, there is no indication that the aliens have ever shown any interest in negotiating and honoring a simple cease-fire, such as: "Let's let bygones be bygones. If you humans stay on this side of some lines we are drawing on star charts, we will reciprocate and leave your planets alone from now on." I think the aliens were seen (by humans) as the Nasty Aggressors who had started the bloodshed in the first place. I don't know if the aliens would have agreed with that.

  3. The main scene that I remember came several chapters into the book. I believe the humans are doggedly pursuing some sort of assigned mission as part of the larger war effort, but their ship is currently flying solo; no allies anywhere in sight. In the bit I remember best, the humans on the bridge discover their current trajectory is taking them toward a large number of alien warships, and the human ship has already been accelerating for so long, therefore has built up so much momentum, that there's no chance of turning away and staying completely outside the enemy's effective range at this point. (I can't remember, though, if the enemy ships were moving fast on a collision course, or just sort of "hovering" at a preselected spot, waiting to see if any humans came along, or what.)

  4. The best idea the humans can come up with is this:

    • Accelerate at 5 G's so that they will be going even more horrendously fast by the time they zip past the alien ships;

    • Fire off some missiles of their own when they are close to the aliens, partially in hopes of damaging or destroying at least a few of those ships, and partially to create the "fog of war" with all the explosions and stuff that will be happening all at once;

    • Cut their acceleration down to 1 G (I think) right after they have passed the alien formation, and pray that the aliens somehow lose sight of the ship's position during all the excitement. (I don't recall why "losing sight of them" would be likely to happen; maybe the humans actually cut all acceleration so that whatever they used as propulsion would no longer be making a big display of itself? Or maybe their propulsion method did not involve anything so blatant as a fusion flame?)

  5. This tactic actually works -- pretty much. When the humans have either sharply reduced or completely ceased their acceleration, someone looking at instrument readouts says something along these lines: "A fireball of sequential nuclear explosions is up ahead of us. Measured relative to our own position, it is accelerating further away at approximately 4 G's." In other words, the aliens have fallen for it, and are having their computers launch missile after missile at selected points along the precise track the human ship ought to be following if it is still accelerating at 5 G's in the same direction as before, and if it has somehow survived the first few warheads aimed to intercept its calculated vector.

  6. Just as the humans are starting to congratulate themselves, their teeth are rattled by a "near miss" which shakes their ship badly. After they recover, and conclude their ship is still functional, someone says (loosely paraphrased from my memory): "I think I understand what happened. At least one alien commander told himself that there was a logical possibility that we might have cut our acceleration back to our preferred 1 G just as we zipped past him, and so he fired at least one missile to intercept us if his suspicions were correct. But he missed us by a hair -- his math wasn't quite perfect in projecting our current course. I doubt he even expected to hit us with that shot; he was just covering all the bases."

  7. No further shots come anywhere close to them (at this time). So it gradually becomes clear that they are now somehow "out of sight" of the alien fleet, and still getting further away every moment, and the plot continues from there. I think the scene I just described was no more than halfway through the book, but I can't remember what else happened. (For instance, what the human mission was supposed to be.) I am not sure I ever finished reading that library book; the situation was interesting, but I don't think I found the actual writing style (or the characters) to be especially appealing to my younger self.

  • 3
    It's been a long time since I read The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, but I think there was some slower-than-light combat in it, any chance that's it?
    – LAK
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 3:58
  • 4
    The description doesn't match "The Forever War." I know that story quite well, and there's nothing in it that matches the description - not even a scene that could be twisted to resemble it.
    – JRE
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 10:45
  • 1
    This question, scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/8621/…, may help by suggesting some STL Universes and novels to look at and/or eliminate.
    – Yoshi Bro
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 22:37
  • 1
    @Organic Marble I am certain that I read the one described in my question when I was a schoolboy in the early-to-mid 1980s. Anything that was first published within, say, the last 30 years, can't possibly be the book I'm looking for.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 3:22
  • 2
    @bishop A public library in the USA. It would be something of a miracle if I could remember, perhaps a third of a century later, just how much wear-and-tear the library book already had acquired before I first touched it. (Heck, for years I was misremembering the title and the author's name that were printed on the jacket, so you can see my recall of the book's physical appearance is not excellent.) I'm sure the story was long enough to fill up that hardback edition all by itself, instead of being one of the stories in a collection. So I said "novel." But I don't know the page count.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented May 1, 2018 at 23:39

2 Answers 2


I don't have enough reputation to comment otherwise I would, but this sounds very similar to a series called The Lost Fleet by John G Hemry (writing as Jack Campbell).

The first book is about a captain presumed dead who is rescued, takes command of a ship, and uses tactics like the ones you described to attack enemy ships. A lot of the space battles involve clever use of ship formations/directions/speed. Hemry is a retired naval officer so there is a lot around the tactics of the battles.

I don't think there is any FTL travel in it, and I think the ship's crew is fairly small. It's been a while since I read it though.

I thought it was quite a well known series though so you might have already heard of this?

If it's not this series, it's worth a read anyway, decent plot across the books and a spin-off series too.

  • 1
    The Lost Fleet is a war between Human civilizations, not Human vs Alien.
    – amflare
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 16:58
  • I wasn't sure if the enemy being human was known in the first book or whether it was still assumed alien at that point.
    – Neil
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 17:00
  • 2
    Also, there is FTL travel in The Lost Fleet series, through natural jump locations in each system and constructed gateways. Aliens do enter the picture in the Beyond The Frontier follow up series.
    – Xantec
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 17:05
  • I just got around to reading the first volume of the "Lost Fleet" series last year. It was interesting, but it didn't feel like anything I had ever read before, and it didn't fill me with the burning need to run out and buy copies of all the rest of the series as soon as possible. More importantly: that first volume (The Lost Fleet: Dauntless) was only published in 2006. I could not possibly have checked it out from a public library at least 20 years earlier than that, back around the mid-1980s, which is when I read the story I was describing from memory in the original post..
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 2:24
  • Didn't realise it was that recent a series!
    – Neil
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 7:17

I don't think that my suggestion is what you are looking for, but I'll toss it out there anyway: Into Deepest Space by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle. It is a sequel to Rockets in Ursa Major. It is a hard SF novel and the ship travels at relativistic speeds.

There were friendly aliens on board.

The hostile aliens were never revealed.

I don't recall a battle in it.

  • I saw your suggestion, back around Christmas. I even took the trouble to download a Kindle version of that book. Then I started reading it . . . and got bored by the writing, and got distracted by other things, and kept forgetting to respond to you. Recently I read some more of the book. I've now read more than half, and there is still no sense of recognition. I'm certain I had never read it before (although I did read at least one other SF novel by Fred Hoyle, back in the 1980s, so it was reasonable to think I might have read a second, and forgotten the author).
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 2:23
  • @Lorendiac Definitely not Into Deepest Space by the two Hoyles. There wasn't the sort of space battle in it, that you described in your question. Not their style either.
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 8:34

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