Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud”

I am utterly fascinated by active scientists who also write fiction, particularly science fiction.  There have been more of them than the average person realizes, including physicist Robert W. Wood, who co-wrote The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915) and The Moon-Maker (1916), and astronomer Simon Newcomb, who wrote His Wisdom the Defender (1900).  I would also add to this list millionaire inventor John Jacob Astor, who wrote A Journey in Other Worlds in 1894.  The tradition continues to this day, as illustrated by my friends Blake Stacey, who wrote Until Earthset (2008), and Andrew David Thaler, who wrote Fleet (2013).

There are still more out there, I’m sure, that I have yet to come across.  This was demonstrated to me recently, when I encountered astronomer Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud.

First edition cover of The Black Cloud, via Wikipedia.

First edition cover of The Black Cloud, via Wikipedia.

I learned of this book through the always excellent Valancourt Books, who will be releasing a new edition in 2015.

Set in the year 1964, the novel focuses on the efforts of an international group of scientists as they try and save humanity from a massive black cloud that is approaching the solar system from interstellar space.  You’ll notice that I say “save humanity” instead of “stop the cloud,” because there is no stopping the cloud: it is an object of planetary scale, and the best mankind can do is anticipate its behavior using the laws of physics and attempt to plan accordingly.

Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was the perfect person to write such a novel.  A very influential astronomer and theoretical astrophysicist, he spent most of his career at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge.  His most significant research result was a full theory of stellar nucleosynthesis: the nuclear process by which heavier atomic elements are formed within stars.  He is also mildly infamous for being an outspoken critic of the big bang theory for the origin of the universe; in fact, Hoyle coined the term “Big Bang” on BBC radio in 1949, during a discussion of competing theories for universe’s evolution.  Hoyle considered the idea that the universe had a beginning to be pseudoscience rooted in religion, and he himself favored the “steady state” theory, which postulates a universe continuously expanding and creating new matter.  Though the steady state model fell out of favor after the 1960s as observational evidence weighed in favor of the big bang, Hoyle never gave up his opinion.

Hoyle was also a prolific science popularizer, and would write nearly 20 textbooks and popular science books, as well as almost the same number of science fiction novels.  The Black Cloud was his first, and evidently his most famous.

The novel begins at Mount Palomar observatory, where a routine observing run is disrupted by the discovery of a new, almost perfectly circular, dark patch in the starry sky.  At nearly the same time, a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London is disrupted by amateur observations that suggest that the outer planets of the solar system have deviated slightly in their paths, something only possible if a large gravitational mass is disrupting their orbits.  Soon, the groups collaborate and confirm the existence of a dark cloud, speeding towards the Earth, due to arrive in slightly less than two years.

What follows is the hardest of hard science fiction, as the researchers combine resources and attempt to deduce the path of the cloud and the impact it will have on the Earth.  At several points in the book, diagrams and calculations are provided to back up the speculations, including one detailed footnote that uses calculus!

This first half of the book is perhaps the most intriguing part, as it gives an accurate impression of how scientists work, think, and debate.  It also gives insight into the work habits of scientists, as an early passage illustrates:

Astronomy is kind in its treatment of the beginner.  There are many jobs to be done, jobs that can lead to important results but which do not require great experience.  Jensen’s was one of these.  He was searching for supernovae, stars that explode with uncanny violence.  Within the next year he might reasonably hope to find one or two.  Since there was no telling when an outburst might occur, nor where in the sky the exploding star might be situated, the only thing to do was to keep on photographing the whole sky, night after night, month after month.  some day he would strike lucky.

In its pursuit of intellectual discovery, The Black Cloud reminds me somewhat of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Rendezvous with Rama.  Both books have scientists attempting to understand almost unfathomable phenomena, making flawed guesses along the way and coming to incredible revelations.

Hoyle’s book, however, is much darker.  The surprises that come along with a massive object entering the solar system are all unpleasant ones.  Hoyle does not shy away from the implications, and millions of people die on Earth in rather matter-of-fact descriptions that are quite chilling.  This added a surprising amount of tension to the novel.  In it, you see the smartest scientists on the planet more or less helpless to stop global catastrophe.

The latter part of the book is a little less spectacular, in my opinion.  As a small spoiler alert, but not a huge one as the plot of the novel is given all over the internet, aliens come into the picture in the final third of the book. Even here, however, the opening of communications with the alien intelligence is grounded in some fascinating physics and really compelling scientific explanation.

Though he doesn’t broach the subject significantly, Hoyle couldn’t resist a small dig at the proponents of the “big bang” late in the novel.  The aliens make one off-hand remark that prompts the following response from the human scientists:

 McNeil did not understand this remark, but Kingsley and Marlowe exchanged a glance as if to say: “Oh-ho, there we go.  That’s one in the eye for the exploding-universe boys.”

As you might expect, a global crisis that threatens all of humanity brings in politicians and, as in many science fiction novels, those politicians manage to make things worse at every turn.  The problem is bluntly illustrated early on in a discussion between the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom and the main protagonist of the story, Dr. Kingsley:

When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking to react according to some pre-arranged plan.  It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded.  Anything was grist to the mill: flattery, the application of common-sense psychology, social pressure, the feeding of ambition, or even plain threats.  For the most part like other administrators he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful.  For strict logic he had no use whatsoever.  To Kingsley on the other hand strict logic was everything, or nearly everything.

Kingsley, in fact, takes active steps early in the novel to not only minimize the damage the politicians can cause, but to also secure his research lab a pivotal political role in the society to grow in the aftermath of the cloud.

This idea — that scientists can govern the world much better than the politicians — runs through many of these early scientist science fiction novels, and I find it quite fascinating.  The same attitude can be found in The Man Who Rocked the Earth, in which a scientist threatens the world with destruction if peace is not achieved, and in His Wisdom the Defender, in which a scientist unilaterally disarms the armies of the Earth.  It seems that many scientists of that era had internalized Plato’s vision of a “Philosopher King” that would be wise enough to rule with absolute power.  I suspect that one can also see this attitude in the scientists who built the first atomic bombs and their naive belief that such weapons would lead to a permanent world peace.

Hoyle’s novel is currently out of print, though I have already noted that a new edition will be published in 2015 by Valancourt Books (I will blog about it when it is released).  In the meantime, of course, used copies are available.  Being fond of pretty books, I ordered a lovely leather bound 1986 collector’s edition published by Eaton Books, as shown below.



In summary: The Black Cloud is a fascinating science fiction novel, and one that gives a very accurate portrayal of how real scientists do their work.  Though I found the characters to be a bit lacking, the book is a wealth of scientific ideas, and a fascinating and compelling story.

This entry was posted in Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud”

  1. Yoron says:

    Still one of my favorites. It’s a good book, and I doubt it ever will feel ‘old’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.