A post about Quaker fiction

I published a piece this week in The Friend, the independent Quaker weekly magazine, about the novelist Una L Silberrad and her novel Sampson Rideout, Quaker (1911). You can read the article here.

If you’ve already poked about behind the Now In Print tab above, you’ll find several other things I’ve published about Una L Silberrad, who really is one of the forgotten novelists of the 20th century.

James Blish: A feminist gets angry

BlishI finished reading James Blish’s really excellent space opera novel Earthman, Come Home (1955) in a towering anachronistic feminist rage. The novel is exciting, expertly-paced and has rightly been acclaimed as one of the truly innovative masterworks of science fiction. The edition I have – the 2010 SF Masterworks edition, as it happens – gives the reader three introductions to the four novels of the Cities in Flight sequence: Earthman, Come Home (book 3 in chronological terms; 1955), They Shall Have Stars (the first in the sequence; 1956), The Triumph of Time (the last one; 1958) and A Life for the Stars (a prequel giving backstory for Earthman; 1962).

Blish 2The concepts behind Cities in Flight are stunningly original: an anti-gravity engine that lets cities uproot themselves from Earth and roam the galaxies looking for work, and an anti-death drug that permits near-immortality, because what is the point of roaming the galaxies if you can’t live long enough to get out of your own? Out of these splendidly simple ideas a new science-based way to manage space travel was born. There is debate over how best to read Cities in Flight, with different sequences giving different effects, as discussed by the SF Masterworks introductions. But not one of the three introductions mentioned a blindingly obvious fact: that Blish writes women like cattle.

Blish 3They Shall Have Stars is slightly less offensively androcentric than Earthman, Come Home, since the main female character (one of two) has a professional role, and functions in the plot by means of her wits. The narrative voice shows us how the men of this world, and Blish’s generation, view women, after we’ve seen Ann Abbott in action for most of the novel and know how intelligent she is. She arrives at Jupiter space station in company with Paige Russell, and is described as ‘a rather plain girl who was possibly his secretary’ whereas Paige is ‘a tall man wearing the uniform of the Space Army Corps and the eagles of a colonel’. Her appearance equates to her rank. The other woman, a space engineer, is in the plot to be ridiculed for her desire to have a baby, and to fall into the arms of the man she left. Blish could allow a woman to have a science-based conversation with a man, but otherwise she was only there to get married. How was it that so many male SF writers could not (cannot) conceive of an evolution in society, as well as in space flight? John Wyndham is the only one I can think of who made the effort, in Trouble With Lichen, but even in that tremendous attack on patriarchal social conditioning, marriage was the genius woman scientist’s inevitable ending.

Blish 4A Life for the Stars contains precisely two female characters: one is an elderly teacher whose pupil finally accepts her when he suddenly sees that she might once have been beautiful. The other is a faceless mother figure who keeps house for her husband, laughing musically, for centuries. She gets one shot at making the point that perhaps she and other women in the city travelling through space for decades without planetfall might be given more useful work to do than cook lunch. It is ignored, by the men trampling through her life, and by Blish.

The Triumph of Time is even more pathetic, because Blish does attempt to work out what women might want to do when they’ve been married to the same man for five hundred years and are getting bored of rearing their descendants. All he can come up with is that they’ll want an affair with the man they first thought of.

cities-in-flightThere is no point in getting angry at Blish. He was an unreflecting product of his age and his society. The failure of the modern introductions to acknowledge how women were treated in these historically important novels is a shocking acknowledgement of how routine misogyny still is, now, today, in science fiction publishing. Had Blish’s novels reflected the racism of the 1950s, or even used words like ‘cripple’ and ‘freak’, I’m pretty sure that Adam Roberts, Stephen Baxter and Richard D Mullen would have explained the cultural contexts pretty darn quick. So why did they think it was OK to ignore women being written like cattle and servants in perpetuity?

 

 

Running through the south of France with John Welcome and Run for Cover (1958)

a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?
a really horrible cover, showing a most unpleasant man, surely not our hero?

This podcast was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen, looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules.

This time, I was exploring a writer I hadn’t heard of until a friendly 1950s thriller fiend alerted me to his existence. John Welcome is a forgotten star of the gentlemanly thriller. He wrote several novels, and also seems to have been the editor of collections of thriller short stories; in the sporting mode, and from the card-playing scene. He was a lawyer, and hunted a lot (on horseback, for foxes), and so, in his first novel, Run for Cover (1958), the hero, Richard Graham, is also a horsey man, who rides in races and in hunting, and plays cards almost professionally. It’s a rather self-conscious first novel, with some quite excruciating passages in which Graham practically shows the reader his library list as proof that he’s the right kind of chap. But once the story gets going, and the writer gets into his stride, this is a really entertaining thriller that begins in London, flies to Paris, and then gallops about in the south of France. It’s a definite scamper through the maquis, you can practically smell the rosemary crushed underfoot among the pine needles as Graham runs for cover, again and again and again. But it’s not a survivalist thriller at all, unlike a Household novel, or even a Bond. There are scramblings about on the outsides of buildings, but Graham, an ex-Commando and ex secret service agent, is terrified of rats, insists on having decent meals with drinks, and sleeps in hotels and pensions at night, rather than bunked up in the heather.

Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest
Another cover, with a hint of blonde sunkissed female interest

Here’s the plot: Graham gets into the London train, and finds himself sitting opposite an old friend (that’s a borrowing from John Buchan’s The Island of Sheep, for a start). The old friend is a publisher, and gives Graham a manuscript to read for his opinion. Graham is a bit surprised to see the name of the author, Rupert Rawle, because he saw Rawle shot and killed during the war. Moreover, he has particular reasons for wanting to know about Rawle, because Rawle tried to kill him, and also stole  his girl, which was a terrible betrayal, since Rawle was also his hero, and his best friend.  Graham takes the manuscript back to his London flat, leaves it there while he nips off to the bank and his club, but when he returns, it has gone, stolen through an opened window. And he hasn’t had a chance to read it. But he calls up his old secret service contacts to tell them that Rawle may be alive after all, and is told to leave it alone. Nothing daunted, he tries to alert a French former colleague, goes to Paris, and is told to leave it alone. Not one to take a hint, he gets onto Rawle’s trail, and is launched into a mystery that brings him back to Jacquie, the girl who dumped him, who also tells him to leave it alone. At this stage, it might be easy to give up reading the novel. Welcome writes cagily, constantly holding out hints of secrets that are influencing Graham’s actions, but the details of which we are not told. This is a bit maddening, and I’m still not sure what got me over that sticky first part, when the story and its importance need to be established, but when the writer seems to be doing more to drive the reader away by being secretive. Perhaps if you like secrets you won’t find this annoying at all, but I do prefer my plot on a plate before I start.

nicely complex third cover variant
nicely complex third cover variant

What kept me going were the characters, and how they lived, which is why I rate this novel very highly as a thriller for gentlemen. It is totally steeped in the gentleman’s way of life. Clubs: naturally, every man has one. One also has a London flat. Since Graham rides horses as his occupation, but is yet not a jockey, he obviously has private income. His flat’s living-room is packed with cups and trophies that he’s won at race-meetings. He takes the Sporting Times, The Daily World (which is a cover for The Daily Mail), and The Times. He employs a stockbroker. He’s not married because he’s still carrying a torch for Jacquie who ran off with Rawle, or whom Rawle bagged: it’s not clear which one carries the blame.

I like Graham, because he’s a competent and conscientious sort of chap, and he isn’t put off by people telling him to leave things alone. So naturally, as soon as he got on the plane to Paris, I was rooting for him. He also knows his way around Paris (a good sign), and is happy to drink champagne cocktails in the afternoon while waiting at a café thinking that somebody important might yet show up. And someone does. Trouble is, it’s the wrong someone, someone with a gun, and Graham is grabbed by the enemy. The enemy are thugs and a large foreign mastermind, and a gunman who cannot miss. We can tell that Jacquie is probably a bad ‘un because Graham mentions that her English is not quite perfect. (Bad sign for a gentleman’s girl.) Graham is beaten up severely, dumped at his hotel in a very bad state of repair, and told to go back to England. This he does, and then immediately flies back to the south of France to conduct his own investigation, and pursue Rawle to the death.

Graham is the kind of thriller hero I like, who fools the enemy by acting meek, and then does something unexpected, expertly carried out. He has pots of money with him, smuggled in and out of France in his pockets so he doesn’t have to get bogged down by Customs (this is definitely a thriller hero’s behaviour, since Dornford Yates’ crowd did this all the time, but it is not, strictly speaking, the conduct of a gentleman). Graham hires a car and zips off along the south coast of France, looking for something important and plot-relevant which is merely a McGuffin. The rest of the novel is concerned with him evading capture, escaping cleverly, deceiving and outwitting and taunting his captors, doing some damage to other people’s cars, shooting perfectly and casually, and displaying his perfect knowledge of the south of France’s highways and byways. Also of their hotels and cafes: it is extraordinary how many small villages he goes through where he is still on perfect best friend terms with the owners, no matter how many years have passed since the war and his presumable activities with the Résistance. Pretty nearly all of his meals are perfect. He hands out 5,000 franc notes for information, he gets hidden by innumerable allies, and he has a triumphant game of canasta that lets him nobble the scary gunman, against all the odds.

As in Moonraker, you do not need to understand the rules of canasta to survive the ten or more pages of what might otherwise be deeply tedious card-bore hell to understand that Graham is a great player. His playing is clever enough to make the bad man think Graham is hopeless. Acting stupid is a great skill, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. I’ve never played canasta, but even I could sense the points of tension and near-missery that we need to appreciate to enjoy this scene properly.

A gentleman has to be skilled in cards: this is a long-established fact from the eighteenth century, and it is so interesting that in the 1950s this still held true. Why cards? The demonstration of having a lot of money to lose at will? Graham loses no money in these games (though Bond wins a lot in his.) As an indication of skill at a game of chance, a pointless art? The ability to accept the responsibility of debts of honour? I do think it comes down to the money, but in Run for Cover there is also a strong sense that a man who can play cards well is likely to be a great winner of the game against life. He’s not a chancer, but a deliberate player of the odds, who knows how to accept good luck and bad luck, and play his cards as well as he can.

Graham does have a rather good bit of good luck in this novel, when he runs into another woman. His interactions with the not-quite perfectly accented Jacquie have left the reader feeling ruffled: why is he still mooning about after her, when she is so obviously a tart with no heart? So he’s on the run in the south of France, in a rather fetching disguise of a crew-cut, a pair of shorts, a sailor hat and a striped jersey. I laughed out loud when I read that: what a ludicrous caricature of a Frenchman’s disguise, but perhaps in the 1950s this had not yet reached caricature status. He’s had a night out sleeping in the woods, and he hears voices arguing. A couple are squabbling over a car that won’t start: the man (English) is clearly useless, since all he can do is make threats about their chauffeur who hadn’t serviced the car properly, whereas the woman is bored of this, and wants him to go and get help. So the woman is left in the car, alone in the woods, and Graham strolls over to see what’s up. He fixes the car, she realises he’s English and now knows instinctively what she’s dealing with. She offers him the use of her husband’s shaving kit, and then feeds him from the hamper in the back, and then, before we’ve can blink, they’re all over each other. At least she pulls the hood of the car up for a little privacy, but we are asked to assume that thriller heroes having wild outdoor sex with strange Englishwomen happened all the time in the south of France in the 1950s. No doubt they were up to date on how gentlemen should behave.

Following the Internet underwater in Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network

UnderseaThis is a book for those curious about where the Internet comes from. I don’t mean, where are the servers, or what has the modem done with my document, but, where does the information come from, and go to? When I press Send in Belgium, and Juliane gets the email a few seconds later in Australia, how does that work? A transmission takes 168 milliseconds on the fastest routes, but where are the routes, and who controls them?

Nicole Starosielski is a communications historian and network archaeologist. When she’s at the seaside she looks at the ground, not at the sea. She’s looking for the places where the world’s undersea cables carrying the fibre-optic wires go into and out of the sea, because these carry 99% of the world’s Internet traffic. There are 223 international undersea cable systems and hardly any are backed up by satellite. A very small number of companies control the world’s Internet traffic, and their knowledge of undersea topography and currents is crucial for knowing where not to lay a new cable.  If the networks broke down, the Internet would be confined to the continents, unable to cross the oceans. Considering that most Internet users rely on wifi, or wireless Internet, to transmit their messages, the fact that we cannot do without physical wires to transmit those bytes is downright paradoxical. ‘Our seemingly wireless lives are predicated on a mess of tangled wires’.

the network six years ago
the network six years ago

When cables first snaked across the ocean floor in the mid-nineteenth century they carried telegraph signals (and they also standardised longitude for the first time). When they were replaced by fibre-optic cables in the 1980s, the routes were largely unchanged, so the routes dictated by the British Empire’s communication needs still dictate the web of physical communications links under the seas. Of course, much of this was predetermined by undersea topography: the Marianas Trench being one of the big obstacles to Atlantic cable traffic, since the cable has to go round, not over it.  Cables are at their most protected when they’re lying snug under the mud on the ocean floor: nothing snags them there. Cables prefer neglect, and can lie undisturbed for decades working perfectly. But when cables are anywhere near human traffic, they’re liable to be broken, hauled up, wrenched apart or simply snipped. A single traffic-carrying wire is only a couple of centimetres in diameter, after all.

submarine cable cross-section, from wikipedia
submarine cable cross-section, from wikipedia

Starosielski has some excellent anecdotes illustrating the fragility of the Internet when faced with an ignorant person wielding a hoe. In 2011 a woman in Georgia stopped most of the Internet traffic in Armenia when she dug up two of its three fibre-optic lines looking for scrap metal. The chairman of Arctic Fibre says, resignedly, that 60% of his cable breaks are from ship anchors and trawling machinery. Land repairs are relatively easy, but undersea repair teams need very specialised ships, they might need permits to go to the right area to work, and they might not want to go there anyway if it’s in a war zone, or irradiated, as was the case after the Japanese tsunami. Crocodile sharks and whitetips have also been known to try chomping the wires.

Cable companies protect their lines by insulating them from human activity: by camouflage, by relative invisibility, with heavy militarised security, or by obscurity. Since the public zone is where risks of damage are highest, there are multiple entry points on the shoreline that all join up, some way below the water, into one or two fat cables that snake across the ocean in peace and quiet. Starosielski writes about the human connections to the entry points into and out of the sea, and the importance of islands in routing mainland traffic to other mainlands. She goes around the edges of Australia, visits obscure but geographically crucial islands like Guam and Yap, and takes a lot of photos of anonymous buildings on the coastal edges. My favourite cable anecdote is of how old cable coils are being reused to build artificial reefs up to 300 miles out into the ocean off Maryland, bringing new wildlife and fishing to the area. This is a thorough and well-narrated account, bringing complicated questions to the surface. Highly recommended.

Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Duke University Press, 20 March 2015, ISBN 9780822357551, $25.95

 

 

Was James Bond a gentleman?

This podcast was written for the miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the kind of thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal, and that was written about men of a certain generation who understood the value of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. These thrillers were tough, but with good manners.

the very edition I reread addictively, and then gave away, drat it
the very edition I reread addictively, and then gave away, drat it

I was reading Bond, James Bond. I love Ian Fleming’s writing, and used to read him addictively when I was a student, seeking relief from the sterner kinds of books I had to work through when I was writing my PhD. I owned most of the novels, in nice 1950s Pan editions, but moved house too often to keep them, and now I only have one rather horrible mass-market anthology of Bond that I bought cheap when I really could not live without reading Dr No once more. But this podcast was about Bond, rather than about one particular novel. I wanted to see what I could find out about Bond as a product of gentlemanly writing for the clubman and for the post-Second World War officer and gentleman.

Let’s start with who Bond is. He’s ex-Royal Navy, with the rank of Commander, which means he wore three gold stripes and a ring as his uniform insignia while still in the Service. This is the same rank in the US Navy, and is equivalent to Lieutenant-Colonel in the British and US armies. So he’s fairly high up the tree, but not into top brass territory. Now, of course, forever and in perpetuity, he is 007, authorised to kill in Her Majesty’s secret service. In the novels his boss is M, also ex-Navy, and a titled gentleman who, in Moonraker, takes Bond with him to Blades, the venerable card club in St James, Mayfair, to play cards.

very unlikely to have been used in Blades
very unlikely to have been used in Blades

Blades is, of course, totally fictional, but is written with such assurance by Fleming that you have to google the place to be embarrassed at how well you’ve been fooled into accepting it as real. Fleming invented this club to be able to write about its activities and members without fear of libel. He also wanted to take Bond to a place where he would fit in, and know how to behave, but would probably not be asked to join, or even want to. Bond is not a fogey; he is a modern, post-war hero. The conflict he has with senior colleagues, even his adversaries, stems from this whipper-snapper identity. He is probably only just past 35 or so, but still fearsomely fit and impressively knowledgeable about pretty much everything, especially manly things to do with metal and power and speed. He knows how to behave in different social circumstances (which is something Fleming borrowed from Buchan: in 1936 the Earl of Clanroyden got away with being disguised as a surrealiste. Was Bond ever a beatnik, or into Sartre?) But is he a gentleman?

sartorial disaster
sartorial disaster

Well, we need to look at his record. Let’s stay with Moonraker, a novel published in 1955, and the only Bond novel that Fleming wrote (because, of course, the canon has been extended by many other writers since Fleming’s death: I’m only looking at Fleming’s own novels) that was set entirely in the UK. Unfortunately, the very name Moonraker brings to mind the truly terrible film starring Roger Moore as Bond, which only had the name of the phallic rocket in common with the book. Forget about that. Sweep away those ludicrous images of wrinkly Roger Moore trying to look passionate and stern in a space suit with ankle ties, and think about sharp navy blue suits and a vintage Bentley.

Moonraker starts in a basement firing room, where Bond is trying to beat the machines. He’s still not quite as good as the automatic firing devices he’s been pitted against by the armaments trainer, but, as we learn when Bond has left, he’s the best gun they’ve got. So he’s a sharpshooter: does this make him a gentleman? No. However, the fact that he and the master gunner have a bet on, and Bond loses, and pays up cheerfully, does make him a gentleman. Paying one’s debts is one of the first rules of correct gentlemanly behaviour, and Bond qualifies easily. The reason he’s taken to Blades by M is to see if he can beat a habitual cheat at cards, and he does this easily because he knows how to cheat too. Would a true gentleman know how to cheat at cards? I think so, yes, because a gentleman can recognise ungentlemanly behaviour. Gentlemanly behaviour is mostly unconscious, inherent, the result of training from birth; but it certainly helps to know when the edges of gentlemanhood are being breached, to maintain these standards. It’s also useful for a gentleman to be sufficiently at home in a gentleman’s surroundings, but also able to bring in the rough stuff, when needed.

Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Note the perfect uniform shirt.
Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Note the perfect uniform shirt.

Next, we see Bond in the office, and hear a lot about his secretary Loelia Ponsonby. Where does Fleming get his women’s names from? The men’s names are either nationality caricatures or anonymous, like ‘Bond’, whereas the women are saddled with impossible names like Moneypenny, Goodnight, Trueblood. They also all wear beautiful clothes. This is one of Fleming’s great strengths as a writer: the magazine-like focus on consumer detail in the descriptions. His attention to the details of the food and guns and drink that Bond consumes are famous, but his fashion writing is really very evocative. Loelia Ponsonby, as a good civil service secretary, wears a skirt and a blouse, as does Miss Moneypenny, and Gala Brand later in the novel, but it’s the detail of a hand-sewn belt and the colour coordination, that grip me. A mere man could only have written that by poring over Vogue beforehand. Does Bond subscribe?

Lois Maxwell keeping Sean Connery at bay
Lois Maxwell keeping Sean Connery at bay

We are told that Bond and the other 00 chaps in that office had cheerfully made assaults on their secretary’s virtue, but that she refused to allow herself to get too fond of any one of them because any one of them could be dead before the end of the next mission. She sounds like a sensible person, and they sound like perfectly normal youngish men, but are they gentlemen, in that regard? Probably not as John Buchan would have understood it, especially if the assaults on her virtue were more about list-ticking conquests after drinks than the expression of a lifelong, monogamous passion, but we are now in the 1950s, after all. Fleming wants us to understand Bond as an all-conquering sex god. We are also asked to believe that Bond cares properly about the women who come his way. In Moonraker we see him stymied, all ready to have an affair with a girl whom he thinks has earned it, and then she tells him quite nicely that the man waiting politely some yards behind her is her fiancé and that they’re getting married tomorrow. Bond behaves very well, and they say goodbye and walk out of each other’s lives. But I do wonder, to whom did he take his bruised pride? He has a string of married women, it appears, with whom he makes love rather coldly at weekends, so perhaps he’ll go and ring one of them up. On being rejected, a gentleman will never make a fuss and will always sublimate his desires decently in something, or someone, discreet and harmless. Another woman, preferably an anonymous one, seems a heartless choice for a gentleman who’s just been rejected, but he may not have been very much into the first girl in the first place. However, he behaves decently, and that’s what matters.

The girl in my favourite Bond novel, Dr No, is Honeychile Rider, a child of nature and what we would now call a zoologist. She’s child-like but not that innocent, and very keen to have sex with Bond, without shame. It’s good for thrillers to have shameless women in them, it gives the sex scenes exuberance without the squealing modesty that must get so boring when you’ve only got a few hours. Honeychile reminds me a lot of Jenny, from Dornford Yates’ thriller She Fell Among Thieves, because Jenny is alarmingly child-like, totally lacking lack in nous and worldly wisdom. Yates created her character to allow some titillating voyeurism in the novel, and to offer a very strange fantasy of an adult bride with a child’s understanding, but Honeychile is not quite that disturbing. She is afraid of land crabs, but she sails Bond back to Jamaica in the dark: a practical role in the plot. She supports herself, lives alone, can and does defend herself, is a born but untaught scientist, and, very importantly, as we only find out at the end, she is a lady. For a gentleman to have an affair it is much better if his partner is at the same social level as well as cultural level. Bond does not have many (any?) affairs with prostitutes. As the orphaned child of an old Jamaican landowning family, Honeychile deserves to be launched in the world properly, whether she gets her broken nose fixed or not, so Bond arranges for her to be found a job at the Zoological Institute in Kingstown, and asks his local friend to get his wife to take Honeychile under her wing socially. We know that soon she’ll be wearing the right clothes and will know where to get her hair done properly. But first she and Bond will have sex in a sleeping-bag because he owes her slave-time. These are gentlemanly courtesies.

a gentleman keeps his shirt off when others keep their on. John Kitzmiller, Sean Connery, Ursula Andress (who wasn't allowed to voice her own lines!)
a gentleman keeps his shirt off when others keep their on. John Kitzmiller, Sean Connery, Ursula Andress (who wasn’t allowed to voice her own lines!)

The actions of a gentleman are also concerned with noblesse oblige. Bond feels nothing towards what Fleming calls the ‘Chigroes’, the Chinese-negro Jamaicans who work for Dr No, because they are mixed race, and thus in Fleming’s 1950s world view, living on Jamaica, they are socially and culturally inferior to the colonial whites. He also feels nothing for the Chinese girls who flit through this novel, mainly because they are all Dr No’s creatures, but also, I suspect, because they are not presented as people. Fleming just drew them as women of a certain race, and their race is what defines them: not their names or personalities. So these, like the prostitutes, are not where Bond will look for sex (because sex is the only thing he could possibly want from these women). He is protective and admiring of his friend Quarrel, whom he takes on as fixer and local contact once he arrives in Jamaica, but Quarrel, a big warm black man from the Cayman Islands, sleeps on a separate part of the beach from Bond because Bond is his master. Yet Quarrel is indispensable, a knowledgeable hero with the wrong colour of skin for Fleming’s readers. He knows everything important locally, hires the equipment, arranges to lose the car, knows the route, has the expertise, and is the one to die. Why does Quarrel die, and not Honeychile? Maybe because a gentleman can protect a girl better, and is able to fight for his own survival more effectively as part of the struggle to save her? Quarrel is very effective; he just got caught in the wrong place by a flame-thrower. In the 1950s, it was easier to show a character being a gentleman to a white lady, than to a black man.

Male scientists save the world in Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (1957)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is so much to say about The Black Cloud: let me count the ways. (1) It’s written by one of Britain’s most pioneering, persistent and celebrated maverick physicists, Fred Hoyle. (2) It’s a fine novel in the tradition of British science fiction that speculates what would happen if (the then) present-day society had something extraordinary happen to it. (3) It does not feature he-man heroics by the one man who can save the universe. (4) It’s a novel that shows how completely irrelevant women were in British science and public life in the 1950s. (5) It is written so much from the scientists’ point of view that human feelings and consequences are ignored in favour of logical discussion. (6) And finally, it’s a disaster novel in which seminar discussions constitute most of the action, and there is no aggressor, merely a vast sentient cloud of gas that parks itself over the Earth to warm its metaphorical hands at the Sun.

This is a novel about conflict resolution that physically and literally blocks the usual suspects in disaster scenarios – the government, the military, the aristocrats – from taking action. Instead, the scientists holed up in a Wiltshire manor-house (very John Wyndham, that touch), with the equipment they need to save the planet (and women and peasants to cook and clean for them), decide what to do about the Cloud, and deal with it in a logical, rational, science-based and jolly interesting experimental way. Hydrogen rockets do kill hundreds of thousands of people, but they were despatched from Earth in the first place, and were merely returned to their senders by their original target, which is painful but just. The governments are allowed to listen but not participate in a conversation between the Cloud and the scientists as they discuss human and Cloud reproduction (a bit Star Trek, that part), but when the US Secretary of Defence starts throwing his weight about, threatening to remove the scientists from their base, the old Adam emerges from an outraged scientist about to be deprived of his experiment. His relapse into violent threats that he cannot carry out shocks his colleagues more than his insubordination to power. None of them respect authority if it is not a scientific authority.

Fred Hoyle - he invented the Big Bang theory
Fred Hoyle – he invented the Big Bang theory

This arrogance permeates the novel, in the characterisation, the narrative voice, the tone-deaf facetiousness in describing mass deaths, and the exclusive focus on logic and rationality as the only meaningful motivations for humanity. There is barely any physical action, only endless explanations of physics to be sure that the reader grasps where the plot is going. Footnotes offer mathematical formulae, to persuade us that none of this is made up. The non-mathematical reader can ignore all that, as we would any technical overdosing, because that is not what we read an exciting science-fiction novel for. Story, characters, the events of their lives, and the crisis of the Cloud, pull us through the all-too-often dreary physics parts because we really, really want to know what is going to happen next.

Hoyle was a blinkered physics bore in this, his first novel, but he definitely understood how to pace a story. Each advance of the Cloud raises the tension just a little bit more. There are missing stars in space. There is a blankness in the sky at night. There is a dot on the edge of the galaxy. There is a vast black cloud moving extremely fast towards the Earth, and now it’s slowing down, and parking itself on the edge of our atmosphere, and it’s got rather cold because the Sun cannot penetrate its density. So how long will this last? How much of the Earth’s population will survive the weather disruptions, the floods and hurricanes, the food scarcity, the melting of the ice caps? Communications between countries by radio waves get increasingly disrupted, and when the scientists deduce that this is deliberate, they make contact, teach English to the sentience inside the Cloud (as you do), and the discussions begin.

four excellent Yorkshiremen: l-r J B Priestley (fiction), Len HUtton (cricket), Henry Moore (art), Fred Hoyle (physics). Photo by Jacquetta Hawkes (archaeologist), borrowed from the University of Bradford Special Collections
four excellent Yorkshiremen: l-r J B Priestley (fiction), Len Hutton (cricket), Henry Moore (art), Fred Hoyle (physics). Photo by Jacquetta Hawkes (archaeologist), borrowed from the University of Bradford Special Collections

This 1950s plot is impressive at anticipating the development of computing and telecommunications, but it is rubbish at thinking through the biological consequences. Millions of people die from the weather, but Hoyle doesn’t consider what cholera, typhoid or cadaver-generated plague would do to the survivors. There are no riots and uprisings against the scientists holed in their manor house, either because no-one knows they are there (implausible), or because the army and police are stolidly guarding them (really implausible: think of Day of the Triffids when all of civil society breaks down in the face of starvation). There are no packs of feral dogs or other predators feasting on the bodies in the streets, because Hoyle imagines the population sitting calmly in houses and dying by his plot’s prescription. Ironically, he doesn’t think of the logical consequences once he has decided that millions must starve, be terrified witless, or die. He doesn’t allow humans to behave like humans, or dogs like dogs: they are passively obedient, which even in 1957 must have seemed creepy. The antediluvian sex imbalance in the plot, though acceptable, through gritted teeth, as the novel’s contemporary setting, is troublingly persuasive as to what life must have been like for the womenfolk and female colleagues of 1950s male scientists, let alone the one female scientist allowed to join the seminar. The plot is almost as arrogant in assuming that physicists don’t exist outside Anglophonia.

The Black Cloud is a gripping and rich novel. It is a fantasy of science triumphant as the saviour of the Earth, in which the seminar discussion is the accepted mode of discourse, and religion has absolutely no part to play in any aspect of world governance. It’s a magnificent fossil. And – a total coincidence, this, because I read the elderly Penguin edition featured above – The Black Cloud has also just been reprinted by the estimable Valancourt Press with a foreword by Geoffrey Hoyle, son of the author, so rush to their site and buy it there.

Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (1957) (Valancourt Press, 2015), ISBN 1941147429, $16.99 paperback, $7.99 e-book