There 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.
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.
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