BOOK REVIEW: "The Black Cloud" by Fred Hoyle (1957)

Kevin Long
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"The Black Cloud" is a science fiction novel written in 1957 by Fred Hoyle, probably the greatest astronomer of his generation. his qualifications place this book in the not-at-all-tiny-but-certainly-not-very-big category of Science Fiction written by actual scientists. It goes without saying that this is "Hard Science," rather than the generally more common "Soft Science" side of the genre. There are actual scenes in the book of people doing math, and even an appendix by the author in the back where he explains his formulae so you can check his work.

Clearly, then, there's no ray guns and starships in this book. what there is, however, is an unprecedented, but not impossible, astronomical situation: a small nebula is entering our solar system. It's only about two AUs in diameter - about 186 million miles - but it's fairly dense. It's total mass is about 2/3rds that of the planet Jupiter. For whatever reason, no matter how unlikely, the thing is heading directly at the sun, and when it does, it's a thick enough cloud that it'll effectively cut off all sunlight to the earth, and our planet will freeze to death in a matter of weeks.

On the upside, they're pretty sure it'll just keep moving on past the sun and head out the other side of the solar system, so as long as earth can hold out for a couple months of the worst winter in history, we should be fine.

The book is somewhat accidentally divided into three acts, and this first one is far and away the most engaging, as we watch two separate groups of scientists discover the cloud more-or-less simultaneously, using entirely different means (direct observation for the Americans, mathematical inference for the British). this is set in 1963, as seen from 1957, and there's lots of quaint old-tech and jet-setting and characterization as the teams compare notes and inform their respective governments. In particular, I like that the book manages to capture the fascination and befuddlement that British people had with American culture at that time.

The second act involves the protagonist essentially manipulating the people around him and the government itself into doing exactly what he wants: setting up a think tank/refuge/astronomical observatory in the northwest of England, and then being an utter jackass to everyone around him. (His abrasive personality is a fundamental part of his character, and I think we're supposed to find it charming. On occasion it actually is. To the author's credit, he gets on the other characters nerves mildly, too, but as they're all Veddy Veddy briddish, their annoyance isn't quite as comedic as it would have been in an American book. But hey, Hoyle is here to make us think, not laugh, and he drops enough ideas in the intermezzo here to fill several books. From theories on information exchange, to the somewhat POed stance the book takes on politicians and the low status scientists have in society, to the multifarious ways old school computers and radio telescopes can be used together, this is an intellectual hoot.

It's somewhat less of a dramatic hoot, however. Characterization takes a back seat, and most of this act is composed of talking heads who are primarily Socratic foils by which the protagonist might be prodded into dispensing his wisdom. The other characters become kind of interchangeable at this point, but there's still a good deal of drama when the scientists predictions start to go wrong, and try as they may, they can't figure why. The struggle to keep up with the incoming information, trying to wrestle it into something sensible, but fail.

Where this act - and indeed the whole book - fall flat is that Hoyle has no real interest in the disaster itself. He's vastly more interested in cause than in effect, so he skims anticlimactically over the carnage and mayhem as quickly and passionless lay as he can, though he spends some pages on interesting atmospheric phenomenon. After all the buildup, we're told of the devastation, in broad, quick strokes, but we don't get much of a feel for it.

But of course this isn't a disaster novel Hoyle is writing here, it's an entirely different kind of story which merely happens to have a disaster in it. Thus I can forgive him his insistence on being intimate when drama demands epic.

The final act reveals what kind of story this actually is, and after a couple days of debate I've decided not to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say the scientists had an inherent bias that none of them (excepting the token soviet) were aware of that prevented them from seeing the obvious conclusions their data pointed to. I, myself, figured it out a chapter or two before the big reveal, but I've read a lot of these kinds of books in my life, so don't take that as self-praise on my part. I'm sure that in 1957 this big twist would have been pretty jaw-dropping. indeed, even today, the scope of it is pretty impressive, and more the sort of thing I'd expect out of Stanisaw Lem than from some musty old British academic.

This final act covers over many of the sins of the intermezzo, with a bit of excitement, a little awestruck wonder, some neato-keno ideas, and a tragedy brought about entirely by our abrasive jackass protagonist's fundamental inability to understand human society. Even so, all presence of characterization is dropped by now, and all characters apart from the protagonist and one named "Joe" cease to have any real identity at all. This would be more annoying were it earlier in the book, but as we're chugging along at a good clip to the end at this point, it's merely a flatfooted distraction.

In the epilogue, we see the first glimmerings of a new era for mankind in the year 2020, directly arising from the events of the story.

Bottom line: I liked it. One of the fun things of old-timey SF is that we frequently know more than they did, so an obvious solution to us - "Use RADAR, dumbass!" - isn't in their toolbox because it hasn't been invented or discovered yet. In the case of the Venus Equilateral stories, f'rinstance, they were written prior to Radar, so they have a whole story revolving around figuring other ways to track spacecraft other than dead reckoining. Likewise in this book, a lot of stuff we take for granted about these kinds of stories simply isn't available for the author to use.

I also found the author's take on sex sort of quaint. The protagonist has a 'walk of shame' scene that's kind of adorable in an oh-you-crazy-kids sort of way. There's an offhand mention of some behavior brought on by terror and fatalism at the scietific compound that might seem inappropriate. In both cases, sex is implied (Apparently quite a bit of it in the second instance) but is never expressly mentioned. As I said: quaint.

Another engaging aspect is that I feel like I learned some stuff from this book. Clearly that's part of Hoyle's agenda: He's an astronomer, he loves astronomy, and by gar, he's gonna' teach the reader a little bit about it by hook or by crook. And he does.

I would say Hoyle is a writer more-or-less on par with early Clarke. Clarke's biggest problems were a fundamental lack of understanding of human society, and Hoyle doesn't seem to have that (Though his protagonist does). Also Clarke never fully wrapped his brain 'round the need to have a plot in a story. Hoyle doesn't have that problem here. In stark literary terms, they're about even in writing prowess, but I find Hoyle more engaging in this, my only exposure to him, than I do Clarke in my dozen exposures to him.

I never realized the guy wrote SF before my friend MOATMAI gave me a copy of the book. I intend to check out some of his other stuff.

Thank you, MOATMAI!


Kevin Long is a science fiction writer, and he's pretty good at it. His personal website is here you should check it out, and posibly buy one of his books. He promises to be your best friend if you do.