When the front cover of a science fiction book, be it Penguin Books selection or not, states that the book is “science fiction from a scientist,” my first thoughts lurch towards a plot heavily reliant on dry yet thorough science with little, if any, characterization. Books that heralded as being penned by real scientists are often full of scientific detail, as if the entire novel is one large playground for the author’s idiosyncratic dalliances. Some other examples of hard science authors which failed to impress me: Charles Sheffield, Gregory Benford, Ken MacLeod, and Michael McCollum. My hope for The Black Cloud low but the synopsis was intriguing. Of Fred Hoyle’s fifteen adult science fiction novels (many co-authored with Geoffrey Hoyle), this was his first foray into the realm of speculative fiction.
Inside cover synopsis:
“In 1964 a cloud of gas, of which there are a vast number in the Universe, approaches the solar system on a course that is predicted to bring it between the Sun and the Earth, shutting off the Sun’s rays and causing incalculable changes on our planet.
The effect of this impending catastrophe on the scientists and politicians is convincingly described by Fred Hoyle, the leading Cambridge astronomer: so convincingly, in fact, that the reader may feel that these events may actually happen. This is science at its very highest level.”
The Americans spot a black splotch in the deep night sky and ascertain that a cloud is headed towards the solar system. Coincidently, the English spot a disturbance among the orbits of the planets, which they hypothesize to be a mass of an approaching body and alert the American astronomers. Together, they gather their data and confirm the facts that a large body of interstellar gas is approaching their solar system and will likely intersect with their orbit.
Both the American and English astronomy teams are unsure whether or not to alert their respective governments. Eventually, the heads of government are made aware of the possible threat but the high-minded scientists of England play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the thumb-sitting bureaucrats. The Americans establish their own post to observe the cloud while the English construct an elaborate laboratory to study the current and future effects of the cloud’s arrival. Reinforced and stocked with provisions, the scientists in England have the technological advantage and force their government to their own demands.
The effects of the cloud’s arrival are devastating to much of the Earth’s inhabitants from pole to pole. The change in weather patterns, solar energy input, and typical orbital bombardment ravage much of the Earth, but still the vigilant scientists keep track of its anomalous trajectory. The cloud seems to move under its own volition rather than being bound by the constraints of physics, so the scientists invoke their communication prowess and establish contact with the cloud.
Tedious and thorough at first, the English find that the cloud has migrated to their star to feed. Its display of inertial power upsets the American and Russian governments, who in-like respond with their own display of power. However, the English scientists collude with the cloud and events take a turn for the worse. The enigmatic cloud supposes many questions from the scientists and the cloud, in turn, posits questions to the odd planet-based life form known as humans.
If you skim that short four paragraph synopsis, one will notice a certain lack of names. This purposeful exercise of omitting names is indicative of the lack of characterization in the novel. The suite of characters comes in three flavors: the American scientists, the English scientists (inclusive of an Australian and a Russian), and the government. For some texture, Fred throws a few sprinkles on top: a woman secretary and a dull handyman. Penned by a scientist, the reader can expect the scientists to be morally high-handed and intellectually superior while the government toads are bureaucratic and sluggish. The whole “super scientist” ploy resounds with as much cadence as a bell made of pocket lint being struck by a starchy sock.
Exacerbating the lame cast are the lengthy tirades of scientific jargon which include astrophysics (inclusive of some archaic belief in the Steady State theory) and radio communication (inclusive of 12 pages of trial-and-error). The heavy science is distracting to the greater mystery of the cloud itself, but Fred actually pulls a few wonders out of his scientific hat. Perhaps the technology was bit early for 1964, but Hoyle envisions text-to-speech recognition software and light-read paper coding. Not all of the science is as archaic as Hoyle long-term belief in a static universe, and his insight into how science can benefit mankind at the hands of able scientists is reminiscent of George O. Smith’s Venus Equilateral (1946).
Just when the novel is being drug down the pages ridden with uninspiring stereotypes and protracted scientific details, Hoyle pulls an ace out of the hat with a surprising insight into the intelligence of the interstellar cloud. It’s not simply “intelligent” because it is, it has a history, a reason for its being, a psychological and physiological make-up, and has areas of ignorance as much as it does areas of enlightenment; it’s fallible, mortal, and ignorant just like the humans attempting to study it.
The flaws are cast in the shadow of Hoyle’s creativity with the cloud entity and his insight into future technological progress. The Black Cloud may be a reminiscent beacon of science fiction greatness to some, but fifty-five years since its publication has dated it pretty badly. Dually composed of dull stereotypes and idiosyncratic scientific dalliances, the disappoint is offset in the last twenty percent by the wonderment of the cloud’s intelligence and basic anthropomorphic similarities to the scientists who are eager to understand it. This humanistic shot from the blue is a relief when compared to the uninspiring individuals found within the book, but this doesn’t save the book from its inherit weaknesses.