Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Black Cloud

Fred Hoyle The Black Cloud (1957)
I had been trying to get hold of this one ever since I saw Dawkins rate it on one of those books you read as a kid shows, back when Dawkins was less annoying. The one I ordered from Amazon turned out to be an abridged effort printed for schools, about as thick as an After Eight mint and with half of the already reduced page count taken up by teachers notes and questions along the lines of why did the scientist think the Earth would become colder when the Black Cloud arrived? My friend Andy told me there was no point reading an abridged Black Cloud, so I didn't.

Nevertheless I kept looking because I'd promised myself I would find the thing, and was buoyed along by a vague childhood memory of my granny having fetched another Fred Hoyle science-fiction novel from the mobile library for me to read when I was ill. Only recently have I positively identified said novel as having been Into Deepest Space, not Neutron Star as I remember for some peculiar reason given that the latter title refers to a collection of short stories by Larry Niven. Anyway, I enjoyed Into Deepest Space immensely, so it was probably the first science-fiction novel I read, not counting Doctor Who books based on television shows.

Of course, Fred Hoyle was primarily a scientist, and one who now seems best known for having duffed up Stephen Hawking around the back of the bike sheds on occasions when the latter failed to cough up his dinner money, although the psychological underpinning of the battering was probably something to do with Hawking's theories supplanting Hoyle's steady state model of the universe. Hoyle seems to have been somewhat discredited in recent years, which is a shame as I still think the steady state is a nice idea and not entirely without merit, although some of the stuff he cooked up with that Chandra Wickramasinghe was obviously complete bollocks.

Anyway, I kept an eye open and thus made purchase of two cowritten novels - The Andromeda Breakthrough with John Elliott, and Seven Steps to the Sun with his offspring, Geoffrey Hoyle. They're pretty much unreadable, hard science diluted with a load of crap which I suspect some editor may have suggested would help sell the books - Ian Flemingisms and unconvincing references to the manly pursuit of smoking a pipe whilst making lurve to a beautiful woman. In spite of this, my search continued and has at last been rewarded.

Hard science-fiction is sort of the Paul Weller of science-fiction literature, I suppose - plenty of clenching and suggestions of commitment and less of the prancing around in dresses or talking about feelings; or page after page of top scientists having conversations about different kinds of proton, if you prefer - the kind of thing by which Isaac Asimov made his name. That said, in hard science-fiction terms, Asimov reads like one of Michael Moorcock's more inscrutably peculiar efforts compared to The Black Cloud.

The story is fairly simple - a massive cloud of dark gas approaches the solar system and comes to rest, blocking out the sun. The Earth freezes, everything begins to die, and it looks as though we're fucked until the point at which a group of plucky scientists realise that the cloud is intelligent and that communication is possible, and I won't spoil the rest. Most of this is told in a fashion which I would describe as plodding were I a less patient man, alternating passages reading more like essays than fiction, and droning conversations about protons and temperature differentials amongst numerous tweedy scientists, with the occasional light-hearted cricketing reference just to break it up a bit. It should be terrible, but the reader is quickly accustomed to this somewhat stilted style because that which is discussed, if not quite gripping, is certainly interesting.

Four days earlier in London a remarkable meeting had been held in the rooms of the Royal Astronomical Society. The meeting had been called, not by the Royal Astronomical Society itself, but by the British Astronomical Association, an association essentially of amateur astronomers.

Charles Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, travelled by train in the early afternoon to London for the meeting. It was unusual for him, the most theoretical of theoreticians, to be attending a meeting of amateur observers. But there had been rumours of unaccounted discrepancies in the positions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Kingsley didn't believe it, but he felt that scepticism should rest on solid ground, so he ought to hear what the chaps had to say about it.

Hold onto your hats, kids, because here we fucking go!!!

Seriously, in spite of itself, there's something in the tone and pacing of The Black Cloud which holds it all together. Despite the tweedier qualities, the somewhat predictable subtext of how everything would be better if we let scientists run the show, the suggestion of worldly experience which doesn't go much beyond handing in end of term papers and then enjoying a jolly old spot of cricket, despite all of its crankier qualities, The Black Cloud is an impressively solid novel, and - much to my surprise - one that has been worth every second of the wait. I suppose this is because, rather than having someone else come along to strip in details which might appeal to those who didn't actually want to read a science-fiction novel in the first place, Hoyle writes to his own strengths. There are some wonderful engrossing passages, not least the thoroughly convincing speculation on how intelligent life might develop within a cloud of interstellar gas, and even a few amusing steady state gags incorporated into discussion of the anthropic principal and even religion - one in the eye for the exploding-universe boys, as Hoyle puts it. The sobriety of the narrative lends the events of the story a greater and more chilling weight than one might experience were the tale to be told in more poetic terms. This shit could actually happen.

So Dawkins was right - The Black Cloud really is a classic.

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