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A Scientist’s Science Fiction Novel: Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud

Thursday, May 7th, 2020 | Posted by Mark R. Kelly

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle First Edition: William Heinemann, 1957.
Cover by Desmond Skirrow (click to enlarge)

The Black Cloud
by Fred Hoyle
William Heinemann (251 pages, £1.50 in hardcover, 1957)

Fred Hoyle’s 1957 novel The Black Cloud was the first novel by the renowned, perhaps now forgotten (because his big ideas turned out to be wrong), astronomer of the mid-20th century. It’s still his most famous, and likely best, novel, out of some nearly 20 novels he would subsequently write, some in collaboration. Hoyle’s novels are significant because they are science fiction novels written by a real scientist, perhaps the most famed scientist to have ever written science fiction. Hoyle is remembered as an advocate, in the 1950s, of the “steady-state” theory of the universe, in contrast to the “big bang” theory that would eventually prevail. (Ironically, Hoyle created the term “big bang” as a derisive term for an idea he didn’t like.)

The Black Cloud is memorable for its depiction, more or less successfully, of a truly alien intelligence. But it’s as much a disaster novel, of the “cozy catastrophe” variety (i.e. most of the death and devastation occurs off-stage), and a novel of scientific manners, as a first contact story. We see the sharp contrast between how scientists understand the world with how politicians try to manipulate it, and we see a milder contrast in the rivalry between an American group of scientists and a British group.

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. Valancourt Books 2015. Cover by Lorenzo Princi (click to enlarge)

I’ll format this post as a walkthrough of the book, with notes and quotes along the way. Page references are to the 2015 trade paperback edition from Valancourt Books in the US, shown here. Comments on bullets or in parens.

Evidence and Conclusions

There is an enigmatic one-page Prologue, about a collection of papers left by the late Sir John McNeil, senior Cambridge Fellow, with a cover letter about a role of punched paper tape.

The first chapter is set in southern California, in January 1964, as an astronomer at Mt. Palomar searches for supernovae by comparing photos taken weeks or months apart and using a “blinker” to compare them. Now he finds something striking — a large dark patch in the middle of a field of view. The older photo of the area shows only a smaller dark patch. He phones Dr. Marlowe, a senior staff member, and takes a taxi to his house in Altadena. Marlowe is exciting just by seeing the first plate — because a dust cloud (like those famous in Sagittarius) wasn’t known in that area at all. Upon seeing the second plate, Marlowe immediately phones Mt. Wilson to ask if he can take some time there tonight. The next morning Marlowe and Herrick, the Mt. Wilson director, look at the evidence and quickly deduce that something is moving toward Earth, perhaps obliquely. One of them does a quick calculation based on percentage change in size, and estimates it could be here by August 1965.

  • The prose here is a tad stiff, the dialogue stagey, but the thoroughness of thought is impressive, as is the quickness of logical deductions by the scientists based on the evidence they have. Example, pages 16-17. They are comparing two photographic plates that show the dark patch of dust against the stars in different sizes.

“…it looks as if there’s a whole ring of oscillating stars surrounding the cloud. But how could that be?”

“It can’t,” answered Marlowe. “That’s what I saw straight away. Even if we admit the unlikely hypothesis that this cloud is surrounded by a halo of variable stars, it is surely quite inconceivable that they’d all oscillate in phase with each other, all up together as in the first slide, and all down together in the second.”

“No, that’s preposterous,” broke in Barnett. “If we’re to take it that there’s been no slip-up in the photography, then surely there’s only one possible explanation. The cloud is moving toward us. In the second slide it’s nearer to us, and therefore it’s obscuring more of the distant stars.”

  • They wonder if the cloud is approaching directly, or obliquely. On pages 18 and 19 Hoyle provides simple diagrams to illustrate the difference. And in a half-page footnote on page 22, we get the differential equations used to calculate the estimate of the cloud’s arrival to Earth — 20 months.

In the second chapter we follow a different but parallel line of investigation and meet the other main character of the novel, Chris Kingsley, a professor of astronomy at Cambridge. He attends a meeting of both professional and amateur astronomers, where he listens in amazement as an amateur, George Green, claims to have measured the positions of Jupiter and Saturn and found them to be from a few seconds to a minute and a half (of arc) out of the position listed in the almanacs. The Astronomer Royal [AR, from the Royal Observatory] concurs with the findings. And deduces that some unknown body must be influencing their positions.

Kingsley is outraged and thinks someone is perpetuating a hoax on him. To verify for himself, he plans to use the electronic computer to predict the planets’ next positions, and spends the night refining computer code (on strips of paper) to make the calculations. The results validate the claim, and moreover, indicate the body is about 2/3 the mass of Jupiter. Can they see it through a telescope? Alas, it’s cloudy, for several days. And so they send a cable to Marlowe in Pasadena asking him to look… and get a quick return reply insisting they come to Pasadena at once.

Here is the primitive era of computing, page 32:

He still had to convert the letters and figures he had written into a form that the machine could interpret. This he did with a special kind of typewriter, a typewriter that delivered a strip of paper in which holes were punched, the pattern of the holes corresponding to the symbols that were being typed. It was the holes in the paper that constituted the final instructions to the computer. Not one single hole among many thousands could be out of its proper place, otherwise the machine would compute incorrectly. The typing had to be done with meticulous accuracy, with literally one hundred per cent accuracy.

(One of my earliest jobs was as a keypunch operator at my university library, beginning 1980. I punched cards, not paper strips, but otherwise the principles were the same. A single typo would void the run. And then you’d have to find the typo, and resubmit; the turn-around for each submission was a day.)

In the third chapter Kingsley arrives in California, and the group worries about the density of the Cloud – it’s about this point where the word gets capitalized — and whether it might block sunlight from the Earth. If Earth gets very cold, depending on the temperature of the Cloud itself, what might survive, if anything. (More calculations and diagrams, pp47-49.) And they wonder if they have an obligation to report their findings to their governments. Kingsley is cynical on this point:

I see no reason why we scientists should go to the politicians like a lot of dogs thumping our tails, saying ‘Please, sire, here’s our report. Please give us a pat on the back and perhaps even a biscuit if you feel so disposed.’ I can’t see the slightest point in having to do with a crowd of people that can’t even run society properly during normal times when there’s no serious stress. Will the politicians pass statues to stop the Cloud coming? Will they be able to prevent it cutting off the light of the Sun? If they can, then consult them by all means, but if they can’t let’s leave them out of the picture altogether.

The others disagree. Marlowe and Kingsley drive out to the desert, all the way to Death Valley, and back, wondering if they have only a year to live. Politicians will survive! And some plants and sea life perhaps. They realize it’s urgent to find out the temperature of the Cloud.

Then, in an odd passage that feels like an extract from a different book, they stop at a party on the way back into town. Kingsley is uncomfortable, drinks and dances, and decides to call a taxi to return to his hotel. A girl offers him a ride… she’s out of gas… she doesn’t have her purse… he helps her climb into her apartment, and then follows.

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. Signet, 5th printing of June 1959 edition.
Cover uncredited (click to enlarge)

Studies and Disaster

In chapter four, Herrick meets with the president, Kingsley with Home Security. The politicians are concerned about security, about reputations. Kingsley, debating with Home Security about the need for secrecy vs. the ability to pursue a scientific investigation, has this thought, page 72:

The two men were mentally too dissimilar for more than a half hour of conversation between them to be possible. When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking to react according to some pre-arranged plan. It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded. Anything was grist to the mill: flattery, the application of common-sense psychology, social pressure, the feeding of ambition, or even plain threats. For the most part like other administrators he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful. For strict logic he had no use whatever. To Kingsley on the other hand strict logic was everything, or nearly everything.

(Some things never change.) They part in disagreement. Shortly Kingsley’s rooms are raided, notebooks and records seized or recorded. The PM’s secretary Parkinson offers a compromise — a new facility dedicated to research on the Cloud. Kingsley agrees on condition he gets all the equipment he wants, and has no government officials in the compound. There is discussion among the scientists of amplitude modulation and the fancy new ‘frequency modulation,’ page 84. (At the time FM, as we know from the radio dial as opposed to AM, was the new thing.)

In chapter five the UK team is set up in a manor house at Nortonstowe (just north of Cambridge), where Joe Stoddard works as a gardener, with his wife Helen. Gossip passes among the staff; Agnes Alsop, hearing about “wireless valves,” becomes certain a death ray is being built. And they are all being given passes for entry and exit. Security having been set so that no one can enter or go out, Kingsley has invited some musicians to play one evening, and spend the night, before they find themselves trapped — his secret plan to make life more bearable for the scientists (cozy catastrophe indeed!). And then Marlowe arrives from America, having convinced his government to send him to Britain as a sort of spy on the other group. Actually he wanted out of the top-heavy organization running the American group, sequestered out in the desert.

They learn the Cloud’s temp is 200 absolute. Kingsley goes on to describe how a nearby cave is being outfitted as their shelter should the worst happen. He goes on about the social order, where politicians are at the top, the real brains at the bottom. Here again scientists vs politicians, page 99:

Has it ever occurred to you, Geoff, that in spite of all the changes wrought by science — by our control over inanimate energy, that is to say — we still preserve the same old social order of precedence? Politicians at the top, then the military, and the real brains at the bottom. … We’re living in a society that contains a monstrous contradiction, modern in its technology but archaic in its social organisation.

And:

It isn’t just a case of scientists versus the rest. The matter goes deeper. It’s a clash between two totally different modes of thinking. Society today is based in its technology on thinking. Society today is based in its technology on thinking in terms of numbers. In its social organisation, on the other hand, it is based on thinking in terms of words. It’s here that the real clash lies, between the literary mind and the mathematical mind.

(Of course one can think of science fiction itself as an attempt to blend literary and scientific thought.) Kingsley also describes his plan to rule the world, at least temporarily — but using a special code to issue huge amounts of information, or prerecorded messages, at 100x the capacity of ordinary radio, and so dominate the airwaves. (And describes the code in great detail.)

And then in chapter six the public notices the Cloud in the sky and newspapers begin publishing stories about it. Meanwhile the scientists detect that the Cloud is indeed moving straight toward the sun. They worry about the huge mass of hydrogen hitting Earth’s atmosphere. They decide upper elevations will be in danger of radiation, and should be evacuated. By January Rigel is obscured, and then Orion and Sirius. Towns consider shutting off electricity so people can see it. Asian countries are unconcerned. Months pass. Now estimates are that temperatures might rise 30 degrees.

And they discover that the Cloud is slowing down. In June and July temperatures rise steadily. Millions die all over the world. The planet becomes shrouded in clouds, rain, humidity. And the moon is seen to be boiling — it’s been hit by the blobs of matter thrown out by the Cloud to slow itself down. If one hits earth, they may have only hours to live.

In chapter seven, on the morning of August 27th and sun has disappeared; the entire Earth is in darkness. After three days a dim red light returns. It rains incessantly. Huge storms rage. One hurricane destroys the manor, and kills Palomar astronomer Knut Jensen – the one who first noticed the Cloud — and his Greta. By September snow and ice spread. The skies clear and the red glow comes from the Cloud, not the sun. It gets colder. By October a quarter of the world’s population dies.

The Prime Minister comes to complain that the scientists’ predictions haven’t panned out. He’s told that’s because the Cloud isn’t sweeping past — it’s stopped. If it stays stopped for three months, everyone will die.

In chapter eight, the Cloud thins, or perhaps is simply clearing so that the sun’s light will reach Earth. By Oct 24th the sun shines at full strength. People of all religions becomes instinctive sun worshipers.

Governments settle down. The Cloud settles into a disk at a high inclination — but Earth will pass through its shadow twice a year. There could be long-term climate impacts. Perhaps a new ice age. Ocean currents will shift.

Radio communications are affected, and Kingsley’s plan of using his system is put into place. Then electrical disturbances hit the atmosphere — they realize from the Cloud. Messages get interrupted and fade out. They try sending signals at various wavelengths, and the results seem… systematic. Ionization rises just to the point to block whatever frequency is sent. But how could it be causal? They do a couple of trials to test the hypothesis. Where is the power coming to produce the rise of ionization? The Cloud?

Perhaps all their mistakes can be explained if the Cloud is alive.

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Other books by Fred Hoyle: novel October the First Is Too Late (Harper & Row/Book Club, 1968);
collection Element 79 (New American Library/Book Club, 1967);
2015 Valancourt editions of novels October the First Is Too Late and Fifth Planet
(the latter with Geoffrey Hoyle, originally 1963), covers by Lorenzo Princi (click to enlarge)

Communications and Revelations

In chapter nine, the scientists wonder where the Cloud came from; assume there’s a “Beast” inside the Cloud, but many or one? If many they’d be essentially telepathic, even though telepathy is impossible in brains like ours (discussion of this page 162, which I’ll resist quoting). They figure it unlikely the Cloud is unique. And they decide to try to communicate with it.

And so in chapter ten they establish communication. (Odd they don’t try something basic like sending prime numbers — just to alert the Cloud there’s something intelligent on the planet.)

Four days later they send science and math and receive a reply – they let it figure out human language (as in so many SF stories, the problem of communication with intelligent aliens is passed off to the aliens, rather than trying to depict humans learning an alien language. At least in this case, with a vastly superior alien intelligence, it’s more plausible that it should learn English than in many other such sf stories.) It replies and instructs them to use a code so the human signals can be distinguished from other signals. They rig a system to play its messages in the voice of the gardener, Joe. And so it talks, pages 175ff,

Your first transmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets, which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life.

(This point reflects another Hoyle proposal, the idea of Panspermia, that life exists throughout the universe, perhaps throughout space, spread by space dust and so on, rather than evolving separately on each planet. While never refuted, the idea hasn’t gained much currency.)

The Cloud goes on and on about this theme, effectively (as the best science fiction does) challenging the presumptions we humans make about the world and our existence. This is the core interest of this novel, and I will try to resist quoting too much. The Cloud makes deductions about human kind of life, considers the importance of grass, how humans are individuals but are very similar. It asks about arts and music, which it doesn’t understand; they send it a recording of Beethoven’s opus 106 (the Hammerklavier sonata), and it replies to speed it up.

The humans debate how much they should inform their governments, and decide to let them listen in — but not transmit. About the time officials listen in, the Cloud is asking about love and sex, and deduces the problem of an expanding population.

The Cloud says it lives indefinitely; it thinks it’s about 500 million years old. Where did the first one come from? It supposes there was no “first” member, and one of the scientists thinks, page 184 top, “That one in the eye for the exploding universe boys” — because, again, Hoyle was a proponent of “continuous creation” idea of the universe, and derided the idea of a “Big Bang.”

They wonder how it is they can understand each other, and Kingsley opines how the universe contains a single logic, page 186:

It’s a little difficult for me to explain, because this is as near as I go to the expression of religious sentiment. We know that the Universe possesses some inner basic structure, this is what we are finding out in our science or trying to find out. We tend to give ourselves a sort of moral pat on the back when we contemplate our successes in this respect, as if to say that the Universe is following our logic. But this is surely to put the cart before the horse. It isn’t the Universe that’s following our logic, it’s we that are constructed in accordance with the logic of the Universe. That that gives what I might call a definition of intelligent life: something that reflects the basic structure of the Universe.

In chapter eleven the politicians worry if the Cloud has power to destroy Earth; the assumption is that alien intelligences are evil, are a threat.

“Well, isn’t it axiomatic that any non-human intelligence must be evil?”

“I suppose it is. Now I come to think of it, ninety-nine per cent of stories about non-human intelligences treat ‘em as being entirely villainous. I’d always supposed that was because it’s so difficult to invent a really convincing villain, but perhaps it may run deeper.”

“Well, people are always frightened of what they don’t understand…”

Meanwhile the American team tries contacting the Cloud, but are ignored — they don’t have the code the Cloud sent the Brits.

Both the Americans and the Soviets launch rockets with hydrogen bombs into the Cloud, not so much to damage it, but to poison it. The scientists consider the dangers. They’ve come to the conclusion that the Cloud may linger 50 to 100 years. They discuss the nature of politicians, who like power and for whom losing power would be the worst possible thing.

They decide to advise the Cloud. It replies that it will reverse the course of the rockets back to their targets. The scientists advise the US and Russia, realizing by now they must be considered traitors. Subsequently three cities, including El Paso, are hit by hydrogen bombs.

Finally in chapter twelve the Cloud announces that it intends to depart in about 10 days. And here the book gets most intriguing. Why is it leaving? It answers by speculating about even higher intelligences, and about “deep problems.” Pages 209-210, condensing a bit:

Yet many mysterious questions remain. Probably you have wondered whether a larger-scale intelligence than our own exists. Now you know that it does. In a like fashion I ponder on the existence of a larger-scale intelligence than myself. There is none within the Galaxy, and none within other galaxies so far as I am yet aware. Yet there is strong evidence, I fell, that such an intelligence does play an overwhelming part in our existence. Otherwise how is it decided how matter shall behave? How are your laws of physics determined? Why those laws and no others?…

Although I say these problems are of extreme difficulty there is evidence that they can be solved. Some two thousand million years ago one of us claimed to have reached a solution… Attempts were made to re-establish contact with the individual concerned, but the attempts were not successful…

The same pattern of events occurred again about four hundred million years ago… This same sequence of events has just been repeated from a third time. It happens that the one who claimed the great discovery was situated only a little more than two light years from here. I am his nearest neighbor and it is therefore necessary for me to proceed to the scene without delay.

The scientists reply with some questions. The Cloud speculates this kind of knowledge entails limitations that may cause space to close up on itself, p212 (an anticipation of black holes). And it wonders about the capacity of the human brain, noting that geniuses are taught, implying flexibility of the human mind. Can it answer fundamental questions beyond human science? (The humans haven’t asked any such questions until now.) Perhaps, but they will have to learn its language, and the Cloud proposes a way to expose the human mind to its language via a rack of CRTs (i.e. electronic screens).

One of the scientists, Weichert, volunteers, and sits before the screens for hours, appearing to be in a hypnotic state, before his temperature rises and… he dies. (Implied here is the idea that the human mind may be unable to grasp certain truths, due to limitations of its structure; that super-intelligent aliens might perceive truths about the universe that we could never apprehend. On the other hand, on page 212 the Cloud says “Genius is not a biological phenomenon. A child does not possess genius at birth: genius is learned.” So perhaps it thinks there are no limits.)

The next day Kingsley insists on trying himself, telling the Cloud to slow down the transmission. He lasts longer, and briefly comes to his senses, talking about the difficulty of blending existing knowledge with things completely new – like inputting modern science into an ancient Greek. And he says, ironically, that a simpler mind, like Joe the gardener’s, might have been more successful. And then he dies.

Conclusion

50 years later, John McNeil describes how Kingsley was given the blame and the other scientists came away unscathed. And how only the scientists knew the real reason for the Cloud’s departure. And finally – McNeil kept the code they used to communicate with the Cloud, on a roll of paper tape.

Epilogue

Finally, in closure to the enigmatic prologue, McNeil’s executor Blythe finds the box of paper tape and has copies made and sent around the world.

Summary

And so the novel is a bit like a series of Russian dolls, one layer after another opening onto more and more incredible situations: an astronomical phenomenon, a worldwide disaster, contact with a superior alien, speculation into higher truths of reality. With a very nice concluding flourish that suggests even greater discoveries to come. Because in science, in the study of the nature of reality, there is always more to come.


Mark R. Kelly’s last review for us was Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Mark wrote short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine from 1987 to 2001, and is the founder of the Locus Online website, for which he won a Hugo Award in 2002. He established the Science Fiction Awards Database at sfadb.com. He is a retired aerospace software engineer who lived for decades in Southern California before moving to the Bay Area in 2015. Find more of his thoughts at Views from Crestmont Drive.

3 Comments »

  1. (One of my earliest jobs was as a keypunch operator at my university library, beginning 1980. I punched cards, not paper strips, but otherwise the principles were the same. A single typo would void the run. And then you’d have to find the typo, and resubmit; the turn-around for each submission was a day.)

    The same job I did in the Army from 1982 to 1985. I still have some of the cards. They’re like neolithic cave paintings now.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - May 7, 2020 10:57 am

  2. This book was kind of a semi-big deal, seems to me, when I was first reading a lot of SF in 1972 or so. It was indeed promoted as “SF by a real scientist [and a very highly respected and well-known one, at that]”. Now it seems kind of forgotten.

    I remember reading it and liking it, and going on to read more Hoyle books, notably OCTOBER THE FIRST IS TOO LATE, which I always think of as OCTOBER THE FIFTH IS TOO LATE, for reasons easily deducible be looking at my bio!

    Comment by Rich Horton - May 7, 2020 11:38 am

  3. My early years with sf were the early 1970s, so Sir Fred was a major author in my writer pantheon. I read a number of his books (October the First is Too Late being one favorite), especially the then-current collaborations with his son Geoffrey (Seven Steps to the Sun comes to mind).

    An I, too, worked with punch cards, whose enduring lesson for me was never, ever play with the punched-out “confetti”, as those rectangular chads were deadly sharp on their corners.

    Comment by Eugene R. - May 9, 2020 9:51 pm


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