The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle
If you happened to cast an eye over the shelves with the ‘what I’m currently considering reading next’ books piled on them, you might well notice that there are several sci-fi titles there – including titles by Clifford Simak, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, as well as all of M. John Harrison’s books. Contrary as I am, however, when I decided I *would* pick up a sci-fi title recently, it was none of those, but instead one I’ve had lurking upstairs for a while after picking it up in a charity shop – “The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle.
I know a little bit about Hoyle from watching too many BBC4 documentaries on space-type subjects, and I had heard of this book as being a seminal title. Plus the blurb describes it as Wellsian, which is so often my style of sci-fi, and it hit the reading spot at just the right moment.
“The Black Cloud” was published in 1957 and is set slightly in the (then) future of 1964. There’s a framing narrative, set in the far future, which is reassuring for us readers as we can assume that the human race is not likely to become extinct any time soon! As the action begins, American astronomers have spotted a black cloud of some sort moving in the direction of our solar system. Simultaneously, scientists in the UK have recognised the same cloud through calculations. Fortunately, the two groups are known to each other and can get together quickly to study this strange phenomenon. And it’s a good thing that they do, because it soon becomes clear that the cloud is moving directly towards us and is likely to block the sun for at least a month. This is likely to be catastrophic, of course, but plans can be put in place to cope with it until the cloud has passed so that the human race and the earth can survive.
Complicating matters, as always, are the politicians; fortunately, chief amongst the scientific community is the British maverick Chris Kingsley who’s as brilliant at manipulating people to get what he wants as he is at understanding what’s happening in space. He quickly arranges things so that there’s a secure base in the Cotswolds which contains not only the cream of UK and American science, but even manages to get a taciturn Russian flown in. They soon become a stand-alone unit, not answerable to any authority, which is what Kingsley wants, so that they can control how the cloud is dealt with.
And soon it arrives, encircling the sun and dramatically affecting the climate on Earth so that millions perish. However, something odd seems to be happening – instead of carrying on its journey and passing the solar system, the cloud *stops*. This is unprecedented, causing untold misery to the planet and causing the scientists to rack their brains trying to work out what’s actually going on. The conclusions they reach are shattering and unexpected…
I can see why “The Black Cloud” is regarded so highly, because it’s a remarkable piece of storytelling; in fact Richard Dawkins, who provides an excellent afterword, describes it as “One of the greatest works of science fiction ever written” – high praise indeed. It’s certainly a gripping book to read – the pace never slackens, there’s loads of action and to those of us who are old enough to have watched things like “Quatermass” and the original “Doctor Who”, this is familiar territory. There are constant clashes of scientists and politicians, with the latter always been proved wrong, and much tension and excitement as we watch events unfold.
Has it every 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 will preserve the same old social order of precedence? Politicians at the top, then the military, and the real brains at the bottom. There’s no difference between this set-up and that of Ancient Rome, or of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia for that matter. We’re living in a society that contains a monstrous contradiction, modern in its technology but archaic in its social organization.
Where the book differs from others I’ve read is the amount of actual scientific information it contains; there are equations and scientific theories and explanations which I’m assured are accurate, but which went a bit over my head. However, this doesn’t detract at all from the reading of the book; in fact, it just reassures you that we’re in good hands with a bunch of scientists who know what they’re talking about.
It’s difficult to discuss too much more of the book without giving away crucial parts of the plot; and I must admit that I guessed what the true nature of the cloud would turn out to be, which is perhaps inevitable nowadays, but that didn’t lessen the impact of that section of the plot. The ending was very exciting and plausible, and very satisfying.
Criticisms can (and have been) made about the book; the characters, apart from the main handful, aren’t particularly well-developed; and the role of women is somewhat in line with the time the story was written. Also, it’s rather shocking how casually the millions of deaths are mentioned, as if the higher purpose of science is the only thing that matters and in a way the ordinary people are just a lot of cannon fodder. Nevertheless, “The Black Cloud” is still a gripping and absorbing read and one that I absolutely loved. Definitely I need to read more science fiction!