Dark Days Coming: A Review of The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle
Some say the world will end in fire. Some say ice.
Robert Frost in the poem appearing in Harper’s Magazine in 1920.
It’s wonderful to see many works of science fiction being reprinted these days and in the broadest sense, The Black Cloud is one of them. Numerous scientists discover a black mass, with a gravitational pull strong enough to pull planets off their orbits, is heading toward earth. Some data checking via a computer with punch cards and many thousands of hot valves work to pump out a verification on a thin strip about ten yards long. British scientists Marlowe and Kingsley are worried, so they continue to verify and to ask for verification. Indeed, the big black cloud is coming, and quickly. They measure the density only to find it’s 10^–9 per 10^–10 per cm^3 or enough density to block out the sun. It’s coming, and coming, and coming. And one after another scientist is skeptical and then verifies, in a retelling of the story over and over. At one point, there is presented an outline of what is known, giving the author a chance yet again to go through the facts. For Hoyle, if you don’t have plot movement, then a strategy is to restate the plot so far. This fills the first half of the book.
There is speculation of what it might cause globally, which is either drastic cold on the level of 100–250 below zero or a heat wave. The scientists appeal to the US president who poo-poo’s them and flies them back home. The UK Prime Minister is more receptive and sets them up with a hush-hush research laboratory in Nortonstowe in the Cotswolds. Here they watch and measure and speculate on science and humanity. They discuss the idea that humanity comprises two modes of thinking: mathematical and literary. It is interesting that this idea, as presented by Hoyle, predates C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures written in 1959. Snow too, by the way, was a scientist and novelist.
On August 28, there is no dawn — the sun is blacked out. And so the second half of the book begins with the arrival of the cloud. It’s the heat wave that wins. It’s hot, but evidently not too bad. “There is fierce and wild rioting in many of the world’s major cities.” And, “The death rate had climbed to a wholly grotesque level but it rose no further.” That’s good then. Following, massive flooding and severe storms ravage the world’s communities. But not to fear, science is here. Governments, while being portrayed as inept and secretive, continue to trust science — ah, the golden-eyed view of yore, that is such a contrast to today’s position of governments raising science as a question when they want to promote a strategic narrative. Electronic communication is disrupted. The cloud sends gets of high-speed gas at the moon, which causes huge moon dust jets. For those who want a sip of the hard sci-fi, there’s a long section about ionization and penetration. And then maybe, just maybe, the thing is a living entity, like Solaris (1961). So here again we have an example of hyperstition, as coined by the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit out of Warwick in the 1990s by Nick Land and others. Although, in a slight spin on the concept of fictions that function causally to bring about their own reality, here the fictions become not strictly reality but real fictions in the future. Is this thing able to communicate? I won’t give away the ending so readers may be surprised at the anti-climax denouement, but suffice it to say we learn this thing is about 500 million years old. The scientists suggest that if a super intelligent entity exists, it is probably not limited spatially or temporally, and this is certainly a weakness in current ufology that privileges seen, regular, concrete craft for the most part.
Meanwhile, Kingsley et al. trundle along, observing and speculating. At time they are humorous. Kingsley’s friend ponders what Kingsley is reading: “The Astronomer Royal looked at Kingsley’s book and saw it was Herodotus’ Histories. ‘My God, he’ll be reading Thucydides next,’ thought the Astronomer Royal.” Certainly, Thucydides wrote, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it” fits for Kingsley and friends.
Hoyle was a second-rate writer and a brilliant professor of experimental astronomer who held solidly to a steady-state model of the universe, as opposed to a big bang theory and that sneaks into the plot. It is in part a story of the heavens, but which I mean loads of exclamations such as, “‘Heavens, he’s at it again,’ thought Kingsley.” Otherwise, it’s fun archaic language. People see queer things and they act queer. Other people are “hard put” to do things and others are “chivvied” into doing things. At times, sentences take on a weird alien life of their own, such as in this one: “‘Dam’ good idea. Always force foreigners to learn English,” said Alexandrov to Yvette Hedelfort.”
In an afterward, Richard Dawkins both praises and critiques the book. He gets excited as a fellow scientist about the larger scientific questions, but it’s clear he frames the book through his own lenses, as we all do. The book frankly is not the great and certainly not “one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written” as Dawkins writes.” But he also writes generously, “the dialogue occasionally becomes a little clunky.” Try a lot clunky for most of the time. The premise is great, but the writing is a bit like a turtle on its back, and it’s more turtles on their backs all the way down. Think of it like a Condensed Classic on Silver Screen. For the eeriness of an alien, Solaris, the movie, wins hands down. And again, the sentience of some being predates even Colossus, the computer in the 1970 book by D.F. Jones or Hal in the movie 2001: Space Odyssey of 1968. There was a good deal of mid-century speculation, or worry, about larger than human intelligence and sentience that streamed through the arts. This was probably residue of the heyday of visionary science fiction in the 1920s and 1930s and something offering both hope and warning about the much larger than humanity nuclear bomb. At any rate, when played against other roughly contemporaneous mid-century works of fiction, Hoyle and Hyperstition wins the point.