The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

‘Nice place you’ve got here. Have some tea?’
‘Thanks, it’s very kind of you.’
‘Not at all.’
(The Black Cloud, page 95)

If Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is a kind of Swiftian satire which glossed over the practical aspects of space travel in order to concentrate on making its moralising points, The Black Cloud is the exact opposite, a science fiction showcase of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and factual accuracy.

It is set slightly into what was then the future, the narrative opening in January 1964. The blurb on the back has already told you that it’s about a black cloud which enters the solar system heading towards the Earth, so there’s no surprise about the central fact of the story, but any suspense about whether this is going to be an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world shocker is killed stone dead by the first few words of the prologue. This is set fifty years in the future (2020) and immediately establishes the jocular tone and worldview.

It is a humorous letter from a chap at a jolly nice Cambridge college, Dr John McPhail, and he describes the advent of the black cloud as ‘an interesting episode’, so jolly interesting that it was the subject of the thesis which won him his fellowship at Queen’s College, Cambridge. Good show.

So – we realise immediately – the world is not going to end, and also we are going to be dealing with jolly decent chaps from Cambridge and the Royal Astronomical Society. Thus deprived of key elemens of suspense, the interest in this early part of the text derives from:

  • a highly accurate description of the state of astronomical knowledge circa 1957, along with the technology they used then (the different types of telescope, techniques for comparing prints of photos taken of deep space, a long description of punching the tape required in a very early computer)
  • some very detailed calculations about the probable velocity, density and direction of the cloud which the characters do on blackboards as they discuss it, and which are reproduced in the book (you don’t often see extensive mathematical formulae in a novel)
  • some of the terminology and phraseology: I was particularly struck by the way that the word lab, being a contraction of laboratory, is printed as ‘lab.’ throughout

Introduction to the star character, Professor Christopher Kingsley

So a group of astronomers in America notice that something is progressively blotting out stars in a particular part of the sky, while at the same time an amateur astronomer tips off the British Royal Astronomical Society that the orbits of the larger planets in the solar system seem to have shifted. Sceptical experts redo the observations and conclude that something massive is causing them to wobble.

At the meeting where these figures are first discussed we are introduced to the irascible figure of the Cambridge-based theoretical astronomer, Professor Christopher Kingsley, age 37, tall with thick dark hair and ‘astonishing blue eyes’, a man apart, who follows arguments to their logical conclusion no matter how unpopular, who gets cross with anyone slower on the uptake, and manages to be both highly intelligent and a figure of fun to his colleagues – and is without doubt the central character in the book.

All these chaps analyse the findings, draw formulae on blackboards, puff on their pipes and conclude that a cloud of unknown gas is going to engulf the Sun and Earth in about 17 months time. They estimate it will take about a month to transit past, during which time, if it blots out the heat from the sun, most animals on earth will die, along with most humans. Seeds in the soil should survive so the planet’s flora will kick off after the cloud has left.

As in Arthur C. Clarke, the pleasure comes from the scientific accuracy of the speculation at each stage of the narrative i.e. we eavesdrop while the American and British scientists discuss and interpret each new set of data and information as it comes in and then discuss the possible consequences. So one of the pleasures of the book is enjoying the temporary illusion that you are as clever as these top astronomers.

In these early pages Hoyle paints a stark contrast between the cultures of Britain and America. In Britain the astronomer royal visits Cambridge, where it is cold and damp and foggy and depressing – although the college fellows treat themselves to four-course dinners, and then sit by roaring fires drinking vintage wine.

By contrast, when Kingsley flies over to California to meet the astronomers there, he is hosted by astronomer Geoff Marlowe, who takes him for a drive out into the Mojave desert, then to a restaurant where they speculate about the forthcoming world-changing event – then onto a party at a rich property developer’s house, whence Kingsley goes on to a smaller, more intimate party where he tries to dance with a sexy broad, disapproves of American bourbon, doesn’t like the raucous music on the gramophone and generally comes over as an uptight limey. A dark-haired lady offers him a lift back to his hotel, but they go via her apartment where, since she’s forgotten her keys, he helps her break in, and he ends up spending the night

The contrast between big, rich, scenic, partyful and sexually promiscuous America, and cold, foggy, damp, austerity England where there don’t even appear to be any women, let alone loose women, couldn’t be more striking.

The scientists make a base in the Cotswolds

The book is full of what, to the modern reader, seem like all sorts of oddities and eccentricities. The American and British astronomers, over the course of a series of meetings, become convinced that an enormous cloud of gas is heading directly for the sun, though whether it is cold or hot, full of electrical or radioactive activity, or inert, they cannot say. If it’s hot it might boil the earth’s atmosphere way, killing all life. Even if it’s inert it will probably block the light from the sun, as described above, killing nearly all terrestrial life.

There are at least two oddities: one is the way they sit around in their Cambridge rooms, puffing their pipes and offering each other tea and biscuits while they speculate about the likely impact. The other is that both teams decide to conceal the fact from their respective governments. They think politicians will only interfere and cause panic.

In the event news does leak out to the civil service and the Home Secretary comes to meet Kingsley, who, deploying his ‘easy-going, insulting manner’ (p.128) is immensely rude and confrontational, telling him quite openly that he despises politicians and civil servants. We are then party to the Home Secretary reporting back to the Prime Minister and so on. It seems inconceivable that one man’s personal arrogance (Kingsley’s) can influence so much.

In the event a secretary to the PM, Francis Parkinson, comes up with the suggestion that the scientists be given their own research base to study the cloud, and Whitehall settles on the manor of Nortonstowe in the Cotswolds, a nice country mansion which the Ministry of Agriculture had just finished converting into a research centre for agriculture. It is co-opted for the astronomers. Kingsley is their undoubted leader and makes all kinds of demands as rudely as he can of the politicians.

The place us surrounded by military police, and servants rustled up from the nearby new housing estate, while Kingsley rounds up the best minds available and hounds the ministry into installing state of the art telescopes, photography equipment and so on (no computers). Kingsley makes the inexplicable demand that anybody who comes to Nortonstowe will not be allowed to leave. Thus the Whitehall aide, Parkinson, is inveigled into being stuck there, but Kingsley then pulls a deceitful trick by inviting a string quartet he knows from Cambridge to come and perform and, only on the morning after the performance, happening to tell them that, now they’re here, they won’t be able to leave.

Kingsley behaves like a cross between a dictator and a spoilt child and everyone has to put up with it because Hoyle makes him the great genius who knows or calculates or spots or thinks things through far faster than anyone else. The core of the novel is the dynamic between Kingsley and the small court of scientists he has assembled, including:

  • Geoff Marlowe the American
  • British astronomers Dave Weichart and John Marlborough
  • technicians Roger Emerson and Bill Barnett and Yvette Hedelfort
  • the woman leader of the string quartet Ann Halsey (who seems to spend her time making endless pots of coffee for the Big Brains around her and is on the receiving end of some breath-takingly sexist put-downs from Kingsley)
  • Knut Jensen from Norway via the States
  • Harry Leicester from the University of Sydney
  • John McNeil, a young physician, who ends up writing the prologue and epilogue to the narrative
  • and a Russian physicist who happened to be visiting Britain, Alexis Alexandrov, and soon becomes a comic figure because of his habit of speaking in extremely brief, pithy sentences, for example: ‘Gulf Stream goes, gets bloody cold’

Global devastation

Finally the cloud arrives and it is almost as an afterthought to the absorbing conversations between chaps puffing on their pipes and scribbling on blackboards, that Hoyle casually mentions the devastating impact it has on the rest of the human race. They thought the cloud would block the sun and cause a big freeze. They hadn’t anticipated that it would reflect the heat of the sun with increased force. Thus the world experiences unprecedented heatwaves.

Conditions were utterly desperate throughout the tropics as may be judged from the fact that 7,943 species of plants and animals became totally extinct. The survival of Man himself was only possible because of the caves and cellars he was able to dig. Nothing could be done to mitigate the stifling air temperature. The number who perished during this phase is unknown. It can only be said that during all phases together more than seven hundred million persons are known to have lost their lives. (p.120)

The really odd thing about the book, its most striking characteristic, is how the chaps at Nortonstowe carry on discussing theoretical physics and puffing on their pipes through it all. The vast rise in humidity led to atmospheric instability which led to an epidemic of wildly destructive hurricanes around the world. In fact the manor house at Nortonstowe is itself destroyed in one of these hurricanes and one of the astronomers, Jensen, killed.

All this was caused by heat reflected from the cloud. When the cloud itself begins to arrive and blot out the sun’s light and heat temperatures plummet. As Hoyle briskly summarises it:

Except in the heavily industrialised countries, vast legions of people lost their lives during this period. For weeks they had been exposed to well-nigh unbearable heat. Then many had died by flood and storm. With the coming of intense cold, pneumonia became fiercely lethal. Between the beginning of August and the first week of October roughly a quarter of the world’s population died. (p.127)

The scientists notice something strange and ominous. The cloud is slowing down. There is a great deal of scientific speculation about how it could do this which settles on the idea that it is sending out great pellets of ice which are acting like rockets to slow its velocity. Most vivid proof is when one of these enormous ice pellets hits the surface of the moon causing a massive spurt of moon dust which can be observed through earth telescopes. The cloud is slowing down and looks like stopping.

The Prime Minister pays a visit to what’s left of Nortonstowe (where things appear to be carrying on in the same civilised way, with tea and biscuits, despite the house itself having been wrecked) and tells Kingsley he’s pretty cross with the scientists. They said it would only occlude the sun for a month. It’s been there longer. Kingsley himself gets cross and explains it’s because they have no idea what’s going on. Scientists aren’t gods, their knowledge is limited to what is known by observation, the cloud is a completely new phenomenon.

The cloud now does something else unexpected – it changes shape. It slowly changes from being a big amorphous cloud into the shape of a disk. This has the effect of allowing the earth to leave its shadow and emerge back into sunlight. Slowly humanity climbs out of its frozen caves to try and rebuild amid the ruins.

From a pure science point of view what sustains the book is that each stage of the cloud’s progress – from initial sighting through to enveloping the earth – the chorus of scientists Kingsley has assembled at Nortonstowe give voice to every possible interpretation of scientific possibilities. From one perspective the book is like a sequence of seminars on the successive stages of approach and envelopment by a gas cloud, which, altogether, cover a huge range of geographical and terrestrial phenomenon – the scientists discuss the possibility of global warming, global cooling, a new ice age, the atmosphere being heated until it boils, the entire atmosphere being torn away from the earth leaving it barren as the moon, the atmosphere freezing, and so on.

With the cloud now having completely halted and assumed a disc-like shape, and the earth having orbited out of its shadow, the astronomers have to tell the Prime Minister that it might become a new element of life on earth, that twice a year, in February and August, the earth will travel into the cloud and, for a few weeks, lose sun, warmth, life everything. It will be a completely new global condition.

Radio communication

There then follows a lengthy chapter which appears to be going off on a tangent. In preparation for the cloud arriving Kingsley had had the bright idea of installing not just telescopes and so on at Nortonstowe, but an array of the very latest radio equipment. This is because, in the coming disasters, he foresees that a centre of global information will be required. This chapter set out in minute detail the experiments with different wavelengths required to escape the interference caused by the cloud’s upsetting of the atmosphere. But during their experiments a pattern emerges: put simply, every time they change the wavelength, there is ionisation activity at the edge of the earth’s atmosphere which acts to neutralise it.

Kingsley astonishes the chaps by drawing a mad but logical conclusion: the cloud is blocking their radio transmissions; and if it is doing this no matter what wavelength they use, it must contain intelligent life.

Life in the cloud

Then there’s an interesting chapter devoted to the chaps arguing about how the cloud could possibly contain intelligent life and what form it could possibly take. Although Sir Fred Hoyle was the man who coined the expression Big Bang, he did it critically because he himself didn’t believe in the Big Bang theory i.e. that the universe had a definite beginning. Hoyle believed in the Steady State theory i.e. the universe has no beginning and will have no end. This chapter dramatises his theories of how intelligent life might have begun in vast gaseous clouds as electrical activity among groups of crystal molecules which formed on the surface of ice particles.

As routinely, throughout the book, the fact that half the earth’s population has just died, that agriculture and the environment have been devastated, economies ruined, ecosystems destroyed, are all completely ignored while a bunch of chaps sit around having a jolly interesting chat about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Talking to the cloud

They make the decision to send regular pulses into the cloud as signs of intelligent communication. To cut a long story short, the cloud replies and within just a few days they are talking to the cloud. One of the technical johnnies rigs up a system whereby the electronic pulses the cloud sends back can be translated into words via one of those new-fangled televisions and, bingo! They can hear the cloud talk! And he speaks in exactly the tone of a jolly interesting Cambridge academic! This is the first message they hear from the cloud:

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. (p.170)

One of the workers from the housing estate who had tended the gardens and tried to supply the scientists with fruit and veg through all the disasters, was a simple-minded gardener named Joe Stoddard. The technical johnny who rigs up the signals from the Cloud to come through a loudspeaker has, for a joke, used the voice pattern of Joe Stoddard. In other words, mankind’s first communications with the first intelligent extra-terrestrial life it’s encountered are translated into the phraseology of a Cambridge Common Room as expressed through the speech of a Gloucestershire peasant.As a result the scientists unanimously nickname the Cloud, ‘Joe’. Joe says this, Joe says that.

Joe proceeds to tell them all about himself. The universe is eternal and Joe thinks he has existed for some five hundred million years (p.178). He creates units of replicating life and seeds other clouds as he passes. Thus life is spread throughout the universe. He explains that intelligent life on planets is very rare for a multitude of reasons, for example the difficulty o gaining energy from surroundings by processing vegetable matter, and the thickness of skulls required to protect the brain militates against the brain growing in size. Plus the requirement of converting the intangible process of ‘thought’ – in reality a blizzard of electrical signals throughout the brain – into ‘speech’ i.e. the mechanical operation of jaw, lungs, vocal chords etc – a very primitive way to communicate.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking.

The hydrogen bombs

Back in the plot, word gets out to the politicians who are still running the governments of Britain, America and so on, that communication has been established with the Cloud. The governments insist on listening in on a ‘conversation’. This particular conversation is about human reproduction – sex – and its irrationality; it has to be irrational (love, lust) in order to overcome its very obvious pains and risks. The cloud opines that this may be why intelligent life on planets is so rare: the effort required for planet-borne life forms to communicate and to reproduce both tend to emphasise the irrational. Joe thinks the chances are humanity will over-populate the Earth and kill itself off.

After the ‘conversation’ is terminated, the conversation among the scientists continues with a few choice criticisms of politicians everywhere. Then one of the technicians points out that the politicians are still on the line. They have heard the scientists, particularly Kingsley, being as rude and dismissive of political interference as imaginable.

They then get a call from the American secretary of Defence to whom Kingsley is immensely rude and confrontational. When the Secretary threatens Kingsley, Kingsley foolishly replies that he can, with a few suggestions to Joe the Cloud, annihilate America if he wants to.

This seems tactless and rash even for Kingsley and the consequences are bad. As so often happens in 1950s Cold War sci-fi, the American and Russian governments decide the Cloud is a threat to their existence and launch missiles carrying hydrogen bombs at it.

The Nortonstowe scientists learn of this and warn the Cloud who is extremely cross, peeved wouldn’t be too strong a word. Kingsley explains that Earth is ruled by a variety of autonomous governments and that this decision has nothing to do with him or the other scientists. The Cloud announces he will simply return the missiles to their places of origin – with the result that El Paso and Chicago are wiped off the map, along with Kiev. About half a million people are vaporised.

In this, as in the reports of worldwide devastation, the really interesting thing is how offhand and disinterested Hoyle is about these, the melodramatic elements, of his story. Hundreds of millions die, hurricanes destroy the environment, H-bombs destroy American cities… but this is always forgotten whenever the chaps at Nortonstowe make a new discovery about the Cloud.

(And I never understood how Hoyle reconciles the fact that the entire manor house at Nortonstowe is destroyed in a hurricane with the fact that all the scientists carry on meeting in oak-panelled rooms, pouring each other cups of tea, puffing their pipes and discussing the various fascinating problems thrown up by the cloud. Where does all this happen? In a cave?)

The cloud departs

Then Joe the Cloud tells them that another cloud in the vicinity (i.e. hundreds of millions of miles away) has suddenly gone quiet. Joe tells us that this sometimes happens, none of the clouds know why. The clouds themselves are not omniscient. There are many aspects of the universe which are mysteries to them.

In the last few days before the cloud departs, our chaps ask it to tell them more about its vast knowledge. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

‘Now, chaps, this is probably one of our last chances to ask questions. Suppose we make a list of them. Any suggestions?’ (p.204)

Weichart volunteers to sit in front of a series of TV monitors hooked up by Leicester, the TV man, to the Cloud’s wavelength. The transmission begins and vast amounts of information leap across the screens. Slowly Weichart goes into a trance or hypnotised state. His temperature rises, he becomes delirious, he has to be dragged away from the screens to a bed, where he dies.

Then Kingsley announces he will do the same only they’ll ask the Cloud to transmit at a greatly reduced pace. Caring Ann tries to get the other scientists to persuade Kingsley not to do it. Obstinately he insists. He too sits in front of the monitors, his brain is bombarded, he goes into a fugue state, has to be dragged away and sedated. When the sedation wears off he looks deranged and then starts screaming. More sedatives. He dies of brain inflammation. The cloud simply knows too much for a human brain to process, although a couple of the scientists speculate that there might be a subtler reason: it could be that the Cloud not only overloaded his primitive brain with information but that what he learned was so at odds with human understanding, so completely contrary to all the scientific theories which Kingsley had devoted his life to, that he went mad.

Epilogue

A short epilogue explains the end of the affair. It is written by John McNeil fifty years later. He had been co-opted to Nortonstowe as a young physician and was an eye witness to all the key events and discussions. It was he who treated and failed to save Kingsley.

He now explains that the fact that the Cloud was intelligent and the entire course of all its discussions with humans, as well as the fact that it decided to move on out of the solar system, were kept hidden from the public, from the world. A handful of politicians and the tiny cohort in the Cotswolds knew but both decided to keep it secret, for their various reasons.

This text is therefore in the nature of being a bombshell for the human race.

Only now, fifty years later, is he revealing all in this long narrative, addressed to a young colleague of his Blythe. Why Blythe? Well, he’s a fellow academic, but another reason is that he is the grandson of Ann Halsey, the classical musician trapped at Nortonstowe and who – from a few dropped hints – we suspect had an affair with Kingsley while they were confined to the Cotswold mansion. So Blythe is Kinbgsley’s grandson as well (I think).

Now McNeil is leaving Blythe the full narrative of events and leaving it up to him whether to make the whole thing public. He also bequeaths him a copy of the punched card ‘code’ which Kingsley et al used to communicated with the Cloud. What he does with it now is up to him.

Comments

The science is fascinating, and takes on a whole new twist once we realise the cloud is intelligent. But from start to finish what should be appalling, epic events – unprecedented heat wave, blotting out of the sun and unprecedented freeze, death of quarter of the world’s population etc – take a firm back seat to detailed accounts of the conversations between the various chaps, led by the grotesque Kingsley – and these conversations are of such a 1950s, man-from-the-ministry, ornate style that it is really most frightfully difficult to work up the sense of awe or horror a science fiction novel should strive for. Instead one finds oneself more distracted by the Oxbridge and Whitehall Mandarin style of the dialogue than by the epoch-making events the book describes.

This is from the long conversation between secretary to the Prime Minister Parkinson and Sir Charles Kingsley at the latter’s rooms in his Cambridge college. We know they’re getting on because Kingsley offers Parkinson a second cup of tea, puts more logs on the fire, and then makes his demands of the British government thus:

‘I want everything quite clear-cut. First, that I be empowered to recruit the staff to this Nortonstowe place, that I be empowered to offer what salaries I think reasonable, and to use any argument that may seem appropriate other than divulging the real state of things. Second, that there shall be, repeat no, civil servants at Nortonstowe, and that there shall be no political liaison except through yourself.’
‘To what do I owe this exceptional distinction?’
‘To the fact that, although we think differently and serve different masters, we do have sufficient common ground to be able to talk together. This is a rarity not likely to be repeated.’
‘I am indeed flattered.’
‘You mistake me then. I am being as serious as I know how to be. I tell you most solemnly that if I and my gang find any gentlemen of the proscribed variety at Nortonstowe we shall quite literally throw them out of the place. if this is prevented by police action or if the proscribed variety are so dense on the ground that we cannot throw them out, then I warn you with equal solemnity that you will not get one single groat of co-operation from us. If you think I am overstressing this point, then I would say that I am only doing so because I know how extremely foolish politicians can be.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Not at all.’ (pp.83-84)

It’s a little like the end of the world as Ealing Comedy.

‘Would you like to talk to the first intelligent life from outer space that humanity has ever encountered, Charles?’
‘Oh, that’s frightfully kind of you, Algernon, but I was going to make a fresh pot of tea. Why don’t you take first dibs?’
‘Well, that’s jolly decent of you, old chap. Two lumps for me.’


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