Black Cloud, The by Hoyle, Fred, 1957

Black Cloud, The by Hoyle, Fred

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When I first picked up this book, I thought I had read it before. Maybe I have read an excerpt somewhere along the line, but shortly after I started this one I realized that I had not read it before. And was I ever glad! This book is amazing! It is definately hard SF, which is alright by me, written mid-century by a noted cosmologist and astronomer. Its the story of one of the oddest aliens that the genre has given us yet, akin to what Lem gave us in Solaris, but told in a much clearer prose, and with a much lighter tone. It also fits pretty neatly in the "cozy catastrophe" group of novels that were really popularized by John Wyndham. This one is just a hair shy of five stars. Catch me on another day, and it may make it though.

The Black Cloud starts as astronomers in the US and the UK observe a black void that occludes stars and seems to grow larger as time goes by. The British, who really discovered the blob first, set up a radio telescope facility on an estate in the West of England called Nortonstowe, and realize that what they see is a giant cloud that is approaching Earth on a collision course. The cloud is literally bigger than the orbit of Earth, and should it strike the planet it will likely strip our atmosphere away. But as the cloud approaches, it begins moving erratically, slowing, and going towards the sun. Kingsley, who is the de facto head of the Nortonstowe effort (and who became so after some brilliant political maneuvering), posits that the cloud is inhabited by intelligent creatures, but later learns that the cloud itself is an intelligent being. Strangely, the cloud is more surprised that intelligence has developed on our planet than we are that it is a singular intelligence! The discussions that the scientists have with the cloud are very well written and make compelling reading. Kingsley and his mates discuss cosmology, music, religion, biology and all kinds of other topics. I was struck by the change in Hoyle's tone when he spoke as the cloud; it reminded me a lot of Frank Herbert speaking as Leto the II in God Emperor of Dune. The following is from the conversation where the cloud expresses shock at finding planet-bound life.

[I]t is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets, which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life... Living on the surface of a solid body, you are exposed to a strong gravitational force. This greatly limits the size to which your animals can grow and hence limits the scope of your neurological activity. It forces you to possess muscular structures to promote movements, and ... to carry protective armor ... [Y]our very largest animals have been mostly bone and muscle with very little brain... By and large, one only expects intelligent life to exist in a diffuse gaseous medium... The second unfavorable factor is your extreme lack of basic chemical foods. For the building of chemical foods on a large scale starlight is necessary. Your planet, however, absorbs only a very minute fraction of the light from the Sun. At the moment, I myself am building basic chemicals at about 10,000,000,000 times the rate at which building is occurring on the whole ... surface of your planet.

The only criticism that I have of the novel is that Hoyle spent more time on the cosmology and communication, and largely ignored the social effects and destructive forces of the cloud's arrival. Not that he completely ignored them. Almost all of the story was set at Nortonstowe, and radio communications were made difficult by the discharge and atmospheric ionization of the cloud's outer regions. And Hoyle did go into some detail on the climatological changes and massive destruction and death that occurred as the cloud occluded the sun on its approach, before it knew we existed. But despite the fact that a nuclear war starts between Earth and the cloud, that by the way ends pretty badly for us, Hoyle left off on a very optimistic note. In fact the entire story is told in a pragmatic yet forward looking manner that is actually quite comforting almost all the way through.

I also really enjoyed the quality of Hoyle's language. He was an expert at reducing even the most hard science principles to everyday language. As I mentioned above, he got quite jaunty when speaking to or as the cloud. At least for a world class astronomer and SF writer, he did. Here is a bit of text from where one of his characters attempts to describe love to the cloud.

"Viewed from a wholly logical point of view the bearing and rearing of children is a thoroughly unattractive proposition. to a woman it means pain and endless worry. To a man it means extra work extending over many years to support his family. So, if we were wholly logical about sex, we should probably not bother to reproduce at all. Nature takes care of this by making us utterly and wholly irrational. If we were not irrational we simply wouldn't be able to survive, contradictory as this may sound. It's probably the same with all the other animals too."

At its heart, this book is about a few bigger issues than the plot alone. Aren't all the good ones like that, though? I think so. This one is about the conflict between politicians and scientists, the linguistic difficulties in interspecies communication, the nature of intelligence, and the value in reaching out to others in friendship instead of hostility. Hoyle, being a very opinionated cosmologist, also used the book as a platform to explain his views of creation. The story is very dependent on astronomy, particularly radio astronomy, and for that reason this is a pure hard SF novel. I don't suspect that this one is easy to find anymore, save from the Easton Press, where I got my copy. But I think that this is one of the better novels on this list for certain, so if you have a chance, I say get it and give it a shot.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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