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Monthly Archives: December 2016

The Day the Sun Went Out: The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

black-cloudIn previous posts I have looked at a number of novels by Fred Hoyle: A for Andromeda, The Andromeda Breakthrough, October the First is Too Late and The Fifth Planet. In this post I will be writing about The Black Cloud, his first novel, published in 1957.

The novel begins in January 1964,  when  scientists on both sides of  the Atlantic discover that a large cloud of gas has entered the solar system,  and is heading towards the Earth. They predict  that within 18 months it  will block out the light from the Sun for at least a month, thereby bringing chaos around the world. After convincing sceptical  governments  of the validity of their observations, a British group of scientists  is established at Nortonstowe,  a manor house in the Cotswolds, led by Chris Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, with a remit to observe and report on the progress of the  Cloud. Within months the Cloud can be observed  by all in the night sky.

By the third week in January the fate of Man was to be read in the skies. The star Rigel of Orion was obscured. The sword and belt of Orion and the bright star Sirius followed in subsequent weeks. The Cloud might have blotted out almost any other constellation, except  perhaps the Plough, without its effect being so widely noted. The press revived its interest in the Cloud. ‘Progress reports ‘  were published  daily. Bus companies were finding  their Nighttime Mystery  Tours increasingly popular.’Listener research ‘ showed a threefold increase in the audience  for a series  of BBC talks on astronomy. …Now at last the population at large was starkly aware of the Black  Cloud , as it clutched like a grasping hand at Orion, the Hunter of the Heavens.

The scientists  discover something  inexplicable, that the Cloud is firing off gas as it approaches the Sun, slowing it  down. Then on 27 August  1965 Kingsley is awaken by the manor’s handyman, Joe,  who tells him that the Sun has not risen:

He rushed out of the shelter into the open. It was pitch black, unrelieved even by starlight, which was unable to penetrate the thick black cloud cover. An unreasoning primitive fear seemed to be abroad. The light of the world had gone.

The Cloud has blocked out the Sun. After three days some light returns, a deep red hue, seemingly emanating  from the Cloud.  Massive storms sweep the world as the temperature falls,  and  a quarter of the world’s population perishes in the snow and ice.   The scientists at Nortonstowe are unable to explain why the Cloud has stopped, but to their relief they observe that the gas between the Sun and the Earth is thinning,  and on 24 October “the Sun shone again in full strength on the frozen Earth.”

Radio transmissions from the Cloud are detected by the scientists, who are  forced to come to the conclusion that it is intelligent. They  reply with tranmissions containing scientific data and basic English, and  begin to receive messages they can understand,  and which  they can  convert into speech using the voice of Joe the handyman as a basis. The Cloud tells them:

‘Your first tramsmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabitating planets, which are in the nature of extreme outpposts of life.’

The scientists  inform the governments  of the world of their discovery, but this is not relayed to the peoples of the world.  They continue their dialogue with the Cloud on topics such as human nature, philosophy  and science. However,  the Americans and Russians  see the Cloud as a threat and fire nuclear-armed rockets  into it. The Cloud responds  by reversing the trajectory of the rockets which  fall back to earth, obliterating  El Paso, Chicago and Kiev, killing tens of thousands.

black-cloud

The Cloud announces  that it is about to leave the Solar System, but before it does so it offers the scientists to  chance to learn what it knows about the universe, using an apparatus  to communicate  directly with the human brain.  Kingsley volunteers to undergo this,  but this is terrible mistake:  he is unable to cope with the amount of knowledge downloaded, and the differences  between what he believes and  what the Cloud tells him, and dies as a consequence. The Cloud then departs,  with most of the world’s  population still unaware of its sentient nature.

My 1960 Penguin edition of The Black  Cloud has the strapline “science fiction by a scientist”, which  is the problem with this novel: the original premise captures the imagination and the consequences are most plausible,  but  the story is clogged  up with page and page of scientific discussion,  speculation  and debate. No doubt it’s all  perfectly sound scientifically, but it makes for very dull reading,  and has the feel of a chat over sherry in a Cambridge college staff  common-room.  Also the characters in the story never really come to life, it’s hard to tell one pipe-smoking scientist in a tweed jacket from another.  Even the Cloud is dull…Finally,  this is a very male world: there are a few women in the novel,   but they are peripheral to the story.

A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough work far  better as novels because they written by John Elliot, who knew how to pen  a good story,  based on ideas provided by Fred Hoyle, an ideal partnership.

Productions

The BBC Home Service broadcast  a dramatisation  of The Black Cloud on 14 December 1957, written by Stephen Grenfell and produced by Archie Campbell. Chris  Kingley was played by Dennis Goacher, the Prime Minister  was played by Arthur Ridley, author of  the successful play The Ghost Train,  and later to find fame in  Dad’s Army as Private Godfrey.

So far as I  know no other production has been broadcast.

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” intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”: The War of the Worlds by H G Wells (1898)

mars

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. .. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

So begins H G  Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a book which,   perhaps  more than  other of his works,   created the genre  we now call science fiction.  When Wells  wrote his tale of the  invasion of southern  England  by an expedition of  Martians, Great Britain was the most powerful  and wealthiest nation on the planet with colonies in India and Africa and elsewhere, its power  buttressed  by its army and navy, confident in its God-given  destiny to rule over other races. In his introduction Wells makes an explicit political  point about how this confidence was punctured by the arrival of the Martians:

… we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The story is told through the eyes of unnamed  narrator, a writer on philosophy,  who is taken by an astronomer friend to watch unexplained eruptions of gas on Mars over ten nights, the launching, we soon realise, of   projectiles towards the unsuspecting Earth;

One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.

The first projectile falls to Earth on Horsell Common in Surrey. When it unscrews it reveals a Martian whom Wells   chooses to make  physically repulsive to Earth eyes:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

The Martians never attempt to communicate with humans, they simply see them as an obstacle to their posession of a new world,  mirroring the countless massacres inflicted by Europeans  in America, Africa, Australia  and many other parts of the world.  When a welcoming party approaches the cylinder the Martians kill them all with a heat ray:  they then construct metal fighting machines  which lay waste to the countryside. The narrator  describes his first encounter:

the-war-of-the-worlds

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

The army tries to stop them with artillery,  but the guns and the soldiers are burned and destroyed. By chance one shell does damage a fighting machine,  so the Martians respond by using a black poison gas to quell all opposition as though they were gassing an ants’ nest

an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathe.

The Martians appear unstoppable as more cylinders fall to Earth. They  add to their armaments with a flying machine:

Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.

Wells creates a vivid  and disturbing picture of  millions of refugees fleeing  in panic from London and other towns, turning on each other as they  desperately seek some kind of safety. This is not a picture of heroic resistance, but of a society breaking down.

The narrator is trapped in a ruined  house by the  fifth  cylinder crashing to earth.  Hidden a few feet from the invaders, he discovers a dreadful secret, that the Martians  are collecting humans in order to drink their blood for food. He sees this happen,  but fortunately Wells spares us the details. Escaping from the house, the narrator makes his way to  London, a city now almost empty of people.

…it was curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness. In some places plunderers had been at work, but rarely at other than the provision and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.

The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death–it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was a city condemned and derelict. . . .

He now hears  a strange cry from a Martian fighting machine  endlessly repeated:

Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent’s Park. The desolating cry worked upon my mind. The mood that had sustained me passed. The wailing took possession of me. I found I was intensely weary, footsore, and now again hungry and thirsty….As I crossed the bridge, the sound of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunderclap.

The narrator finds the  fighting machines standing motionless,  and discovers that the Martians are all dead, killed,  it transpires,  by Earth’s  bacteria:

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

In the final chaper the narrator brings the story up to date with the Martians,  it seems from observations,  now  having  invaded Venus. But he is not confident  that the threat has gone for ever,  and the ending of the novel  is melancholic:

It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot, brooding silence. Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .

woking-martianThis is still a very readable  novel, dazzling in its invention,  but also  prescient in its description of  the behaviour of populations and people under attack. A century after Wells wrote we are sadly all too familar with the scenes he imagined…

It is a story above all  told from the viewpoint of ordinary civilians,  caught up in terrifying events:  there are no scenes set  amongst  government ministers, scientists or the military hierarchy.

The influence of The Wars of the Worlds can be seen  in science  fiction  writing up to and including Doctor Who: pitiless repulsive creatures, encased in a metallic machine,   and armed with a death ray, now who  does that remind  you of?

Wells’ birthplace Woking has its own Martian fighting machine as seen above.

You can read the novel online here.

Review in The Observer, 27 March 1898.

“Freshness and originality are distinguishing features in Mr Wells’ compostions, and his latest work will in no sense  disappoint his readers. It is fact extremely clever. Mr Wells depicts  the attack on England of a number of the inhabitants  of Mars, and he contrats  their highly-trained scientific methods of warfare  with our puny efforts of resistance. The moral too is admirable. We had become “soft” and “effete” and some extra mundane agency was necccessary to restore vigour to national life. ..We are assured by highly competent  critics that Mr Wells owes his inspiration to Defoe, to Swift, to Edgar Poe, and even to Jules Verne. In The War of the Worlds we can trace none of these sources of inspiration. The aspect of his work is purely native – autochthonous, as the late Professor E A Freeman might have said…The literary technique is excellent, and it is in this respect that Mr Wells gains his great superiority over the mere sensation-mongers of the day. We have enoyed reading his book. It is not a novel, but it  is good fiction.”

Productions

Orson Welles  broadcast a live production on 30th October 1938,  in which  the story was transplanted to Amercica and which caused panic in some places with its  vivid descriptions of an invasion.  You can listen to this broadcast  here, The story of the broadcast was made into a tv film in 1975, The Night that Panicked America, which  you can watch here.

The BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation in six parts  in  May – July   1950, adapted by Jon Manchip White, who had just joined the BBC Drama Script Unit as an editor.   He kept the Victorian setting  and much of Wells’ dialogue. It had  Anthony Hawtrey in the main role, with Peter Cokea s Gilvy and Derek Guyler as Stent.  The producer was David H Godfrey. This production  has not survived in the archives.  There is more information about it here.

The first film version was  made in 1953 by Paramount, starring  Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, with the  story updated and moved to the USA, and bearing scant resemblace to the original novel.  It was produced by George  Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. A  sequel was later made  for television that ran for two seasons from  1988 to 1990.

The BBC broadcast another  radio dramatisation in six parts  in June and July 1967, again  using the adaptation  by Jon Manchip White,  although he says he had nothing to do with it. And yet  someone uncredited has updated it to the present day.  It had  Paul Daneman as Professor John Nicholson, , Isabel Rennie as Dora Nicholson,  Martin Jarvis as Ogilvy and Peter Sallis as the Parson.  The sound score was  by David Cain of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The producer was   John Powell. (I can vividly remember listening to this). You can find out more about this production  here.   This production  has survived and  has been released on CD by the BBC.  It’s also available on Audible. You can listen to a clip here. 

In 1978 Jeff Wayne released an LP,   The War of the Worlds, which told the story through words and music, and  sold by the million. It was later turned into a  stage musical.  You can watch it here.

Another film version directed  by Steven Spielberg was released in 2005,  which I like even less than the 1953 version…