In 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.
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.
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.