Book Review: Sir Fred Hoyle's
The Black Cloud
This book written by Sir Fred Hoyle in 1957 is fascinating to say the least. Hoyle is the well-known British astronomer that coined the term Big Bang to describe the origins of the universe. In this short book he creates a story of an extraterrestrial visitation to Earth using real science concepts including calculus equations to show the alien's pathway to Earth.I am amazed it was never adapted to a Hollywood movie. It is the first book in the science fiction genre I've read that held my attention, made me wonder, and made sense. The simple differential calculus derivation of the time period before the cloud reached Earth had me swooning with delight. Tell me how many sci-fi books you ever read use actual mathematical formulae to set their plot? Few if any right? After that, I knew here is a book that is not directed at a shallow reading audience.
The novel examines the possibility of alien life visiting Earth. This life form is a large gaseous cloud that is on a collision course with Earth. A team of mathematicians, astrophysicists, and humanities scholars in England assemble to study and determine the effects of this cloud engulfing Earth. The results are dismal. It will wipe out all life on Earth should it reach the planet. The team calculates the cloud will take 2 years to collide with Earth. From this point the novel examines many moral-philosophic questions. The various learning disciplines argue about whom should survive and why. As the cloud is at last only a few thousand miles away from Earth, one scientist discovers it's not just an inanimate mass of gas, but a sentient being. In fact, it's a super-intelligent being. He devises a plan to communicate with it and first contact is made. The scientists discover that the intelligent cloud is as surprised as they are, to see that a sentient being could exist in the form of solid matter. Because of its huge size and lack of any visual apparatus, the planets it visits never revealed any living matter. In fact, its initial probes showed nothing but forms of inanimate matter, like minerals, water (remember to the Black Cloud water is not a form life as it couldn't detect microbial life), and combustible materials (volcanoes). It concluded that the planets it visits are prime material to fuel its existence as it consumes them via a process of synthesis. The scientists respond that they could never see how a life form could evolve inside a gaseous mass. The cloud explains it's a conglomerate of various sub-organisms that compose a superstructure and it has evolved into this over a period of hundreds of millions of years. While the biological science is weak here, the science idea is a novelty. The story ends with the Black Cloud breaking off its engulfment of Earth and heading to the aid of a fellow cloud in another galaxy.
The Aspects of the Novel
I was gripped by this novel from page one. As I read it with increasing amazement, I kept asking myself, why hasn't anybody ever made this into a movie? This is the kind of science fiction that makes stories like Star Trek and Star Wars seem trivial. As I thought about it, it occurred to me, that many sci-fi films are based on it. The first Star Trek in 1979 was a direct lift of this novel. Of course the screenwriters changed the cloud entity to be the Voyager probe sent back to Earth from an intelligent alien society, but come on, it makes such use of the plot and theme of this book it ain't funny, to use a vernacular. I saw that B/S in rerun on TV just a few weeks ago, and couldn't help saying to myself and girlfriend: This is the Black Cloud, Debbie! The what honey? Nothing. No tell me? Reluctantly, I did and she agreed, and to my amazement, she read the book which she found just as stimulating as I. Though, her religious baggage made her say: There are no aliens in Christianity. I like the book, but it goes against Christian Gospel. We postponed that argument. I don't know what Christian Gospel is but this is a hell of good sci-fi novel.
Nonetheless, there are some flaws to the novel. First, the principal point of the work is telegraphed long before it's revealed. A reader can tell by about the middle of the work the cloud is alive and intelligent. Yet, Hoyle keeps up an extended period of verifying the theory of it being alive. Radio signals are sent back and forth to test the theory it's alive. This extension to plot makes for boredom. Second, the explanation of the biologic structure of the cloud is weak and not as solid as the physics descriptions of its trajectory with Earth. Third, the sub-plot love story is very corny. Well, my girlfriend didn't think that. But, of course, she a woman and would think that. Oops, did I make a sexist remark? No matter, I'll keep it in. Anyway, this is 50's literature, what do you expect but cornball romance? Why he couldn't even use profanity back then!
With these stylistic shortcomings discounted, the Black Cloud is a masterpiece in the science fiction genre.I was particularly amused and engrossed to read about the state of technology at the time. Computers were room-sized machines and printers had to have their output encoded on keypunch machines, then fed in a reader that sent the code instructions to a dot-matrix printer. I couldn't help but giggle reading that, remembering all this was once true. What is most profound about this book is its premise is a real scientific possibility.If we are going to theorize about alien life it most certainly would be something like what Sir Fred Hoyle describes.
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