The Black Cloud by Frank Hoyle

The Black Cloud, published in 1957, is the first science fiction novel written by the astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle and an in a modern day setting charts the arrival of a gigantic cloud of gas into our solar system from deep space, and the consequences of its appearance.

At the Palomar Observatory in California a young astronomer notices that a curious black mass has suddenly appeared at the edges of our galaxy. Other astronomers around the world have also noticed something strange happening through their telescopes and results are presented at a British Astronomical Association meeting. Here we meet once of the central characters of the novel, Chris Kingsley, who is the Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University, and rather blunt in his approach to working with others, particularly politicians, whom he regards as being like ‘the instruments on the dashboard of my car. They tell me what is going on in the engine of state, but they don’t control it.’

On a brief visit to the US, Kingsley at the UK’s Astronomer Royal discuss with those who first noticed the cloud what it could be, where it is going and what will happen to Earth if a huge gas cloud inserts itself between us and the Sun. It is agreed upon that there are only around 16 months left before it arrives, and as this filters up to the heads of state in the US and UK we follow Kingsley at a team of astronomers and others as a base is set up at a manor estate in the Cotswolds, which contains the most cutting edge radio technology available.

It is several months before the public become aware and the cloud becomes visible to the naked eye. Evacuation programmes are taking place in some countries, whilst others merely wait to see what happens but soon temperatures increase due to the effects of the cloud moving in and the death toll begins to rise. Unfortunately for many people on Earth this is just the beginning, but for others the arrival of the cloud is the next step for mankind in its search for knowledge.

I think the Black Cloud works so well as an example of science fiction because Fred Hoyle clearly knows what he is writing about. Indeed, throughout the text we are given equations and diagrams which can mean absolutely nothing to somebody who is not an astronomer, but it is the depth of detail in the discussions of what the cloud is, what it is made of and how its presence affects life on Earth that I find gives it a solid base for the political and humanitarian story threads to build on.

The majority of the novel is focused on Kingsley’s team in Nortonstowe and their advancements in the use of radio communication, and The Black Cloud can feel a little detached when the horrific natural disasters caused by the cloud destroy the majority of the planet, but with such a huge concept, maybe this is unavoidable. The main thrust of the book is scientific experimentation and the hunt for facts, with the central figure of Kingsley, a sharply clever but not the most approachable of people, carrying this forward. It is said that Kinsley is based on Fred Hoyle himself and his own blunt manner. Other criticism could be levelled at the lack of female characters who actually do something apart from make coffee or play the cello for the scientists’ amusement. Whether this is symptomatic of its time and of the profession, or whether this is just Hoyle’s personal view could be debated but I think this is another part of the novel failing to engage more deeply in the humanitarian aspects of the cloud’s appearance.

The Black Cloud takes an interesting turn once the cloud arrives, which I do not want to spoil by giving away, but which brings with it a whole new set of questions regarding what this means for humankind and its place in the universe. Overall this is a fascinating idea very well explained that rises above the apocalypse to grasp at what may possibly be out there.

9/10 A fascinating idea, very well explained.

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