Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud

Penguin’s recent practice of bringing science fiction works into its Modern Classics series is welcome, though it has tended toward softer stuff – John Wyndham, Harry Harrison, John Christopher – with only the occasional harder-edged piece, such as Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse. The latest addition to the series is a curious marriage of the two traditions: the science is very hard indeed (in both senses: it’s got calculus and everything) but the telling of the story has a Wyndhamesque quaintness. Its republication was prompted by the recent volcanic ash incidents, and the new edition has a beautiful cover design, inspired by the 60s Penguin paperback editions.

The Black Cloud (1957) is set in the then near future of 1964-5, though with a framing device from the actual future (2021) which seems needless but ends up adding a piquancy to the end of the narrative. As such, the book immediately provides us with the false comfort of knowing that these things never really came to pass: not that they were meant to be taken literally in the first place. Or maybe they were (and so the only comfort is that they haven’t happened yet): Hoyle was a scientist, and points out in the preface to “this frolic” that “there is very little here that could not conceivably happen.”

The book begins with, as Richard Dawkins points out in his afterword, a realistic example of two methods converging from different sources to make the same discovery. Put simply, astronomers in the UK and USA discover simultaneously the existence of a black cloud in the outer regions of the solar system. They both notice, too, that it appears to be getting closer, and each calculate, independently, that at the present rate it will reach Earth in around 18 months. Gentlemanly panic, tempered by scientific curiosity, ensues when they realise that even if the cloud doesn’t reach Earth, it could block out the sun for a month or more as it passes. Speculation arises: will people be burned by the raised temperature of the atmosphere? Or frozen by the light of sun being blocked? Or will the air explode when the hydrogen in the cloud mixes with oxygen? The central figure, Cambridge scientist Chris Kingsley, observes stoically that “it’s odd to think that every one of us probably only has a little more than a year to live.” ‘Odd’, yes, that’s le mot juste.

The scientists tell their respective governments about the coming event. The US government is concerned whether any “serious economic dislocation” will result from the cloud’s approach. The UK government’s response is even more neatly satirical: it fudges the issue – “as usual, nothing will be done until the crisis is upon us” – is sceptical of the scientists’ “alarmist” claims, and rounds up everyone who knows about the cloud and detains them in a scientific research centre.

‘Professor Kingsley […] I need hardly tell you that if this story of yours becomes public, there will be very grave repercussions indeed.’

Kingsley groaned.

‘My dear fellow,’ said he, ‘how very dreadful. Grave repercussions indeed. I should think that there will be grave repercussions, especially on the day that the Sun is blotted out. What is your Government’s plan for stopping that?’

The Black Cloud has several aspects. It is a page-turning story, the tension created by the reader’s desire to know whether or not the people of the Earth will survive (perhaps that’s why I found Shute’s On the Beach, with its foregone conclusion, dull). It is a primer in various astronomical and other scientific principles: the explanatory passages being justified by the conceit that this is a report written after the event (oops, there goes the tension) – so the omniscient narrative voice can take several paragraphs to explain, say, body and atmospheric temperature survival rates. It is also a critique of society as run by politicians – by definition those with no specialist knowledge – while experts such as scientists are “pushed around” by this “archaic bunch of nitwits”. The Black Cloud is a celebration of science, of knowledge – it is the astronomers and the technological men who make the breakthroughs, through emerging technology such as FM radio transmission. There is a delightful parallel in the imbalance between politicians and scientists with mankind’s discovery in the book of its truly limited place in the universe. We also get an exploration of non-human intelligence, albeit one less impressive than in Lem’sSolaris.

The Black Cloud is also an artefact, of interest as much cultural as literary. It connects one fearful time to another, a prime slice of cosy(ish) catastrophe from the Fifties, that fertile era for apocalyptic imaginings. Typical of the time and type, this is a fictional world almost devoid of women, except when used to make, let’s call them ‘historical’ gender assumptions:

‘This is unbearably scientific,’ said Ann Halsey. ‘I’m going off to make tea.’

A quick, thoughtful, provocative book, The Black Cloud might aptly be described – with all the thoughts it inspires of the galaxy, Mars, the Milky Way – as the book you can read between others without ruining your appetite.


  1. So true: “society as run by politicians – by definition those with no specialist knowledge”
    Still, they’re more or less supposed to rely on experts from each field (I’m not saying they really do).

    Makes me think of climate change and what could REALLY be going on…
    Speaking of which, what about oil resources?

    This seems to be quite the book to read nowadays. Thanks for the review John!

  2. I don’t think I’ve read any of Hoyle’s fiction although I’ve read some of his astronomy books. I actually enjoyed Shute’s ‘On the Beach’ which I read last month as I haven’t read any apocalyptic fiction for a while. I now want to read ‘The Black Cloud’ after reading your review. The lack of female characters may just be that the proportion of women in science at universities were much smaller at the time.

  3. You review it more kindly than I remember it.

    The science is I think now discredited, though that’s an issue SF routinely faces of course.

    I seem to recall the dialogue was rather stilted, and that like much SF the characters were really mere conduits for the ideas. That latter point isn’t a criticism, SF is after all a genre of ideas and not one of character.

    Still, a bit of a museum piece. Am I wrong in remembering tons of exposition towards the back end of the book?

  4. I really enjoyed this, but I can’t recommend Hoyle’s disappointing follow-up, ‘Inferno’. It turns into a strange bit of wish-fulfillment whereby the wise scientists take over the depopulated world and run it along rationalist lines. Not that I necessarily have a problem with the philosophy, but it smacked of inelegant propoganda.

    I notice that Penguin is also doing M P Shiel’s ‘The Purple Cloud’ next year: a very different book in style, full of decadent 1890s flourishes and purple prose. A man is on an Arctic expedition when volcanoes kill off the rest of the world population with poisonous gas, an event for which the survivor may be responsible. Odd and enjoyable, it’s also daft as a brush.

  5. Good call on The Purple Cloud. It’s is the oddest book I’ve ever encountered. At the end I simply couldn’t decide if it was the best portrait of monomania and madness I’d ever read or simply a terribly badly written book.

    For my money, in the apocalypse genre you can’t look past Earth Abides by George Stewart.

  6. Earth Abides is probably the best book in this field, though I admit I haven’t read Riddley Walker yet.

    I have a copy from somewhere of Algis Budrys’s Some Will Not Die, which in its day (1961) was very highly regarded but now seems somewhat forgotten.

    And of course there’s always the marvellous Canticle for Liebowicz.

    All that said, The Black Cloud isn’t really an apocalypse novel. It’s about the response to the cloud (among other things John’s avoided spoiling), it’s not about the aftermath of the end of the world. It’s not really the same sort of thing as Earth Abides, which is a good thing as it’s not a patch on it either.

  7. You MUST read Riddley Walker. It’s right up there. The Budrys, on the other hand, is not so good… it means well, but keeps undercutting the seriousness of its themes with unwise subplots. And has there ever been a less inspiring opening sentence to a post-apocalypse novel than “This happened many years after the plague, at about the same time there was already talk of reviving the American kennel Club…”

    But I must shut up–I could go on forever about end-of-the-world literature.

  8. I’m sure I read this during my late teens when I read mostly SF, and I’m itching to read it properly again now you’ve reviewed it and in the new Penguin edition. By the way, I agree with JRSM – you really should read Riddley Walker.

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  10. If you like this book it might be worthwhile trying to find a copy of Nordenholt’s Million by JJ Connington. Another classically English period piece (written in 1923) dealing with the total wipeout of plant life with a surprising amount of precience (in this way similar to “Death of Grass”) – global catastrophe vectored by air travel, breakdown of society and the emergence of fanatical sucide bombers being among the ideas mooted.

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