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.’
‘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.