There is a peculiar brand of science fiction known as ‘cosy catastrophe’. It became popular during the 1950s and is signified by an end-of-the-world scenario where only a few survive; mostly led by a British scientist or academic and assisted by everyone else in the narrative sitting around and drinking tea, while discussing the catastrophe. The term is attributed to Brian Aldiss in 1973 but the idea is probably much older.
Proponents of this particular sub-genre include John Christopher (see The Death of Grass or The World in Winter) and my own particular favourite, John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Midwych Cuckoos, and The Kraken Wakes).
The Black Cloud fits squarely within this subset, and indeed, was written by one of the greatest physicists of all time, Fred Holye. While incorrectly rejecting the Big Bang Theory, Holye is perhaps best known outside of his novels for claiming the Universe was a put-up job, after accepting the properties of the carbon atom were so specifically set as to allow life as we know it to exist. An atheist at the time, he conceded that the laws of physics, chemistry and biology appeared to have been ‘monkeyed’ with by some super-intelligence.
Which brings me nicely to The Black Cloud.
Scientists in various fields independently conclude that there is a giant gas cloud heading to the solar system. Predictions suggest that if the cloud gets between the earth and the sun, all life would be wiped out. However, the scientific community initially disagree about the nature of the catastrophe…would the earth boil or freeze? But then, as a team of scientists are brought together in a rural English setting (‘…open parkland, high in the Cotswolds…one of those Government places’) the cloud begins to defy the laws of physics. The scientists, led by Kingsley, who hates politicians and their ignorance, and who would much prefer the rule of meritocracy, discover that the gas is indeed a super-intelligence. They soon, by sitting around drinking tea and analysing the problem, establish communication, while all over the planet, millions of people are dying. Of course, once communication is established, the organism is surprised to find intelligent life bound by life on a planet.
This fiction is clearly Hoyle’s attempt to redress the Big Bang theory debate. He is suggesting that the super-intelligence has always been and therefore the universe has always been. There is the faintest of hints that this may the cause of the universe’s so-called Goldilocks state (also known as the anthropic principle), where many of the laws and properties are coincidentally ‘just right’ for life on our planet to evolve.
An external event of no consequence to the plot causes the cloud to move on and what is left of the planet is left to recover, although two scientists die in an attempt to learn all the cloud’s knowledge (perhaps in a vain attempt to become the pinnacle of a new meritocratic government?)
I find that this kind of fiction is very typical of scientists who turn their hand to writing. The prose is often cold and analytical, focusing on the scientific consequences rather than the human. There are long passages with the scientists debating various scientific principles chewing on their pipes, and even complex mathematical models are presented in detail. Many of the characters are fairly naively drawn and have one-dimensional motivations. No-one appears to be particularly emotionally involved in what is happening around them, in terms of the global human cost and the manipulation of lives closer to main characters. In fact, this is one of those books that can easily by summarised and reviewed without mention of character names and relationships. They are almost of secondary consequence behind the scientific ideas and political discussions. I suspect the descriptions of the meetings of the scientists are reasonably accurate, depicting an international panel of disparate personalities bickering about minutiae and theory with equal passion.
The Black Cloud is a little known and underappreciated novel, perhaps because Holye is not typically known as a writer of fiction, but, I suspect, because his work is not really character driven. If you’re not interested in the science, then there is little reason to be interested in the people. With that in mind, I really enjoyed the novel. Which probably says more about me that it should.