Thursday, April 9, 2009

Fred Hoyle's "The Black Cloud" (novel, first contact): Sol gets an unusual visitor

Cover of the 1957 novel titled The Black Cloud by Fred HoyleThere are two closely linked but generally independent stories of about equal size here - both based on very familiar plots, but very well told:

  1. A planet or star-sized galactic wanderer comes close to or inside Sol, wrecking havoc on earth. The story it most reminded me of was Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion".
  2. First contact with an alien sentient being. While there are a lot of difference, the story it most reminded me of was Voltaire's "Micromegas".
Story spends quite some time on descriptions of digital computers & radio communications networks that now are quite dated, but make a fun read. I'll hopefully collect quotes in a separate post.

Tone is hard sf, but not the dry sort. There is a lot of humor here. And for a grim hard sf plot, it makes a rather light reading.

Part 1: Celestial wanderer wrecks havoc on earth.

Circumstances & luck conspire to make two separate groups of astronomers in US & UK come together & discover that Sol has a celestial visitor: A cloud with dimensions about the size of earth's orbit around the sun, with density much higher than usual for interstellar clouds, with a mass two thirds Jupiter, currently in outer solar system, & headed straight for earth & Sun. Earth has 16 months to prepare - if it can.

Top scientific men involved inform politicians, hoping they will do the needful.

Politicians controlling the government in both US & UK do the following:
  1. Hide the facts from public.
  2. Practically arrest the men bringing in the bad news - so news cannot leak!
  3. There are hints that since only a few can be saved, it will be mostly the rulers!
But one man among the original discoverers - Chris Kingsley, 38 & a Professor of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, who figured out the expected location, mass, etc of foreign body based on unusual observed perturbations of outer planets - knows the political class too well. He maneuvers things in such a way that he ends up being in charge of a rather well equipped lab & emergency shelter in Nortonstowe, a place in "Cotswolds, on high ground to the north-west of Cirencester", UK - while making the politicians thing they are driving him around. In days ahead, this lab will play a key part in the unfolding drama.

A substantial part of this first part is a kind of satirical look at British politicians occupying high offices.

Usual apocalypse scenario plays out eventually, with a lot of people killed all over the world - because of major weather changes as the clouds hides the Sun for a while, & because of effects of friction as earth's outer atmosphere & cloud come in contact.

Part 2: First contact.

In the post-apocalypse world, Nortonstowe is a central communications facility in the world because Kingsley had the foresight to build radio equipment with high bandwidth & able to operate over a larger range of frequencies.

Funny things were observed as the cloud neared earth: It slowed down rather than continuing acceleration because of Sun's gravity. It eventually settled in a kind of broad disk around Sun inside of earth's orbit, but at a high inclination to the plane of earth's orbit.

Then radio anomalies begin. Communications keep getting interrupted or blocked at specific frequencies, while other frequencies go through. When radio broadcasts happen at certain frequencies, stratospheric ionization increases tremendously; it goes down when broadcasts are stopped!

These & other observations lead Kingsley to infer that cloud is alive. Hypothesis is tested; communications are established. We learn that life of this kind has always existed in interstellar space, that Cloud has come here to get some food - in the form of Solar energy, how it reproduces, etc. It also learns much of earth life.

In a separate drama, trigger-happy US & USSR are insecure that UK group is in contact & they're out of loop. Nuclear missiles are launched to poison the Cloud's "brain" - using information Cloud itself provided. But the Nortonstowe group sees only disaster; even if attacks are successful, death throes of the Cloud will sterilize earth. And what about its revenge, if unsuccessful. They inform the Cloud of attack, & result is disaster for US & USSR - Cloud reroutes the missiles at places near their point of origin, annihilating whole cities.

Eventually, Cloud figures it need to move out sooner than intended because one of its brotheren seems to be dying in circumstances that promise to uncover the mystery of God, ... or something.

As parting gift, Cloud agrees to teach some of the things it knows to the contact group at Nortonstowe. A hypnosis machine is built, to Cloud's specifications. First man receiving instructions dies. Second one is Kingsley; he will die too! We will learn that Cloud is imparting so much information so fast that brain muscles of mere humans tire out.

See also.

  1. '"It might be life Jim...", physicists discover inorganic dust with life-like qualities':

    "under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures. These structures can then interact with each other in ways that are usually
    associated with organic compounds and life itself."

    "they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. They can, for instance, divide, or bifurcate, to form two copies of the original structure."

    'could helical clusters formed from interstellar dust be somehow alive? "These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter," says Tsytovich, "they are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve".'

    "the plasma conditions needed to form these helical structures are common in outer space."

    [via Wikipedia]

Fact sheet.

First published: 1957.
Rating: A.
Related: Stories of Fred Hoyle.


Dr. said...

Thanks for the good review. "The Black Cloud" is indeed a classic for the ages.

Please note, though: The Cloud was as wide as the radius of the Earth's orbit (1 A.U.), not the diameter (2 A.U.).

Tinkoo said...

Could be 2 AU. It's been a while since I read it, & I don't have the book handy now for verification.

Thanks for clarifying.