Book Review: The Black Cloud

I once said that 2007 on Universe would include many new features, one being an occasional review of a work of science fiction. Hello!

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The Black Cloud is a 1957 science-fiction novel written by British astronomer Fred Hoyle. Like the novels of Carl Sagan, and, often, Arthur C. Clarke, it’s something of an extrapolation of the author’s deeply-held scientific conceptions. Because it was written by a scientist, further, it’s almost overwhelmingly dry at times; the narrative often gives way entirely to pages full of mathematical formulae, diagrams, and lengthy expository footnotes.

The premise is such: teams of scientists around the world simultaneously discover the presence of an inexplicable mass moving steadily through the solar system, seemingly dead-set on hitting the Earth. After some pontification, it turns out to be a highly dense dark cloud, unlike any cosmic dustball ever observed. Cue a panic attack and the deft warning of heads of state.

As the cloud’s erratic behavior proves to be impossible to predict scientifically, the scientists — British stodgies at Cambridge, Americans lolling around Cal Tech and Mount Wilson — realize the cloud might be some kind life-form in itself. Terrified that the being will block the Earth from the Sun’s rays, unwittingly or otherwise, they attempt to communicate with it, a venture which, to their surprise, proves to be successful.

The black cloud turns out to be a startling, non-organic superorganism that is — and this is an excellently clever turn of events — completely surprised by the existence of life-forms other than itself. The cloud even claims to have always existed; “Wait until the Big Bang hears about that!” one of the scientists exclaims.

Our author, Fred Hoyle is an interesting character: he was the director of the Institute for Cosmology at Cambridge, but rejected the Big Bang theory because he found the idea of the universe having a beginning, and thus a cause, philosophically troubling. He was a notable feminist, pioneered the steady state theory, and even went against the commonly-held theory of chemical evolution, arguing rather that life on Earth was seeded by a steady influx of bacteria arriving from outer space on comets.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Black Cloud is such an interesting, and fundamentally marginal, book. I originally picked it up because Hoyle’s ideas — particularly about the nature of life and its cosmic origins — kept popping up in my reading: in footnotes, in passing, in complexity theory, particularly lauded by cosmic eschatologists like Freeman Dyson, who really do believe human life might evolve into conscious, interstellar dust clouds.

In a terrifyingly topical example of science imitating art, an international team of physicists have literally just discovered that under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust (like that making up Hoyle’s “black cloud”) can become organized into corkscrew-shaped structures, which, under the right circumstances, can then interact with each other in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and, ahem, (holy shit!) life itself.

These helical strands behave in a totally counterintuitive way, like attracting like, and can perform biological feats usually reserved for primordial stew: they can divide and form copies of identical structures, or “evolve” into more complex systems, for example. According to the researchers, who just published their finding in the New Journal of Physics, (an interesting action in itself, since the NJP is an open-access, online journal) nonorganic life is a definite possibility, and clouds of interstellar dust can likely self-organize, intuit, reproduce, and evolve.

The relationship between reality and fantasy in the realm of science fiction is in a constant state of evolution. Things which seem fantastic in 1957 can become scientific reality decades later; who are we to say if any speculation is too outlandish?

To quote the literary critic Robert Scholes, whose mid-1970s books on science fiction are among the rare few intelligent critical analyses of the genre, “because we know that the unexpected happens continually in the history of science itself, fiction…has a license to speculate as freely as it may, in the hope of offering us glimmers of a reality hidden from us by our present set of preconceptions.”

Comments

  1. #1 gus
    September 4, 2007

    In the text, how does Hoyle detail the communication between the scientists and the Black Cloud?

    I’ve always believed that all particles (organic or inorganic), would have SOME KIND of inherent consciousness, organisation or life, which we would probably never understand or be able to comprehend…let alone communicate with.

    Therefore it is the ideas and hypotheses on methods of communication that i am currently interested in, considering that the idea of inorganic particles being qualified as being ‘alive,’ is now part of the current science-fact-world.

    Perhaps there is a key to this communication somewhere in Hoyles’ fictional hypotheses?

    does this make sense?
    gus.

  2. #2 Claire Evans
    September 4, 2007

    Interesting question, Gus. In this particular instance, the scientists communicate with the cloud using 1cm shortwave radio, a method they fall upon randomly when trying to figure out why ionization levels in the atmosphere suddenly shift when they try to communicate with other people (Governments, etc) using radio.

    Before any communication can be established, however, they have to teach the cloud English and give it a foundational understanding of Earth. Counting on the cloud’s superior intelligence, they spend days scanning pages of the Encyclopedia, sending video programs, mathematical code, etc, and then they jerry-rig an audio/video system to relay the cloud’s responses into readable text.

    In this case, the cloud’s intelligence is so vastly superior to human intelligence that it manages to piece together all the scraps of information and communicate quite ably with the humans.

    I have a feeling that the next scientific watershed moment is going to be the discovery that everything in the Universe is, on some level, sentient.

  3. #3 Leif
    September 5, 2007

    Oh, oh… speaking of science imitating art… Sure, lots of science fiction may eventually come true, but, what about when works of fantasy come true?

    In the May 28th issue of the Asian Reporter, I read an article by a Yuri, “Researchers tinker with bacteria to store data”. Basiclly, they encode information in spots on the bacteria’s DNA. The bacteria reproduces, and you can read the message off the descendants. Viola, you’ve got a way of keeping information preserved for eons.

    I was writing about that article… like what if we search existing life on this planet, and do find some sort of messages encoded in the DNA? What would that imply? Then I realized that totally made me think of that Borges story, “The God’s Script”, which I thought was a work of fantasy. In the story the god had encoded a phrase for future generations into the spots of the jaguar, because the jaguar and his spots have always been around, unlike the transient landscape of this earth.

    All kinds of sci-fi things have come true: we have nuclear submarines like out of some Jules Verne work, we’ve landed on the moon, etc…
    Eventually, Dune may come true. I don’t think anyone would imagine Lord of the Rings coming true.