Sunday, 23 January 2011

From science to science fiction

There's a long, and frequently noble, tradition of scientists getting imaginative on the side and cranking out works of science fiction alongside their formal research. Some of the genre's most significant writers in the 20th century, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, have done exactly this. And the tradition continues in the present day with authors such as Gregory Benford and (blog-favourite) Alastair Reynolds, and in the science journal Nature's Futures column.

Less well-remembered for his science fiction (at least by me), surprisingly so given his status as a scientist, is the Yorkshire-born astronomer and mathematician, Fred Hoyle. Known today largely for his pioneering work on nucleosynthesis and his dismissive christening of the "big bang", he also took time out to write science fiction, and C was kind enough to buy me one of his works, The Black Cloud, for my birthday. Curiously, although Hoyle's pronouncements on evolutionary biology feature as a recurring target in the books of Richard Dawkins, the latter is also a fan of his science fiction, and contributes an afterword to this edition.

Set in the then-future of 1964, the novel begins in California, where a graduate student looking for variable stars using successive photographic plates finds a patch of stars in the sky that simultaneously wink out. Further investigation using older plates of the same region of the sky finds that something is blotting out distant stars, and that this object is travelling towards our solar system. Meanwhile, over in Britain, an amateur astronomer looking at the outer planets finds them to be slightly displaced from their predicted orbits. After initial scepticism is dispelled by further observations, scientists calculate the position and size of the mass responsible, then contact their American colleagues to confirm its existence and nature.

Realising the enormous significance of their separate findings, the British and American scientists meet to consolidate their work and to forecast the path of this unidentified object through the solar system. Though their predictions are incomplete, they suggest that the Earth may be "blacked out" for a month as the diffuse "cloud" passes through the solar system. During this time, sunlight will be completely blocked, and temperatures will rise or fall dependent on the ambient temperature of the cloud. With only 18 months until the cloud passes by the Earth, both groups of scientists endeavour to persuade their respective governments of its significance, and the need to both improve observation of the cloud, and to put measures in place to save lives during the "blackout".

Aided by a scientifically literate government advisor, the British scientists are successful in their persuasive efforts, and a research centre-cum-shelter is established in Yorkshire. Here, further work refines the estimated path of the cloud, and determines its effects on the climate of the Earth. However, as the cloud continues to approach the Earth, its path deviates from that expected, and it appears to settle into orbit around the Sun. This causes significant, and deadly, consequences on Earth, with widespread crop failure and mass human mortality. Though the British scientists are baffled by the cloud's behaviour, they continue to study it and gradually refine their predictions of its future and, more importantly, that of the Earth.

However, during routine probing of the cloud's density with radio waves, repeatable patterns of interference occur in which the cloud appears to "respond" by blocking signals. To the incredulity of his colleagues, the lead British scientist proposes that the cloud is intelligent, and attempts to communicate with it by broadcasting the contents of an encyclopaedia at it. To the surprise of most of the scientists, this elicits a response from the cloud, and a dialogue begins. Through this, the scientists learn of the cloud's ancient and distant origin, of it being just one of a vast number of similar intelligences, and of its surprise that something as dense and unpromising as a planet could produce and nurture intelligent life. As news of the cloud's nature spreads to other governments, several take military action against it for the calamity caused, launching nuclear weapons that, after a warning from the British scientists, are batted back toward their launch sites by the cloud. While this strains the relationship with the cloud, it comes to understand the alien division of authority on Earth.

Then, almost as swiftly as it arrived, the cloud announces that, contrary to its initial plan to orbit the Sun for years, it is to depart for another star. A distant "eureka!" moment by one of its fellow intelligences requires immediate investigation. However, in leaving, the cloud arranges for its passage to disrupt the Earth's climate as little as possible. The British scientists, stunned that they will now be unable to quiz the cloud on matters of science, scramble to obtain a primer from the cloud. However, the cloud warns them that its understanding of the universe is too sophisticated to convey easily or safely, and in pressing on, two of the scientific team, including its leader, succumb to the "overload" of information from the cloud. The novel concludes with a descendant of the scientific team passing on the subsequently suppressed knowledge of the cloud's intelligence, in the hope that later generations might try to contact it.

Whew, I seem to have gotten a bit carried away there, and have done the whole plotline for once. Anyway, was a giant of science also a giant of science fiction? Yes and no. Overall it's a pretty good yarn, told pretty well. For almost all of the book Hoyle does a great job gradually ramping up the story with logical and scientifically sensible steps forward. If there's a weakness, it's that the cloud's true nature is revealed really rather late in the novel, leaving this most important revelation relatively few pages to be covered in. While it means that Hoyle is able to conclude with the cloud's mysterious nature largely intact, the latter portion of the novel does seem a little rushed relative to the carefully-paced first two-thirds. Especially so given Hoyle's deus ex machina that sees the cloud suddenly decide to leave our solar system. This does make for a glimmer of an interesting insight into the activities of the cloud intelligences, but it also seems like a barefaced drive to wrap up the novel.

Another angle that's enjoyable is Hoyle's portrait of post-war science and the (exclusively male) scientists who populate it. Though things have changed since then, it's still a recognisable place to me, if a little more slowly-paced (and patronising to women). Hoyle also does a nice job of squeezing some science into the tale without the novel reading like it's artlessly plagiarised a textbook. So we get introductions to studying star variability, a stealthy primer on orbital mechanics and some rough-and-ready climatology as the cloud gradually approaches the Earth. There are also some really clever points made along the way like, for instance, when the idea of communicating with the cloud is first mooted. Some of the scientists rightly question whether they'll be able to translate its messages, but the lead scientist notes that, if the cloud is as intelligent as he supposes, it can easily make itself understood to them rather than the other way round.

Aspects that are more unexpected are how easily the scientists are able to set themselves up as an autonomous community that largely escapes government control. It may just be that I've read too many books, and seen too many films, in which the scientists are tightly reined-in by heavy-handed government authorities. And I didn't entirely buy the "brain overload" thread at the end of the novel. Something as intelligent as the cloud, an entity that quickly comes to understand humanity, would surely be able to give a dummy's guide to its scientific understanding rather than presenting it in one big chunk that melts brains. This felt like a cheesy "beyond the ken of man" moment from some 1950s B-movie.

One final point I can't let slip passed is the characterisation. It's not exactly a story that requires finely-detailed characters, but Hoyle's scientists are largely distinguishable from one another, even if they are cut a bit from the same "can-do-spirit" cloth. And he does fumble a bit with the non-scientist characters, who seem to be sketched in more as comic relief at times. His lead scientist, while painted as highly intelligent, isn't made particularly likeable. Hoyle seems happy to have someone the reader struggles a bit to empathise with. Another interesting thing, which is very much of its time, is the belief of the characters (= Hoyle) that humanity's future would best be served by a technocracy of intelligent (male) scientists. In part, this is conveyed passively by the novel, as the scientists amusingly "get one over" on the government when setting up their remote base. But the characters are occasionally more vocal in articulating this view, something that would seem very odd in this day and age. These days, I think that most scientists, while happy to point out endless government failures to pay attention, would baulk at the idea of putting themselves in power. While chastising them, I think scientists now better appreciate the difficulty that governments face in satisfying both scientific concerns and public interest.

Overall, it's easy to recommend the book. Both for its science fiction aspects, but also for how it portrays life in science in the 1950s. The latter I'd not expected Hoyle to make so interesting.

P.S. I forgot to note that, when the cloud explains its great age in the novel, Hoyle can't resist taking the opportunity to bash the big bang, then a relatively new idea but subsequently his lifelong bête noire. While I already knew of Hoyle's misgivings, it was still amusing to see him taking such a scientific pot shot in his first novel.

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