Now the Home Secretary made a mistake.
‘My dear Professor Kingsley, I fear you underestimate us. You may rest assured that when we make our plans we shall prepare for the very worst that can possibly overtake us.’
‘Then I fear you will be preparing for a situation in which every man, woman, and child will meet their death, in which not an animal, nor any plant will remain alive. May I ask just what form such a policy will take?’
Fred Hoyle The Black Cloud (1957)
Fred Hoyle was an astronomer, one of the first people to work out how nuclear fusion in stars worked. He was also a great champion of the now-discarded Steady State Theory of cosmology, which he preferred to the “Big Bang” Theory, which is now the standard model. (Hoyle famously coined the evocative name “Big Bang” during a radio interview.) In later life, he began to veer into eccentric byways—suggesting that viruses originated in passing comets, and that the Natural History Museum’s fossil Archaeopteryx was a fake. He is also produced a famously flawed argument against abiogenesis (the spontaneous origin of life from unliving chemicals), which is sometimes called Hoyle’s Fallacy, and sometimes the “Tornado In The Junkyard Argument“.
And he wrote science fiction novels. Sometimes alone, but more often with co-authors. In this post I’m going to deal with three of his solo works.
I’ll start with his first novel, The Black Cloud (1957), in which Hoyle used his astronomical knowledge to produce what starts off as a straightforward “disaster novel”, and then takes an intriguingly philosophical turn in its final few chapters. A cloud of interstellar gas is detected on the outskirts of the solar system, heading straight towards the Sun. It is dense enough to cut off all sunlight to the Earth during its passage, which will have disastrous consequences. And then the Cloud starts to decelerate, coming to a halt surrounding the Sun. It’s probably not giving too much away, sixty years on, to reveal that the Cloud eventually proves to be an intelligent life-form, of a sort common in the galaxy, who views planet-based life as rare and strange. (This is the germ of the idea that would eventually lead Hoyle to develop his own variant of panspermia, in which life originated in space and seeded the Earth from comets.)
The science, as you might expect, is well worked out, and Hoyle gives us a fairly realistic view of a group of scientists (the obvious heroes of the story) feverishly working towards an understanding of the Cloud, despite the interference of anxious politicians (the obvious villains of the story). This was a recurring theme in Hoyle’s writing—politicians are just too dumb to deal with the modern scientific age, and therefore scientists should immediately be put in charge of the world. Hoyle does award himself a “get out of jail free” card in his preface, declaring:
It is commonplace to identify opinions forcibly expressed by a character with the author’s own. At the risk of triviality, I would add that this association may be unwarranted.
But he returned so frequently to this theme in later novels, one can’t help but notice that little weasel-word, “may”.
The disasters as Earth first overheats and then cools very much happen “off stage”. We hear of millions dying elsewhere, but the story stays firmly with the team of scientists working around the clock in their haven on the estate of Nortonstowe, England—there are definite resonances with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
And the characterization is well done—the brilliant (but irascible) Professor Chris Kingsley, who leads the Nortonstowe team, stays well away from the obvious cartoonish excesses, as does the brilliant (but taciturn and profane) Russian scientist Alexis Alexandrov.
My favourite passage in the whole book, and one that shows the subtlety of Hoyle’s narrative, occurs after the scientists have established radio contact with the Cloud. As they gradually impart the nature of life on Earth, there comes a point at which they introduce the Cloud to music—Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29, to be exact. The Cloud immediately asks for the music to be transmitted again, but with the first movement increased in tempo by 30%. After its first “hearing” of this work, the Cloud is instinctively restoring the tempo stipulated by Beethoven in one of his notoriously “impossible” tempo markings, largely ignored by modern performers.* This tells us something about the nature of the Cloud’s intelligence in a way that no amount of scientific discourse could have. (And also hints that Beethoven had some access to a deep musical truth lost on lesser mortals.)
The successor to The Black Cloud was Ossian’s Ride (1959). The title is a reference to the legendary adventures of the Irish bard Oisin—but unless you already know about Oisin’s trip to Tir na nOg, the relevance to the book’s ending will shoot right by you. The science fiction element is slight—it’s essentially a spy thriller with a science-fictional McGuffin, albeit one that Hoyle liked enough to make the theme of a later novel. It has been compared to the work of John Buchan, and it certainly has a Buchanesque theme, with a resourceful and mystified protagonist being pursued across country. But I can’t help but feel that it was also Hoyle’s response to the then-growing popularity of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books—there’s also a shadowy organization bent on world domination, an off-beat villain, and an exotic henchman stirred into the mix.
The story is set in 1970, a decade in the future at time of writing. Hoyle’s first-person narrator is a young mathematician, Thomas Sherwood, who is recruited by the British Secret Service to discover the secrets of ICE, the Industrial Corporation of Éire, which has set up its headquarters in County Kerry, in the southwest of the Republic of Ireland. ICE is what we’d now call a tech giant, except they’re churning out pharmaceuticals and engineering projects, rather than information technology. The Republic of Ireland is newly prosperous, funded by the technological outpourings of ICE, but has evolved into something of a police state. Sherwood must make his way across Ireland, opposed at every turn by enigmatic antagonists, to reach and penetrate the Barrier†—the fortified border that surrounds ICE territory.
The novel is also something of a dig at CS Lewis, who had recorded his disagreement with Hoyle’s outspoken atheism and scientism. Hoyle’s ICE is clearly a nod to NICE, the shadowy scientific organization that provided the villainy in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (1945)—but as Hoyle’s story unfolds it becomes evident that his sympathies lie with ICE.
The plot rattles along. There are frequent chases (one of which memorably involves caterpillar tractors and bicycles), captures, escapes, death-defying adventures at sea and in the mountains, and a constant atmosphere of anxiety as the improbably resourceful Sherwood tries to puzzle out what is actually going on, while staying one step ahead of those who seek to thwart him.
On the down side, Hoyle cultivates his monstrously complicated plot by leaving many plot holes along the way. More than once the reader is left asking, “But why don’t they just kill him?” In the closing chapters of the novel the focus of puzzlement shifts to “But why would he do that?” and “Surely someone would have mentioned this earlier!” and “Hang on a minute, who is this person again?” And it’s not helped by the fact that Sherwood is as smugly unlikeable as any hero of a later Robert Heinlein novel. (Which is to say, very smugly unlikeable indeed.) So a mixed bag—fun and frustrating in equal measure.
Hoyle’s next solo novel (and the last I’m going to talk about here) was October The First Is Too Late (1966). In the five years since Ossian’s Ride, he had collaborated on three other novels—one with his son, Geoffrey Hoyle, and two with TV screenwriter John Elliot.
This one is a sort of unconventional time-travel novel—the Earth, for reasons not explained, suddenly becomes divided into regions which are each at a different stage of history. Britain in 1966 is contemporaneous with a 1917 Europe in which the First World War still rages. Greece is enjoying the ascendancy of Periclean Athens. Most of Asia is a vast plain of glass, dating from Earth’s far future, while most of North America has suddenly become depopulated wilderness. The first-person narrator is a professional musician who meets up with an old friend, mathematician John Sinclair, for a week’s walking in the Scottish Highlands. Mysterious events occur, and our narrator ends up trailing after Sinclair as he, and a group of scientists based in Hawaii, attempt to unravel what has gone wrong with the world. The plot allows Hoyle to indulge two of his great passions—hillwalking and music. I am too ignorant to comment on the musical part, but I do feel certain that the slightly dodgy day out on Bidean nam Bian, narrated near the start of the book, must be based on a real-life experience of Hoyle’s.
The sense of growing unease is well done. Sinclair goes missing for much of a day, and returns without memory of where he has been … and without the birthmark on his back. There is a haunting sequence in which scientists from Hawaii fly over North America, to discover that the continental United States has simply disappeared, to be replaced by thinly inhabited forest and grassland. Meanwhile, the British government is faced with trying to stop the trench-warfare slaughter taking place in Western Europe.
There also a philosophical discussion of quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness, which turns into a life-or-death dilemma at the end of the book. And here I parted company with Hoyle. I didn’t mind that there was never more than a tenuous connection drawn between unusual solar activity at the start of the book, and the temporally fragmented Earth that ensued. But I did mind when a bit of baseless speculation sketched out by the character Sinclair was suddenly transformed into certain knowledge of the Nature of Reality a hundred pages later, without so much as a by-your-leave. So—as with much of Hoyle’s writing—there is a definite sense that several good ideas have been lightly cobbled together into a slightly incoherent whole, and with no clear idea of how to wrap it all up at the end.
Of these three, I’d say Black Cloud was the best thought-out; Ossian’s Ride was the most fun; and October The First was the most atmospheric.
* For more on Beethoven’s strange tempo directions, take a look at “Was Something Wrong With Beethoven’s Metronome?” (Forsen et al. Notices of the American Mathematical Society 2013 60(9): 1146-53.)
† The Barrier protecting ICE’s Irish territory inspired a splendid pun from the anonymous writer of the back-cover text for the 1961 Berkley edition, who referred to it as the “Erin Curtain”. Reviewers and commentators have been stealing it ever since.