“Well, that Kingsley is known to be an ingenious scientist, but not everyone regards him as thoroughly sound.”
–The Black Cloud, p. 60
Science Fiction is usually good at either the science or the fiction. Fred Hoyle, famed cosmologist and novelist, was good at both. His two best novels were A for Andromeda and The Black Cloud. Incredibly he published The Black Cloud the same year he co-published his discovery of stellar nucleosynthesis (1957.) He tried his hand at other sciences as well, but like William Shockley, could go off the academic rails when speculating on biology- did AIDS come from space? For all this, Hoyle might be best known for an unusual rhetorical feat. An advocate of the now discredited “Steady State” view of the universe’s expansion, it was he who named the winning one: “Big Bang.”
(Mild plot spoilers follow:)
The Black Cloud is mostly Sci-fi Socratic: short dialogues moving inevitably to the desired conclusion of the Hoyle-esque protagonist. It’s none the worse for wear, avoiding the sci-fi trope that would later develop of requiring the reader to endure elaborate deciphering of the aliens first. Astronomer Christopher Kingsley interlocutes with scientists of various dispositions (and short-sighted politicians.) A large black cloud has been detected outside the solar system, first thanks to obscuring stars, then altering the gravity of outer planets as it marches towards the sun. This is puckishly first treated as a normal academic debate, then cheap paperback hook is deployed: rushed travel to what for physicists is exotic locations (Pasadena.) In the genre of science fiction there is a spectrum of hard and soft where the latter is concerned with scientific accuracy and the former social impact; The Black Cloud falls far towards the latter as ravishing devastation hits the earth and hundreds of millions die in a matter of paragraphs before getting back to innovative astro-biological philosophical issues. Panspermia – the theory of life on earth coming from space – is one Hoyle was controversially known for and it twists in unanticipated fashion to the center of the plot. (Though earth doesn’t seem to suffer any lasting gravitational effects. One effect on me is bringing to mind reading The Age of Miracles sometime.)
Alien life is intelligent, and interested in “Deep Questions” in The Black Cloud. (“Message received. Information slight. Send more.” is the first Oxbridge-twinged alien reply to our message.) Grand (Grand Inquisitor?) observations are made from the perspective of a galactic traveler that claims to have never been born – a fictional vote for the Steady State hypothesis. It confesses admiration land-based creatures could get to any intelligence at all:
“Your first transmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabiting planets which are in the nature of extreme outposts of life.” (p. 161)
But long term, things don’t look good:
“It is only too likely that an irrational attitude towards reproduction will lead to more individuals being born than can possibly be supported by such slender resources [of the earth at large]. Such a situation would carry great dangers with it. Indeed it is more than likely that the rarity of intelligent life on planets as a whole arises from the general existence of such irrationalities in their relation to food shortage. I consider it not unlikely that your species may shortly become extinct. This view is confirmed, I find, by the far too rapid rate at which human populations are now increasing.” (p. 168)
What feeble threat that could be mustered by humanity’s atomic arsenals is turned back upon itself. Good intentions later manage to literally fry the brains of first a supporting character and then the pseudo-Hoyle himself Kingsley after the intellectual equivalent of an Icarian flight.
The increasingly subordinate place of the United Kingdom in the world post Suez Canal crisis features in both works. Such geopolitics are emphasized in 1962’s A for Andromeda,a novelization of a BBC teleplay (most of whose episodes has been lost) and co-written with John Elliot. As in Cloud, astronomers receive an intriguing signal which turns out to be instructions from a star in Andromeda that for humanity’s purposes are malevolent. The hero-physicist, this time named Fleming, races more individually to bring his fellow scientists – again isolated from society and guarded to do their work in confidence – to awareness of the risks of allowing the machine to follow through with its creations of life. This is nevertheless a risk a prime minister is willing to take if it puts Britain back in the pole position of the world. “It means more to us, potentially, than the steam engine, or atomic power, or anything” (p.169, AFA) Someone better versed in the generally prosperous time of Harold Macmillan’s prime ministership might enjoy deciphering parallels.
The alien intelligence this time is not benign. It is far higher than mankind but perhaps not the many orders of magnitude so as in The Black Cloud. It contests the earthlings after learning about them. The space race was on at this time, post Sputnik (late 1957) and the book draws on Hoyle’s wartime ballistics experience – no British reader fresh from the Blitz would have been lost on the advantages of using a computer to intercept missiles.
Hoyle, who would quit his Cambridge post in frustration at politics in the early seventies, seems to wrestle with whether the alien intelligences are in fact superior to us and should take control. We may not be worthy of them. This is both for their sheer intellectual achievement but our reluctance to put the scientists in charge of our own society.
“Has it ever occurred to you, Geoff, that in spite of all the changes wrought by science – by our control over inanimate energy, that is to say – we will preserve the same old social order of precedence? Politicians at the top, then the military, and the real brains at the bottom. There’s no difference between this set-up and that of Ancient Rome, or of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia for that matter” (TBC, p. 90)
“…all became pervaded to their innermost beings with the emotion complex of the old Sun-worshippers. True Sun-worship never became an established religion, for it had no central organization, but the undertones of the ancient religion [when the cloud alleviated] were set vibrating and were never again damped out.” (TBC, p. 123)
The books read together, challenge not just the differences between species but how individual would humans be if our thoughts were instantly communicated to one another telepathically? Individuation after communication is broken is a central feature of Andromeda, who slowly becomes “more human” after her connection to the machine is destroyed. Shouldn’t computing be the hero?
“That’s all very fine,” said the Astronomer Royal, “but how do you propose to do all this in a couple of days?”
“Oh, by using an electronic computer. Fortunately I’ve got a programme already written for the Cambridge computer. it’ll take me all tomorrow modifying it slightly, and to write a few subsidiary routines to deal with this problem. But I ought to be ready to start calculating by tomorrow night.” (p. 27-28, TBC)
“It was a very long message, and the dots and dashes, when resolved into understandable arithmetic, added up to many million long groups of figures. Conversion into normal forms would have taken a lifetime without the computers, and took a good many months with them. Each machine had to be instructed what to do with the information given it; and this, Judy learnt, was called programming. A program consisted of a set of calculations fed in on punched cards, which set the machine to do the job required. The group of figures to be analysed – the data – was then put in, and the machine gave the answer in a matter of seconds. Fortunately, the smaller computers could be used for preparing material for the larger ones, and all the machines possessed, as well as input, control, calculating and output units, a reasonable memory storage, so that new answers could be based on the experiences of earlier ones.” (p. 37, AFA)
The Cloud prefigures today’s computing cloud. On page 170-171 fail-safe systems are described, that the neurological layer of the cloud is distributed, and should one “heart” fail there is a another ready to take its place. While it is a stretch to say this was in any way predictive of technologies to come 40-50 years later it’s not a far stretch. The conceptual leap is there that the move from flawless dot & dash entry on paper can move in the future to a more nebulous, distributed computing. A protozoic machine learning is deployed in AFA, as the computer is trying to create a creature suitable for earth (at first coming up with a jellyfish-like cyclopsian blob, before winding up with an impossibly beautiful blonde (played by Julie Christie in her first performance on the BBC):
“I don’t see how we can analyze the whole human structure,” Reinhart said.
“We don’t have to. He keeps making intelligent guesses, and all we have to do is feed back the ones that are right. It’s the old game.” (p.111 AFA)
Cumulatively the books are optimistic that at the cosmic scale progress is, happening. It just isn’t happening fast enough from ourselves: humanity might be reaching its limits. It is computing that is the inevitable advancing polymath: the Black Cloud is coming “straight for us.”
The works of Hoyle, in an age when the world’s total computer processing power was less than probably one iPhone, anticipated the post-human future as a primarily computational, not mere biological one. The antagonists of Cloud and Andromeda read together almost offer a question: will our successors be benevolent or not? Does it even matter?
Fleming nodded, and Dawnay frowned into her half-empty glass. “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps it’s evolution.”
“Look–” he put down the record and swung round to her. “I can foresee a time when we’ll create a higher form of intelligence to which, in the end, we’ll hand over. And it’ll probably be an inorganic form, like that one [the alien machine]. But it’ll be something we’ve created ourselves, and we can design it for our own good, or for good as we understand it.” (p. 157, AFA)
The back of the hardback for Andromeda is more optimistic than Hoyle is, at least about the sci-fi genre (though growth of tens of thousands each year off that several million base isn’t as exciting as the copy would make it seem):