A Silicon Valley survey by The Atlantic, published in its November issue, found the “greatest work of science fiction ever written” to be Asimov's Foundation novels. For their next choice the techies picked Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud got any votes its total would have come in somewhere behind Star Wars, which captured the only honorable mention.
I've read nothing by Asimov, and the closest I came to Hitchhiker's Guide was to pluck it off the bookstore shelf, read the cover blurb and the first few paragraphs, and return it to the shelf. Science Fiction has so never been my thing I feel awkward just using the genre's vernacular abbreviations. For the sake of brevity in this instance, though, I'll grit my teeth and leap over what seems to be the no-longer-in scifi straight to what I sense is the current password: SF? Or is it lower case?
On second thought I probly wasted most of the previous paragraph building a defense against presumed sf snobbery. This because I just remembered various devoted sf fans have assured me they were unfamiliar with The Black Cloud, and I don't believe they were patronizing me. All the same, as a precaution I fought to withhold any implication of “gotcha” for having read what I considered a prerequisite for anyone pretending intimacy with the literature.
I came to The Black Cloud simply looking for fun. It was one of three or four books an acquaintance recommended in that capacity. Fun. A most effective sales tactic in retrospect. We were clerks at the Rennebohm Rexall Drug Store on State Street in Madison, Wis. The time frame was 1962-63. I don't remember the acquaintance's name, but I read all of his recommended novels, simply because he assured me they were fun. In fact, they were more than fun. They affected me profoundly.
Besides Cloud there was Some Came Running, by James Jones, and Eugene Burdick's The Ninth Wave. If indeed there was a fourth I have yet to trip over the memory. But eventually we will reunite. Over the past month I've re-read the three, and they had lost none of their ability to thoroughly enrapture me—so much so The Black Cloud it's a wonder I didn't drop everything else and plunge naked into the genre. I suppose it's too late now.
I had no knowledge of Fred Hoyle when I first read Cloud, other than that he was a British astronomer. I've learned a lot more this time around. An anecdote in his son's foreword to the new Valancourt edition is especially telling. As I have lent my Kindle version to a friend I cannot quote directly, but Geoff Hoyle related an incident his father described in which a colleague found him reading an sf novel. Displaying no embarrassment, the elder Hoyle said something to the effect that as sf seemed to be the fantasy domain of non-scientists he thought it might be interesting were a scientist to try his hand at it.
As I am no scientist I've had to rely on reviews of The Black Cloud for assurances the science is authentic in Hoyle's fictional account of a cloud-shrouded intelligence that arrives in the solar system from interstellar space blocking the sun and thereby threatening all life on Earth. I've found no evidence the science is in any way bogus. This was comforting to know in advance because Cloud contains large chunks of science, both verbal and mathematical, that sail mostly over my head
The story, though simple, is so fascinating in concept and so cleverly told it swept me along the first time, fifty-some years ago, despite my lacking in science and math. With little if any improvement in these technical areas, but with considerably more gain in philosophical curiosity since then, my re-read this past weekend left me agog in a subtler way.
As before, my favorite chapter is the one in which the unimaginably superior celestial intelligence, nicknamed “Joe,” communicates with a small group of brilliant scientists. What struck me hardest, and continues to engage me, is how lonely must be a sentience that has no concept of love. In attempting to understand this concept in our literature, Joe finds no evidence that extends “love” beyond physical union for procreation. Joe is most intrigued by the recording of a Beethoven sonata, but seems to be trying to interpret its effect mathematically rather than spiritually. If the idea of empathy ever entered the conversation it slipped past me. I can't help but wonder if this was a shortcoming of the author's alone.
Hoyle was an avowed atheist. I can't help but wonder had his opinion been less settled, might his fictional scientists have introduced a reasonably dynamic understanding of human nature for Joe to chew on? Something along this line perhaps: The ego in its inconsistency betrays a heart hungering to toll. Unable, it comes to know, to trust solely in its will or in imaginary gods, it gains a hold assuming a role whose demonstrated viability can render convincing cover to buy it time to realize an identity that feels unique, yet is not so much so as to strand it in the Cosmos bereft of soulful company.
[for more Friday Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]