The Black Cloud
|The Black Cloud|
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Desmond Skirrow|
|Publisher||William Heinemann Ltd|
|Media type||Print (book)|
The Black Cloud is a science fiction novel written by astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle. Published in 1957, the book details the arrival of an enormous cloud of gas that enters the solar system and appears about to destroy most of the life on Earth by blocking the Sun's radiation.
Plot summary 
In 1964, astrophysicists on Earth become aware of an immense cloud of gas that is heading for the solar system. The cloud, if interposed between the Sun and the Earth, could wipe out most of the life on Earth by blocking solar radiation and ending photosynthesis. A cadre of astronomers and other scientists is drawn together in Nortonstowe, England, to study the cloud and report to the British government about the consequences of its presence.
The cloud decelerates as it approaches the Sun (contrary to physical laws) and comes to rest around the Sun, causing disastrous climatic changes on Earth and immense mortality and suffering for the human race. This section of the novel presages the nuclear winter scenario popularised in the 1980s. As the behaviour of the cloud proves to be impossible to predict scientifically, the team at Nortonstowe eventually come to the conclusion that it might be a life-form with a degree of intelligence. In an act of desperation, the scientists try to communicate with the cloud, and to their surprise succeed in doing so. The cloud is revealed to be a superorganism, many times more intelligent than humans, which in return is surprised to find intelligent life-forms on a solid planet.
When the astronomers ask the cloud how its lifeform originated, it replies that they have always existed. One of the characters suggests this is incompatible with the Big Bang theory. Thus it may be that Hoyle was hinting at his own Steady State theory of the existence of the Universe, which most cosmologists consider disproved by the discovery of cosmic background radiation.
The cloud then learns that another intelligent cloud has stopped communicating and may have mysteriously vanished, not so far away in space in the cloud's terms, so it decides to move on, relieving Earth's suffering. Two of the scientists die in an attempt to learn some of the cloud's vast store of knowledge through visual signals, in order to gain further insights about the Universe.
Galaxy reviewer Floyd C. Gale praised the novel "for the high quality of the narrative". Damon Knight described Hoyle's plotting as "masterly", saying the novel was "more elaborately convincing and a lot livelier than the usual gloom-laden treatment" in similar stories.
Using a computer model of molecular dynamics, an international team has discovered that, under the right conditions, particles of inorganic dust can become organized into helical structures. These structures can interact with one another in ways that are usually associated with organic compounds and with life. Not only do these helical strands interact in a counter-intuitive way in which like can attract like, but they also undergo changes that are normally associated with biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, say the researchers. For example, they can divide to form two copies of the original structure. These new structures can also interact to induce changes in their neighbours. And they can even evolve into yet more structures as less stable ones break down, leaving behind only the fittest structures in the plasma. 'These complex, self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter,' said the lead researcher. 'They are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve.'" The research, published in the New Journal of Physics 2007, was carried out using a computer model of molecular dynamics.
Hoyle's scientific background 
Though the presence of a sentient cloud of gas may seem unlikely, the story is grounded in hard science. The detection of the cloud is described using physics equations, all of which are included in the book. Hoyle brought his experience and knowledge as the Director of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society into the book. Hoyle was also responsible for the term "Big Bang", though Hoyle himself did not believe the Big Bang theory. In a plot twist that would foreshadow Hoyle's stance on panspermia, the cloud expresses surprise that intelligent life is capable of forming on planets.
Cultural references 
- In the 1976 novel by Terry Pratchett, The Dark Side of the Sun, a sentient planet, ocean and sun speculate about the existence of an intelligent gas cloud
- In 1979, the Black Cloud was included in Wayne Barlowe's Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.
- In 1997, the movie "Contact" also depicts the idea that an extraterrestrial intelligence sends building instructions for a machine
- In 2008, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funded an Alternate Reality Game called Blackcloud, which was inspired in part by this book, as well as by the Black Cloud of Pollution in Egypt.
- In the game Portal 2, when the player watches some videos left over from her several hundred year sleep, a pre-recorded message mentions several possible future ruling bodies, including a sentient cloud.
- "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1958, p.100
- "In the Balance". If. December 1958, pp.109-10
- From plasma crystals and helical structures towards inorganic living matter Institute of Physics. Retrieved on 2007-08-17
- "It might be life Jim...", physicists discover inorganic dust with life-like qualities. Institute of Physics. Retrieved on 2007-08-16