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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle #BookReview

A 1959 classic ‘hard’ science-fiction novel by renowned Cambridge astronomer and cosmologist Fred Hoyle. Tracks the progress of a giant black cloud that comes towards Earth and sits in front of the sun, causing widespread panic and death. A select group of scientists and astronomers – including the dignified Astronomer Royal, the pipe smoking Dr Marlowe and the maverick, eccentric Professor Kingsly – engage in a mad race to understand and communicate with the cloud, battling against trigger happy politicians.

The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle book cover

Title: The Black Cloud | Author: Fred Hoyle | Publisher:  Cosmic Eggs Books | Pub. Date: 1957 | Pages: 344 | ISBN13: 9780899683447| Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Triggers: None | Rating: 4 out of 5 | Source: Self purchased

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The Black Cloud Review

Stephen Hawking warned us to be wary of alien civilisations. He suggested that encountering a species sufficiently advanced such to traverse galaxies will be bad news for humanity. When era-defining geniuses like Hawking speak, it is worth listening. The prediction, or at least the fiction, of Fred Hoyle, himself a gifted astrophysicist, is equally worthy of our attention. In his 1957 science fiction novel “The Black Cloud”, Hoyle suggests that while alien life may not be conquering or hostile, it can nevertheless snuff humanity out by its mere presence. Think of a Buddhist monk unknowingly flattening, as he sits to meditate, the world’s last Ceylon Rose butterfly.

“The Black Cloud” is true science fiction. It is a scientist’s science fiction. A massive celestial body moves towards Earth. Upon arrival in our solar system, it slows down and resolves itself into a disc around the sun, blocking its radiation and almost causing an extinction event on Earth. A task force of scientists in England correctly theorise that the cloud is a super-intelligent, gaseous organism and establish radio contact with it.

In a market flooded by space opera, wild speculation, apocalypses, all masquerading as science fiction, “The Black Cloud” is the good stuff. The main characters spend painstaking hours observing images of the heavens and recording their findings. They spend nights programming equations for “electronic computers”, primitive by today’s standards. Pages are dedicated to discussions on ionisation and radio waves. Though the idea of an intergalactic, sentient cloud is fantasy at its highest, the physics, radiology, and climatology are solid. Not so the evolutionary stuff, Hoyle goes off the rails on that one.

Perhaps more realistic is Hoyle’s depiction of the scientists. They are detached and even amused by the cloud’s horrific apparition. The catastrophic loss of life does little to temper their scientific enthusiasm– perhaps this is true of all men of science – and in “The Black Cloud”, they are all men. The main characters are straight, white, English-speaking men from the corners of the Anglosphere. The most diversity you will find here is the straight, white Norwegian man. This is most likely representative of the scientific employment pool in 1957.

Once we get passed the stuffy scientists and intense technical content, we find a delightfully sharpened narrative that stabs at capricious, reactionary politicians and their nuclear weapons, a stubbornly relevant topic today. But I detected also an inward dig. The scientists dominate the limelight but fail to leave their ivory tower. They delight in their role in humanity’s most significant event while the world around them suffers. In the end, it is their quest for knowledge that leads to Earth’s salvation and brings about tragedy.

“The Black Cloud” is not a typical novel, neither is it a long novel, but it is an excellent novel. Put the Space Marines aside for approximately 200 pages and experience what truly puts the “science” in sci-fi.

You can find this book at many retailers via clicking on the appropriate link on Goodreads (Buying direct from retailers is a good way to support indie authors); however, in the spirit of supporting literacy programs, we would like to point out that you may be able to purchase this book through BetterWorldBooks.

Published inScience Fiction Book ReviewsStarred Reviews


  1. So, okay, maybe *this* was the first science fiction book I read, but at least ten years after it was published. I thought it was amazing, and, yes, very typical of the scientific community of the time. Jocelyn Bell fought hard to get any recognition at all for her work in radio astronomy…
    But Fred Hoyle’s second book was even better, and still stands up for a reread: October the First is Too Late. I still love it.

    • Michael Morar

      Thanks for the recommendation!

      • I can also recommend “October . . .” Yeah, there are still snooty scientists, and it’s still WASPy, but now there are snooty musicians as well! 😉

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