The Black Cloud

The Black Cloud

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The Black Cloud is a science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 written by astrophysicist
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties of celestial objects, as well as their interactions and behavior...

 Sir Fred Hoyle. Published in 1957
1957 in literature
The year 1957 in literature involved some significant events and new books.-Events:* Lawrence Durrell publishes the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet. The final of the four volumes will be published in 1960....

, the book details the arrival of an enormous cloud of gas
Molecular cloud
A molecular cloud, sometimes called a stellar nursery if star formation is occurring within, is a type of interstellar cloud whose density and size permits the formation of molecules, most commonly molecular hydrogen ....

 that enters the solar system and threatens 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
Photosynthesis is a chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis occurs in plants, algae, and many species of bacteria, but not in archaea. Photosynthetic organisms are called photoautotrophs, since they can...

. 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
Nuclear winter
Nuclear winter is a predicted climatic effect of nuclear war. It has been theorized that severely cold weather and reduced sunlight for a period of months or even years could be caused by detonating large numbers of nuclear weapons, especially over flammable targets such as cities, where large...

 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
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are the best-known example of...

, many times more intelligent than humans, which in return is surprised to find intelligent life-forms on a solid planet
Terrestrial planet
A terrestrial planet, telluric planet or rocky planet is a planet that is composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals. Within the Solar System, the terrestrial planets are the inner planets closest to the Sun...


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
Big Bang
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that explains the early development of the Universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the young Universe to cool and resulted in...

 theory. Thus it may be that Hoyle was hinting at his own Steady State theory
Steady State theory
In cosmology, the Steady State theory is a model developed in 1948 by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi and others as an alternative to the Big Bang theory...

 of the existence of the universe, which most cosmologist 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. It is implied, however, that this learning process may have then been tested on a subject far more likely to survive.


Galaxy Science Fiction
Galaxy Science Fiction was an American digest-size science fiction magazine, published from 1950 to 1980. It was founded by an Italian company, World Editions, which was looking to break in to the American market. World Editions hired as editor H. L...

 reviewer Floyd C. Gale praised the novel "for the high quality of the narrative." Damon Knight
Damon Knight
Damon Francis Knight was an American science fiction author, editor, critic and fan. His forte was short stories and he is widely acknowledged as having been a master of the genre.-Biography:...

 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
Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge
The Institute of Astronomy is the largest of the three astronomy departments in the University of Cambridge, and one of the largest astronomy sites in the UK...

, a Fellow of the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

 into the book. Hoyle was also responsible for the term Big Bang
Big Bang
The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model that explains the early development of the Universe. According to the Big Bang theory, the Universe was once in an extremely hot and dense state which expanded rapidly. This rapid expansion caused the young Universe to cool and resulted in...

, though Hoyle himself did not believe the Big Bang theory. In an ironic 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
    Terry Pratchett
    Sir Terence David John "Terry" Pratchett, OBE is an English novelist, known for his frequently comical work in the fantasy genre. He is best known for his popular and long-running Discworld series of comic fantasy novels...

    , The Dark Side of the Sun
    The Dark Side of the Sun
    The Dark Side of the Sun is a science fiction novel by Terry Pratchett, first published in 1976. It is similar to the work of Isaac Asimov. According to Don D'Ammassa, both this and Pratchett's 1981 sci-fi novel Strata are spoofing parts of Larry Niven's Ringworld...

    , 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
    Wayne Barlowe
    Wayne Douglas Barlowe is an American science fiction and fantasy painter. He has paintedover 300 book and magazine covers and illustrations for many major book publishers, as well as Life magazine, Time, and Newsweek...

    's Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials
    Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials
    Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials is a 1979 science fiction book by artist Wayne Barlowe, with Ian Summers and Beth Meacham...

  • In 2008, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation funded an Alternate Reality Game
    Alternate reality game
    An alternate reality game is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions....

     called Blackcloud, which was inspired in part by this book, as well as by the Black Cloud of Pollution in Egypt.