Friday, 20 July 2012

Book of the... century?

A casual conversation made me order and read a book that I hadn't read since I was in my teens. It happens all the time these days that I for some reason re-read a book and realise that I didn't remember it accurately or not at all, and in the first place that by no means could I understand it when I read it the first time. Not that I was stupid, but some books - most books - do need some basic knowledge, and some books benefit from deeper knowledge, and some books just need a more profound life experience.

I read The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle, together with my parents and my friends, when it was published in Russian in a paperback science fiction series on poor yellowish paper. For some reason science fiction was a respected genre in the old Soviet Union, and lots of foreign books were translated, including books that would have been stopped by Soviet censors if they had read carefully. But most books were conventional: valiant space explorers and hostile extraterrestials. The Black Cloud was different. It did not portray extraterrestials as little green men or shiny robots. What it did was pose a Big Question: what if intelligence takes a form inconceivable for a human mind? Of course it has to be somewhat conceivable in the book, but the thought was disturbing. The only other book with the same thrust was Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.

As I re-read The Black Cloud, I was struck by some things I would never have thought about when I read it first. The book was published in 1957 and thus written before the first sputnik. It takes place in 1964-65, and it features the President of the United States, but Hoyle does not know who the President will be, and that the previous President will have been assassinated just a year before. He does not know about the Berlin Wall or the Cuba crisis. His possible world of 1964 is simple as compared to what was to come.

An important part of the novel is, understandably, technology. A computer with punch cards takes "just hours" to make calculations a man would need years to make - wow!. Photos of stars are developed and printed and painstakingly compared. British scientists send a cable to their American colleagues about a sensational discovery. I guess my phone can do a thousand times more than the amazing lab described in the book. How could Hoyle, how could anyone imagine what technology would be in fifty years? Science fiction writers envisioned outer space missions, but not the internet. Yet the dilemma of the Black Cloud remains. For all we know, it's right out there.

The frame narrative of the novel takes place in 2021. It must have seemed a very distant future to Hoyle when he wrote it. And we are almost there (having passed both 1984 and 2001).

Then of course the novel takes place partially in Cambridge, and although there is no more Erasmus College in Cambridge than there is Jordan College in Oxford, most things were recognisable. Another part of the novel takes place in California, which was also recognisable. When I read the novel forty plus years ago, Cambridge and California were equally outer space.

Moral: take time to re-read books. As I have learned from a colleague who is a cultural geographer: all things animate and inanimate come from somewhere and move somewhere else. Each encounter is unique.

PS In case you don't know, Fred Hoyle coined the phrase "Big Bang" to ridicule his astronomer colleagues who suggested the theory.

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