Imagining Ourselves in Hoyle’s Cloud

img_1371To contemplate (or even define) our own existence in a meaningful way may be to contrast ourselves with something entirely different.  The universe has gotten much bigger in the last 50 years, both in reality and, perhaps more importantly, in our minds.  As we discover our staggering insignificance and tenuous survival in a vast (however measurable) void, we often rely on popular scientists to translate cosmology and hard to grasp concepts on the nature of reality. In story form, it’s hardly ever done well.

Science fiction’s often formulaic tales rarely reveal anything interesting about the reality of consciousness or humanity in the context of the cosmos.  At the risk of taking a side in the tired academic debate on the legitimacy of science fiction as fiction (or science), mere suspension of disbelief isn’t enough for me. Neither is escapism.  Even children eventually feel like they start seeing the same thing again and again, when turns out to be just people doing people things in space or in some distant future. The banal pseudo-exotic behaviors and names come across as contrived. The novelty of gadgets wears off quickly. The occasional technological advancements that turn out to be reality more often turn out to be superfluous and laughable, and they’re usually utilized in the first place as simple genre devices, and furthermore much less interesting than a retrospective story of how that advancement came to be reality.  In other words, a literary analysis of how or why humanity plays with its toys is more substantive than the toys themselves.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t brilliant because of his accurate depiction of Skype in 1968, and I’d venture to say that Kubrick himself would place this idea low on his list of intellectual breakthroughs.  To me, the film exists as a fine example of science fiction because the premise, and the story as a whole, wouldn’t make sense in any other context, and it is almost devoid of nostalgia (or humanity, some have argued).  As adults, our appreciation of Star Wars is almost pure nostalgia, and the drama could be set in the Old West or in 1920’s Brooklyn, the questions of good and evil or sexual tension or hero redemption being wholly transferable. I think this maybe my trouble with some genres in general.  They seem to be otherwise ordinary life stories that are unnecessarily pushed through the meat grinder of some contrived setting or set of peculiar, wild and crazy conventions.  This movie about Santa Claus rescuing Martian children from depression comes to mind. Or perhaps this question of context defines good science fiction, in which case most that has been written is bad.

In telling a story using the vernacular of science, an absence of legitimate scientific concepts (yes, even theories) can also be a detriment to quality. Rarely, for example, will science fiction even conceptualize that we have likely been imagining aliens all wrong, and that we don’t even really know what we are looking for. Original concepts exist, but unfortunately scientists are not often story tellers, and so we must settle for social studies experiments in space that we inevitably connect to real life.  (By the way, real science sometimes seems to fall into the same trap, it seems to me.  Apart from the sweet sentimental notion of a human time capsule flying through space well after our sun has exploded and engulfed our earth, doesn’t Voyager’s Golden Record seem a bit pedestrian and short-sighted in that it relies only on human-specific denominators? Morse code? Brain waves of thoughts about love? A message from President Carter? Really?).

In Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, an alien gaseous superorganism approaches from the depths of space and threatens life on earth.  At first, the usual suspects of the disaster story come to the surface: the conspiracy theories from the public, the intellectual superiority (and quirks) of the scientists, the simple minded chest-pounding of military officials, the incompetence of politicians.  But after the quick refutation of leading scientists’ hypotheses on the ramifications of our sun being obscured by the cloud, the problem grows with some surprising, thought-provoking events, including the establishment of meaningful communication with the cloud.

Hoyle was not a biologist but an astrophysicist, yet the story drives fascinating questions of evolutionary and philosophical significance, partly because the context is so profoundly unique. Contrast the possible questions you might ask a 500-million-year-old organism that travels at 100 kilometres a second in search of solutions to the “deep problems” with Captain Kirk’s dilemmas about lusting after a green alien woman with voluptuous breasts and a tail.  One of these scenarios is at the same time less likely to occur in a movie or book, and more likely to approach something like truth or answering a real damn question.

Sometimes to understand why some things are plausible, hence powerful elements in a story, is to understand profound concepts in science that may not spontaneously occur to the layman. Hoyle has done this masterfully in The Black Cloud. The story rests heavily on information theory.  And he gives us a view into how information is shared among scientists, what they think and argue about (and how they argue), about how language could determine our subjective reality, and how the imperfections of our modes of communication determine our individuality (if we could all communicate instantly and telepathically, we would soon cease to be individuals). But the book even goes beyond effectively mixing scientific education and entertainment, already an impressive feat. Hoyle’s pace and plot development make the book hard to put down (although at times his clunky dialogue shows that he is, after all, a scientist and not a novelist). And he allows the reader to contemplate questions that would likely not occur in the uneducated mind, or more aptly, the curious mind without a bit of guidance.  How would we communicate with something we only suddenly conceptualize as alive?  How exactly can something come from nothing? How have the natural processes of our planet influenced our very nature? What is consciousness? Why do we have bodies at all? Why do we live on a solid planet? Is that an advantage? What questions have we not asked because our intellectual capabilities have not yet allowed us to conceptualize the questions? In order to learn something truly new, would the transfer of new information necessarily need to be expressed in a language wholly different from any we know?

Reviews seem to reveal that Hoyle didn’t produce the steady quality of sci-fi like that from Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. And Hoyle turned out to be wrong on some of his science, particularly in the field of biology and even in cosmology (regarding the beginning of the universe, he preferred his “Steady State” theory, and referred to the counterargument, sarcastically, as the “Big Bang”).   But he was also right about his theory of how chemical elements are formed in the insides of stars, and Richard Dawkins writes in the afterward that Clarke only equaled Hoyle at his best, specifically in The Black Cloud.  Each author of classic novels is unique, and we are never to know the factors that determine any given writer’s work.  But this story, published in 1957, still stands as one of the most original ideas ever to be written in any genre.

What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.