Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #28: Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle is better known as an astronomer and cosmologist than as a writer of science fiction. On the other hand, his science fiction likely has more adherents today than his cosmology. Fair enough, it's more fun to read. Not surprisingly, the plot devices that drive his stories generally turn out to have an interstellar origin. Aside from that, they tend to be softer sf than you'd perhaps expect. Most of Hoyle's sf was written in the fifties and early sixties.

"Ossian's Ride" (***+) is placed in an Ireland of the future. (The cover of my copy says "Excitement, suspense and sudden death -- in 1970".) For several years Ireland has been pulling inexplicably further and further ahead of the rest of the world, technologically, and the rest of the world-- including British Intelligence -- would like to know how. Since regular spies have been consistently unsuccessful (the lucky ones, anyhow), they persuade a young scientist to visit Ireland and try his luck. Most of the rest of the book has more to do with spies shooting at each other (and at him) than with the scientific mystery, but it's written in a way more likely to appeal to readers of science fiction than to readers of spy novels.

(I have a soft spot for this novel because I needed a good quote on software complexity for my thesis, and here was a 1950s reference stating that a program's difficulty was proportional to the square of the number of cards in the deck. So now, when I analyze a system, I ask the programmers how many cards it contains. :)

"The Black Cloud" (***) is a cloud of astronomical proportions which enters the solar system and, impossibly, stops. What with its gravitational effects and its blockage of the sunlight, it does the Earth no good whatsoever. Before too large a fraction of the world's population dies, however, one scientist leads a successful attempt to *communicate* with that cloud -- which turns out to be an intelligent entity. The most urgent question which arises is whether the cloud can be talked into basking around some other star. The one with longer-term implications is whether it can be persuaded to do some teaching before it leaves.

"A For Andromeda" (***) was coauthored with John Elliot, a television writer. (I'm not sure about this, but I think "A For Andromeda" started life out as a telefilm script.) It has a premise which other writers have borrowed since: A new radio-telescope picks up what has to be a message coming (for a long time, obviously) from the direction of Andromeda. When the message is finally decoded (it was designed to be decodable) it turns out to include a very complex computer program, the design information needed to run the program, and data. Naturally the computer is built and the program is run. It then provides the researchers with instructions for creating a human being to serve as its interface.

All three of these books share a common theme of perilous *information* coming from space, and carrying a considerable potential for good. In "A For Andromeda", the potential for good is well hidden, as the novel follows the well-beaten track of scientists trying to pull the plug on their cybernetic Frankenstein before it's too late. In a sequel to this book, "Andromeda Breakthrough" (**), the purposes of that computer turn out to have been better than those scientists understood. (The cover of my copy says "Science Fiction at its Fantastic Best", but it exaggerates.)

Hoyle's also written other books, which I'd rate as relatively weak. (There's no 'relatively' in the case of "Fifth Planet", coauthored with Geoffrey Hoyle.) For that matter, none of his books read as well today as they did, but the best of them should appeal to readers who enjoy hard sf with squishy centers.


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Dani Zweig