Communicating with The Other -- Black Cloud versus Solaris

Communication with other human beings can be very difficult, sometimes indeed impossible due to differing preconceptions held by each party. But what about communications with aliens? And what if those aliens are totally different from humans? Two Science Fiction writers who pondered this were Fred Hoyle and Stanislaw Lem.

Fred Hoyle was the English astronomer best known for promoting the Steady State theory of the universe, and for coining the initially dismissive term “The Big Bang”. He also wrote a number of SciFi books, including “The Black Cloud” (1957). Stanislaw Lem was a Polish Sci-Fi author who wrote “Solaris” (1961), along with many other books. Both books have some interesting observations on the application of the scientific method, but Lem’s is by far the better read.

Hoyle’s alien was literally a low-density Black Cloud in space, with a diameter comparable to the distance of the Earth from the Sun. It arrived in the Solar System around 1965 to feed on energy from the Sun, with a consequent catastrophic impact on the climate of Planet Earth. Hoyle predicted that the US by the mid-1960s would already be too bureaucratic to make a success of organizing a second Los Alamos to study this strange & threatening cloud … but fortunately Hoyle’s England would still be up to the task.

Scientists sequestered in the English countryside were able to determine that the Black Cloud showed signs of intelligent life from its reaction to radio waves. Within a few weeks, they were able to teach this highly intelligent life form to speak English with a West Country accent. But when two human volunteers asked the Cloud to share some of its knowledge with them, both humans died – victims of massive brain overloads. Genuine two-way communications were simply not possible.

Lem’s “Solaris” has been made (some would argue, butchered) into movies in both the USSR and Hollywood. Lem’s alien was an obviously-living ocean which covered almost the entire surface of the distant planet of Solaris, and which remained a mystery despite decades of scientific efforts to understand & communicate with it.

In desperation, the handful of remaining researchers in a station flying high above the planet tried to communicate with the ocean by beaming powerful X-rays into it. The ocean responded by creating living creatures on the station from the depths of the researchers’ minds – including, in the case of the protagonist, his wife who had committed suicide 10 years earlier.

Could the researchers have any conception of the impact their X-ray beams would have on the ocean? Could the ocean have any conception of the impact its creations would have on the researchers? Other researchers in the team eventually managed to destroy all these living apparitions – but the protagonist realized he would never be able to leave Solaris, on the remote chance that the ocean would once again bring his dead wife back to life. Two-way communication between human & ocean had failed, but the impacts of that failure reverberated.

Referring to human beings, George Bernard Shaw once noted: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. With a truly alien Extra-Terrestrial life form, even that illusion may be impossible.