Comet Halley by Fred Hoyle (Michael Joseph, £9.95).
THE moral of Professor Sir Fred Hoyle — or one of them is that literacy and numeracy needn't be alternatives. With his well-timed Comet Halley the astrophysicist of his recent The Intelligent Universe is back in fiction again. He is enjoying himself, and at several different levels, as will his readers.
Comet Halley begins with signals from space, officially derided at first as the "sterile investigations" of mere science, then presumed to be of military significance, with money in it, and so leading to much ingenious skullduggery at the academic, political and finally international levels. By the last chapter, thanks to an alliance of scientific dedication, truth and beauty, (especially female!), the signals have given mankind both a purpose and an escape from self-extinction, by supplying the missing junction-box for a hitherto latent cosmic intelligence.
Effectively an instant superpower, and evidently a benevolent one by its invariable targeting of the "baddies" for remote-control but spectacular incineration, its intervention looks like calling the two existing super-powers to order, and henceforth to a more adult coexistence than of late.
At one level Comet Halley is first-class "hard" sciencefiction, mercifully eschewing the bug-eyed monsters of "spaceopera". At another level, with its lively dialogue and scenesetting, it is also a convincing political thriller, a genre which supplies a welcome vitality among the aridity of most current fiction. But being more than just a romp, it treads the corridors of power — Whitehall, Pentagon and Oxbridge versions — with a lighter step, vet perhaps a firmer purpose, than those of the lase C P Snow.
Professor Hoyle may poke fun at the various Establishments, but never at the Creation; somehow here, as an earlier satirist of our mechanistic 20th century didn't quite say, "Feather-footed through the sounding spheres passes a questing soul"!
The author must indeed be on the side of the angels to elicit so much goodness, humour, and even charm, from a Chequers weekend. Its rather likeable Prime Ministerial component is ingeniously never quite pinned down • as specifically male or female, though never unsuitably epicene. A similar pleasant spoof, perhaps too a product of professional pride, is the choice of "Professor Isaac Newton" as the name of his comparatively
youthful hero. Coming too from the author's generation and presumable received ethic, his cheerful acceptance of the instant and torrid "first encounter" ahem and heroine might seem suspiciously broadminded. However, being the author he knows all along, unlike the reader, that by the last chapter they will be safely married — and in church too.
Hero and heroine are both scientists, polymaths and highly personable also. Yet admittedly unlike a couple of his more tongue-in-check villains they are not just cut-outs, any more than his highly authentic officials, politicians and dons; Hoyle's ebullient Master of Trinity frequently reminds me of his and my own late Master of Emmanuel, Cambridge certainly more so than of Trinity's late and urbane Rah Butler.
This humanity comes from an unmistakeable evolution in Professor Hoyle's characterisation. His fictional heroes have in the past tended to challenge the bureaucratic dragon as the rather self-assured knight-errants of science.
By now they show a welcome fallibility. Though fearsomely intelligent they make mistakes. The hero misses a vital clue to the first murder by losing his temper. He nearly electrocutes himself. His future bride — and the sooner the better! — is beautiful, yes, but very bossy, though capable of floods of redeeming feminine tears. Both — or is it their creator? — are born teachers; thus whenever they — or lie — hint at the higher mathematics of space communication, they bring in the lay reader with an illusion of pedalling flatteringly close behind.
Belatedly I must now declare an interest. As an addict I own a large library of "hard" sciencefiction, including most of Fred Hoyle's. Also the book's dedication does have a certain personal connotation. And its author does just happen to be one of my oldest friends. Like Marshal Foch therefore in vindicating his offensive, I maintain my total objectivity in top-rating this fascinating and warm-hearted book. Published on his seventieth birthday us the author's gift to himself, it is even more a birthday present to us. Our post-Hiroshima world has been bullied into a dread of science and all its works. Yet, given all the current updating of liturgy, might it not now be "according to Hoyle" to squeeze science too into the Benedicite? "0 all yc particles and quarks, Bless ye the Lord -1"