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Time, I think, for another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. I’m doing them in alphabetical rather than chronological order, in case you haven’t noticed, and this one first appeared in Vector 197, January-February 1998.

‘It’s not there, sir, it’s not there.’
‘What’s not there?’
‘ The day, sir! There’s no Sun!’
Kingsley grabbed his watch. It was about 7.42am, long after dawn in August. He rushed out of the shelter into the open. It was pitch black, unrelieved even by starlight, which was unable to penetrate the thick cloud cover. An unreasoning primitive fear seemed to be abroad. The light of the world had gone.
The Black Cloud (1957)
Fred Hoyle

‘Listen: let’s cut to reality here. Just the existence of this thing implies wholesale manipulation of gravity, of tidal forces, and of damned near every other kind of force I can think of. It’s almost as if the thing exists in a dimensional vacuum, where nothing from the outside touches it.’
‘Almost ?’
‘Yes. Almost. Look: there are two clouds. Let’s assume both were travelling at the same velocity when they entered the planetary system. They should have broken up, but they didn’t. The one on the far side of the sun is moving more slowly than this one. That’s as it should be, because it’s contending with solar drag, while our baby here is getting pulled along as it moves toward the sun. So there is some effect. But don’t ask me to explain it.’
Engines of God (1994)
Jack McDevitt

Long ago, there were gods in everything, but the chief gods, the ones who were most feared, were those who lived on mountain tops above the clouds. The Greek pantheon lived on Mount Olympus, the Inca made their victims climb up to the peaks of sacred mountains to be sacrificed, the Aztecs, like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians before them, built pyramids, artificial mountains to honour the gods and the dead who joined them. But it wasn’t the mountains as such that were important, it was their height, for they rose up to the sky, up above the clouds. Even today, European children are likely to picture God as a bearded figure living in the clouds.

The clouds were the roof of the world, you could see them but not touch them, they were mysterious, they were essentially nebulous. And the nebulous has always been fascinating: neither one thing nor the other, never quite graspable. Still today, when film makers want to suggest the mysterious, or a translation from one state to another, they are as likely as not to show a figure emerging from fog or disappearing amid a cloud of steam. Even in such a resolutely non-fantastical film as The Railway Children (1972), the returning father is seen stepping through steam, marking his translation from prison and his transformation of the lives of the children. Once, of course, travel through clouds would have literally meant entering the realm of the gods, but today, when we can’t quite shake off the notion that there is something numinous above the clouds, it remains a symbol of mystery.

Gothic writers, like others of the Romantic Age, saw nature as providing the pattern and the symbol for everything. Storms, high places, wild moors and the ruins of the past were the inevitable settings for books, and continued so long after a new sense of realism overtook the romanticism of the l8th and early-l9th centuries. Using such a symbolic language, of course, the dark and enclosing fog betokened dark and secret deeds, and especially after industrial smog became such an inseparable part of the London landscape during the Victorian era it provided an ideal setting for everyone from Mr Hyde to Sherlock Holmes.

In science fiction the transformative character of clouds was first employed by H.G. Wells in In the Days of the Comet (1906), when the gaseous tail of a comet passing across the surface of the Earth wrought a social transformation, albeit only briefly. For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, such a transformation displayed a less comfortable character in The Poison Belt (1913), in which Earth can only wait helplessly while an interstellar cloud sweeps across the planet bringing inevitable death. Conan Doyle couldn’t shake off a sense of hope — following the death of his son in the First World War he would become closely involved with spiritualism, with its promise of life after death — and the Poison Belt doesn’t actually bring the tragedy it heralds. Nevertheless, this image of a numinous, nebulous threat in the skies has a powerful hold on our imagination; and not long after this the threat would become real: as poison gas billowed across an inhospitable no-man’s-land we acquired a new image of dread.

Fred Hoyle presented an updating of Conan Doyle’s story with The Black Cloud — and, in the final sentence of the passage quoted, illustrated one more reason why clouds can be such an effective literary device. Of course there is more to this cloud approaching through the solar system than interstellar dust. Just as Wells shaped the ever-variable cloud to suit his social and political message, and Conan Doyle used it to express terror, so Hoyle expressed a message for which he would later become notorious: this cloud contained life. Far more developed than the amino acids he was to claim arrived on comets, this cloud creature is, in fact, god-like in its dispersed, untouchable and uncontainable body. God-like, indeed, in that like Zeus or Woden it sits upon a cloud controlling the earth below.

This vast, dispersed, interstellar being was the harbinger of other such vast and mysterious creatures, from those in James Tiptree Jr’s Up the Walls of the World (1978) to the ones harpooned and skinned like whales in Terry Bisson’s Pirates of the Universe (1996). But removing the skin of the Peteys, Bisson’s vacuum-jellyfish, opens a way into the unknown, and that is the function of clouds. Whether it is Doyle’s Professor Challenger or Hoyle’s Kingsley, there remains something in the universe beyond the comprehension of these men of science.

You can see a cloud but that’s about all, in every other respect it remains a convenient representation of the unknowable. It might house gods or demons or other forms of life or simply forces that we don’t understand — like the clouds that sweep periodically and destructively through the universe in Jack McDevitt’s Engines of God — but essentially it is something we can only watch and wonder at and hope to survive. The science fiction universe is knowable — we go out into it, we explore, explain, make everything conform to physical laws we can either understand or extrapolate. But even in this well-ordered universe we need the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the mysterious. We need something that evokes our wonder and dread as gods once did — and what better symbol for this than the clouds that were once the home of the gods themselves.