The Black Cloud, By Fred Hoyle

Sir Fred Hoyle was a mathematician and astronomer of the front rank, whose theory of how elements are formed – in stars, from hydrogen – was resoundingly right (although he seems to have been resoundingly wrong in dismissing the "Big Bang" theory, as he sarcastically dubbed it). He was also a sci-fi writer of some renown, and this is a welcome reprint of his best-known work, from 1957.

A cosmic black cloud, first seen through the telescopes of amateur astronomers, is rushing towards Earth. Around the world, scientists get to work, analysing its composition and calculating its size and the rate and direction of its advance: it seems likely to engulf the planet and blot out the sun, ending life on Earth. A team of British, American, Australian and Russian scientists, pressured by their short-sighted and scientifically illiterate governments, gathers at a hideaway to grapple with the problem. The cloud behaves in such a way that it appears to be sentient; the task is to communicate with it...

The hero is Professor Christopher Kingsley: brilliant, maverick, cynical, outspoken and always right; plausibly, a self-portrait by Hoyle. As an insight into how scientists work – a combination of theory, observation, deduction and prediction, driven by a hefty engine of ego – The Black Cloud is fascinating.

In his erudite afterword, Richard Dawkins claims this is "one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written". I'd not go that far – the characterisation (Kingsley apart) is perfunctory, and there are too many passages in which theories are explained, questioned and defended by characters who become little more than mouthpieces. But if the emphasis is on the science rather than the fiction, there are indeed few sci-fi novels to touch it. And you certainly want to keep reading to find out what happens.