Stephen Baxter on Fred Hoyle and A For Andromeda

On the 100th anniversary of Fred Hoyle’s birth, Stephen Baxter celebrates his masterpiece

Fred Hoyle

Fred HoyleFred Hoyle was an astronomer of brilliance, but always something of a maverick. He championed the controversial idea of panspermia, for instance, which holds that life on Earth may have originated in space. And though he famously coined the term ‘Big Bang’ for the now-consensus theory of the origin of the universe, for a long time he was an advocate of that theory’s rival, the ‘Steady State’ theory, which held that the universe was eternal and had no beginning at all. His well-framed arguments made his opponents think hard.

In a way A for Andromeda (by Hoyle with screenwriter John Elliott, 1962, the novel based on their 1960 BBC TV serial) was a challenge to another then-emerging paradigm among Hoyle’s colleagues. It had been as recently as 1960 that the first experiments in SETI had been made. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was based on the sudden realisation that the then-new technology of radio telescopes could be used, not just to study distant stars, but to receive messages from those star systems. Given we had the tools, it seemed remiss not to listen. Pioneering SETI researchers like Frank Drake and Carl Sagan were ‘contact optimists’, who believed that advanced cultures capable of signalling to the stars must be benign, and that their communications would be orderly: gentle mathematical puzzles, perhaps, which would lead us to peaceful contact, as dramatised later by Sagan in his novel Contact (1985).

But, just as with his opposition to the Big Bang theory, Hoyle’s scenario in Andromeda is quite different, and made his rivals think hard.

The story is set in a glum, then-near-future (late sixties) Cold War world, with a subdued Britain pretty much under the command of the USAF: ‘Some said it was so quite you could hear a bomb drop. Into this vacuum fell the news of a message from space’. A new radio telescope, the most advanced in the world, has been built at Bouldershaw Fell in the north of England, nominally a science installation but with some military funding. Even before it is fully operational the telescope picks up an anomalous dot-dash signal from the direction of the Andromeda constellation – too faint to have been detected by any previous generation of telescopes. Computer scientist John Fleming – a typical Hoyle character, a maverick like himself – identifies high-density information in the signal. The civil service tries to keep the discovery covered up, but Fleming briskly announces the discovery to the press: ‘I don’t go for gagging scientists’. There is a flurry of lurid interest: ‘SPACE-MEN SCARE: IS THIS AN ATTACK?’ The Prime Minister is forced to make a statement to the UN, but with time the spasm of interest passes. So far, so classic SETI, so Contact.

Soon, however, behind the scenes, Fleming has deduced that the message is actually a kind of ‘do-it-yourself kit’ for constructing a super-computer. Under military control the project is transferred to a rocket base at Thorness, which houses the country’s most advanced computer hardware. But Fleming from the beginning is sceptical and suspicious. The senders may not know specifically of our existence: ‘They know there are bound to be other intelligences in the universe. It just happens to be us’. But the senders must have their own hidden purpose; the message may be ‘an intellectual fifth column from another world’.

With the computer built, an ingenious alien communication protocol takes over, with ‘the first move in a long, long game of questions and answers’. The machine makes guesses as to the chemical basis of our form of life, beginning with descriptions of hydrogen and carbon atoms and going on to protein forms. Eventually instructions are given for fabricating a human embryo – which grows quickly into a young woman, called ‘Andromeda’. But Fleming continues to insist this is not a human being but ‘an alien creature that looks like one’.

Now, with easier input through Andromeda, apparent benefits flow from the computer, beginning with a design for an anti-satellite missile – crucial for Britain in a world of an escalating Cold War. But Fleming recognises that the machine is completely in control of the contact event, and the technological goodies are mere bait: ‘A year ago that machine had no power outside its own building . . . Now it has the whole country dependent on it’. The machine becomes more controlling, even homicidal. Fleming manages at last to disrupt the system by appealing to Andromeda’s biology: ‘You’re three parts human being’. He smashes the machine, destroys the records of the original message, and escapes with Andromeda.

In the sequel, Andromeda Breakthrough (1964), the sending civilisation’s true purpose becomes more apparent. An oil-rich country called Azaran has acquired a copy of the message, and has built a version of the alien computer to pursue their own technical goals – to make the desert country arable, to acquire military prowess. Now Azaran seeks to acquire Fleming and Andromeda. But in the background, around the world, adverse weather events are occurring: ‘abnormally heavy rain was prevalent throughout the Northern hemisphere . . .’

Fleming, through Andromeda, eventually pieces together the purpose of the senders of the message: ‘The intelligence is a sort of missionary in space. When it finds life which responds, it converts it, takes it over . . . When it finds an intellect hostile to it, it destroys it and possibly substitutes something else’. Meanwhile the civilisation-wrecking weather perturbations turn out to be a response to Fleming’s aggression at Thorness in the first volume; fast-breeding, nitrogen-fixing organisms have been leaked into the oceans, causing a dramatic reduction of air pressure.

Fleming saves the day, but he is aware of a dramatic change in human perspective: ‘Down here on our cosy little earth we used to think we were protected from the outside by sheer distance. Now we see that intelligence – pure, raw intelligence – can cross great gulfs of space and threaten us’. So Hoyle touches on one of the great themes that dominated his life: the linkage between life on our world and life in space.

A for Andromeda was remade by the BBC as recently as 2006. It is visionary in its use of computer technology alone; the idea of an alien ‘virus’ infecting our modern computer systems actually looks a lot more feasible now than it was in 1961. With SETI only a couple of years old, Hoyle gave us a dramatically different vision of that project’s possible outcomes; he may or may not turn out to be right, but his horribly plausible scenario makes you think. And Andromeda remains one of remarkably few depictions of an authentically superior intelligence in sf; throughout, despite the comparative brilliance of Fleming, humanity is barely in control of events.

On Hoyle’s 100th anniversary, and with Andromeda itself more than fifty years old, the story remains perhaps Hoyle’s best-remembered fiction, and deservedly so.

Stephen Baxter is the author of Proxima and Ultima, published by Gollancz.  Various novels by Fred Hoyle are available on eBook at Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.