October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle was first published in 1966. The edition that I have is the Fawcett Crest 1968 edition. I do not know who the cover artist was – but this is one of my favorite pre-1980 science fiction book covers. Fred Hoyle is the British astronomer and mathematician (1915 – 2001) who was knighted in 1972. Sir Hoyle was also one of the scientists who were outspoken regarding the “big bang” theory.
October the First is Too Late is not a good read by any standard. Really. However, Hoyle warns us about this in the brief “To The Reader” paragraph at the beginning of the book. He writes:
The “science” in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of the time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious, as also the contents of chapter fourteen.
Hoyle was a good scientist. He had good schooling, studied well, published actively. Although his positions on major natural science arguments may have been unpopular, I like that he defended his position and stuck to it. Also, I want to mitigate some of his stubbornness because he was of an older generation of scientists that had to confront a great deal of speedy advances in technology and science. He was born a few years after my grandparents – and frankly, I cannot imagine them ever having adapted quickly or smoothly to the technology of even the 1950s, much less the 1990s.
This book is a first-person narrative, told to us by a musician. The musician is good friends with a Nobel Laureate named John Sinclair. Because of this friendship, the musician gets involved in matters by association. For example, he meets the prime minister, he travels with the Navy, he hangs out with scientists, etc. On his own, however, he is admittedly a bit unschooled in natural science and he does not really offer anything else other than musical skill.
And I appreciate Hoyle’s understanding of music. Each chapter is subtitled with musical terminology; for example: fugue, tempo di minuetto, andante con moto, etc. The main character is a pianist of some standing and throughout the book he plays the piano. In fact, this is one of the more absurd moments in the book: he drags a piano to Ancient Athens. A piano.
See, the world has shifted in such a way (something to do with a pseudo-beam of light a la PKD’s VALIS) that multiple points of time are existing in various places around the globe. So, it is 1966 in Great Britain, but it is WWI in France and Germany. Russia is very nearly the end of the world – where the surface of the earth is nothing but hardened, featureless glass. Greece is in the age of Pericles and North America is wilderness. There’s the science fiction in the novel. It all starts because of a birthmark – which Hoyle does tie in to the conclusion – yet I can make no real sense of what he was trying to do with this little plot device.
But while this concept would be really cool to explore and in the hands of a good author would really be a heck of an adventure, Hoyle just plods along with our somewhat dreary and banal main character. Who brings a piano to ancient Greece?! Farcical! So, instead of being a wicked time-space mashup, we get long-winded thoughts regarding music theory. But it’s serious music theory – it helps if you are familiar with Schubert and Chopin. And here when I say “familiar,” I mean you recognize their work and can comment about it. I liked Hoyle’s explanations of notes/tonality – it gave me more to think about. Music theory can be difficult to understand – because of the jargon. This explanation made me want to listen to Arnold Schoenberg (Cp. atonal) and see what I hear after having read this novel.
At 160 pages, this should be a fast read. However, it was incredibly boring and absurd. Not a good absurd either. It was pathetic at points in terms of novel/literature/fiction aspects. Basically, if you are reading this for exciting science fiction – forget it, you will be completely and certainly disappointed. Maybe even annoyed. However, if you want a semi-interesting read about music, this book might interest you. I have to praise chapter twelve because it was, for me, the only interesting and exciting chapter in the novel. It has a lot of interesting ideas and can conjure some fun images – if only this chapter were expanded and by a better author.
The chapter fourteen that Hoyle mentioned above depicts a very dismal and wretched human history that is doomed to repeat itself. Apparently, humans are miserable and are meant to live in discord and violence. We learn about the history of the earth and how cataclysmic human-initiated events devastate the earth and the animals (including humans). Eventually, the last chapters depict the “final humanity” which is resigned to it’s fate: that of not even trying to learn from mistakes and avoid catastrophe, but willing to simply live until they are no more. I read some dystopian stuff – but the last chapters in this book are probably some of the most dismal and despairing ever. So, it leaves the reader with a dismal feeling after having read a rather poor novel.