Book Review: Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974)

October 7, 2012 § 8 Comments

(John Cayea’s cover for the 1974 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Over the years I’ve deluded myself into becoming a John Brunner completest — around twenty-five of his novels line my shelves and I’ve read most of them over the years.  At his best he’s without question one of the great masters of the genre — Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Sheep Look Up (1972), etc. are evidence of this.  However, in-between his social science fiction masterpieces are a plethora of unsatisfying attempts at traditionalist space opera.  In these works Brunner never fully leaves his pulp roots although he occasionally tries to inject a dose of hard science, (pseudo) intellectualism, and social commentary.

Total Eclipse (1974) fits this mold.  A group of scientists attempt to figure out the mystery of a highly advanced race which has apparently, died out. Character interactions are painfully silly along the “Oh heroic main character, you’re a genius let me jump into your bed” sort of lines.  The entire cast, despite the plethora of female scientists and racial diversity (Arabs, Africans, etc), are entirely interchangeable and bland.  After the mystery is solved Brunner desperately attempts to make the work have a relevant social message.  Also, apparently dissatisfied with his earlier cavalcade of undeviating naivete, melodrama, and endless faux-biological/linguistic/archaeological technobabble, Brunner tags on a dark ending out of touch with the rest of the work.  

For Brunner completests and fans of 70s Hard Science fiction only.

Brief Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)

In the  future, mankind has pulled together the necessary resources for a single space sparing vessel, the Stellaris.  The powers that be on Earth are increasingly beset by a populace against “wasting” money on space travel due to the crisises of growing overpopulation, pollution, etc.  As a result, it’s increasingly uncertain how much longer the space program will be funded.  Also, various conspiracy theories develop as to the real reasons for the Stellaris‘ treks into space.

Our paleolinguist main character Ian Macauly — cut from the nerdy, socially inept, scientist mold — is summoned by the group of scientists who have taken up residence on the planet Sigma Draconis III.  This planet was the home planet of a fascinating race of crab-like aliens which have long since disappeared.  The crab creatures communicated by manipulating electric fields, evolved incredibly fast (from primitivism to incredibly sophisticated technology in 3,000 years), appear to make mistakes only once before never repeating them, and left behind a vast assortment of intriguing, but hard to interpret, artifacts (including a moon with a massive telescope).  Ian is summoned to solve the alien language with the hope that answer for their disappearance will be solved.

Due to the conspiracies surrounding the program, a particularly egregious/paranoid South American official is assigned to interrogate all the occupants of the archaeological camp.  The first third of the book serves as an attempt to info dump the reader under the guise by means of the official’s interrogations.  Of course, Ian eventually makes him see the light and suddenly is considered a hero.  A female scientist fawns over him and desperately wants to get into his bed.  Of course, Ian’s anti-social nature provides a few giggles and laughs in between the “you’re a brilliant man tell me more of your brilliant theories and brilliant brilliance” pat yourself on the back moments.

The rest of the book follows Ian’s attempts to unravel the mystery of the crab creatures.  He eventually comes up with a plan to make crab suit (!) to simulate the creature’s movements, way of visualizing the world, and even the psychological impact of the creature’s evolving sexual stages.  This incredibly hokey contraption allows Ian approach a solution.  But, will the Stellaris even return or have the powers on Earth forgotten them.

(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1975 edition)

(Philippe Bouchet’s cover for the 1991 French edition)

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§ 8 Responses to Book Review: Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974)

  • Michael Edwards says:

    Hmmm… this is not a very encouraging review. This is one of many books I’ve collected but somehow never got around to reading, but plot summaries of it seemed intriguing – which is presumably why I bought it in the first place, years and years ago. And the idea of unravelling why an advanced civilization has sudden become extinct does seem to make for an intriguing plot – one I’m sure a number of novels by various authors have dealt with. I wouldn’t say I’m a Brunner completist – so should I just avoid this novel as a waste of time? Or does it have enough good points to still be worth reading?

    You mentioned an “info dump” early in the book – something which many reviewers seem to malign quite badly. But personally, if I’m reading a novel, I’d prefer to know what’s going on, and know the background, than not to – even if it has to be done by having one character “dump” all that information into the narrative.

    Another point I’ve often wondered about: Brunner’s novel “Bedlam Planet” apparently also deals with a planet around Sigma Draconis – and I’ve often wondered if it a sequel, or at least related in some way, to “Total Eclipse”. Or is it totally separate, and Brunner just happened to choose the same star to base it around?

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      I read Bedlam Planet a while back (at least 8 years or so) and remember little. So I’m not exactly sure of the answer to your question. But they struck me as separate novels. However, I do remember enjoying it more than Total Eclipse.

      The problem with the first third of the novel is simple. The Bolivian agent sent to interrogate everyone about the nature of their research is simply a joke — the reader hates him, we know his mission will fail, the characters hate him, it’s all a carefully constructed excuse on Brunner’s part to dump a massive amount of information on the reader. Large swathes of the work are characters telling each the how brilliant they are after extensive speeches….

      The bigger issues is the character interactions. They are laughable — a hilarious sort of utopian scientific commune where everyone is perfectly happy and proclaim, “tell me more about your brilliant theory” at every possible interval. With a good dose of melodrama….

      If you tolerated Bedlam Planet I suspect you’ll tolerate this one as well.

  • Oh dear. I recall liking this, and still have a copy in fact. I liked the ending as I recall, it was so wonderfully bleak and to me it did fit the rest of the novel and was built towards throughout.

    Thankfully I’d forgotten the characters entirely, though that in itself speaks volumes. I do remember finding the use of a crab suit to understand the extinct aliens to be absurd. It would have been better if we had never understood what killed them, the book doesn’t ultimately require their fate to be comprehensible. In some ways the book’s themes would be better served if it remained something unknown and plainly irrational.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      I like the end — however, I found that it didn’t mesh very well with the rest of the work. I wish the entire book was slightly more dark, realistic in characters, etc and then the end would feel more organic.

      Oh goodness, the crab suit. Don’t get me started…. How a suit will make someone feel like a female crab is beyond me.

  • John Stephen Walsh says:

    Joachim, Even when I don`t agree with you, it is so refreshing to find someone so consistently fair. This is a good example [though I agree with your grade]. I liked the opening slightly more than you did, but the bulk of the book was a talky slog. I only stayed with it because I have a thing for sf with bleak endings that are EARNED and which are a logical culmination of the events depicted. [...AND CHAOS DIED winning the crown, of course] It seemed the ending here was a case of showing all these happy, cooperative scientists that all that happy ain`t-we-multicultural-and-polite-thus-we-DESERVE-to-prevail stuff. I do find the ending to be the point of the book–the Utopian Star Trek future could arrive, but puny humanity will still mean zilch in the face of the universe. But ultimately I wished he`d made his point in a short story. The endless the talk about how this alien race thinks? Ted Chiang may have outdone every story about that with `Story of Your Life`[a must-read collection].

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      Do you mean Russ’ We Who Are About To…..? Both works are depressing but I thought you hadn’t read And Chaos Died.

      Yeah, I felt like he was fooling with the common trope as well. But, if my memory serves me well, the entire “try to be an alien” was hokey as hell. And then the dark ending felt tacked on.

  • John Stephen Walsh says:

    Geez, what a horribly-written post, moreso than my usual. In my defense I`ve been sick.:) I happened to come upon the Brunner entry in Clute`s SF ENCYCLOPEDIA [which is now online and you should bookmark it if you haven`t, magnificent info] and Clute is pretty fair with Brunner. His view of ZANZIBAR is similar to yours.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      I’ve read the SF Encyclopedia in and out.

      I generally agree with his assessments… The notable exception was Sohl’s Costigan’s Needle which I just reviewed. He claimed it was much better than it was…. But, we all have our pet peeves and favorite tropes.

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