Book Review: “Total Eclipse” by John Brunner

TEThis is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)

So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.

The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.

This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.

The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.

The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.

There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.

Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.

Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.

There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.

The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.

And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.

The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.

The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.

6 Comments

  1. ‘Times With Out Number’ is one of my personal top reads, closely followed by ‘Traveler in Black’…Brunner was a most prolific and imaginative writer.
    On the strength of another of your excellent reviews, this one now sits in my kindle!

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