I just finished up with Total Eclipse (1974), the fourth of Brunner’s novels I’ve read so far, the others being Children of the Thunder (1988 ), The Crucible of Time (1983), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968 ). So far I’ve been fairly impressed with Brunner’s work (enough to keep reading his books, obviously), but this time around his normal brightness seems somewhat dimmer. In some ways this novel is very well done, but in others….. well, not so much.
In 2020 humans discover the ruins of an alien civilization on another planet. The evidence suggests that they rose from a Neolithic stage to the beginnings of space flight in a mere 3,000 years (half the time it took humanity) and then mysteriously went extinct. A team of about 30 scientists is dispatched and sets up camp for an ongoing investigation to discover the how and why. Meanwhile, things on Earth are touchy, and there is barely enough world support to maintain the costly spaceflights to and from the alien planet to periodically exchange personnel and ferry home artifacts and reports. The story follows these scientists (archaeologists, linguists, biologists, engineers) as they try to unravel a seemingly impenetrable enigma.
I liked the presentation of a profound mystery, and the ongoing endeavor to solve it. I’ve read very few sci-fi books in which archaeology plays any significant role, and it’s nice to see a discipline that’s not one of the “hard” sciences get some time in the spotlight. I also really liked the big picture, the overall theme: the attempt by one intelligent species to understand the demise of another in order to learn from it and hopefully not repeat it — although that hope later gets dashed. Eventually, it is discovered that the alien species met its end through its own actions, because it was unable or unwilling to change its nature. This fact is obviously meant as a mirror in which to examine our own nature and its shortcomings. By the end of the book, the research team is stranded, presumably because Earth collapses in war and chaos and is unable to send a ship for their scientists. Although the ending is extremely pessimistic (and what happens to the scientists is not pretty), there is a structure there that is convincing, a symmetry between the two species and their inability to get past their own flaws. It is unclear whether Brunner is suggesting this is an inevitable fate for any intelligent lifeform, or if he believes it can be avoided. At any rate, the basic message seems to be that our own worst enemy is always ourselves.
All that being said, the novel has some serious flaws.
Foremost among them is the overuse of that familiar didactic device whereby one character asks questions so that another character may answer them in order to inform the reader. We’re all familiar with this tool, and a certain amount of it is fine, but it’s a bit annoying when it’s so obvious, and there’s no attempt to disguise it at all. In this case, the person asking the questions should already know the answers; they are somewhat related to her field, and, after all, these are supposed to be some of the most brilliant people around — that’s why they were chosen for the mission. The questioner comes off sounding like a moron, and the reader is fully aware of being lectured to.
Compounding that problem, some of these lectures themselves leave something to be desired. Several times I was bothered by what I viewed as garbled explanations or even downright errors (in particular relating to both linguistics and to evolution) which were supposedly coming from a character who is a genius. That kind of thing tends to distract me from a story.
Furthermore, often the characters engaged in discussions and debates about their discoveries and theories, and some particular idea they put forth would carry some implication that seems obvious to the reader (at least to me), but the characters don’t pick up on it until pages (minutes or days) later. Again, these are supposed to be Earth’s best and brightest, but sometimes they don’t live up to their reputation.
This book was written during what some call Brunner’s heyday, the late 60′s and the 70′s, when he was writing his most important novels. But I get the feeling he didn’t put his full effort into this one. It was worth reading, and the basic concept was a good one, but the craftsmanship just wasn’t up to Brunner’s usual standards (as I know them thus far). It wasn’t a total eclipse; but it was less than he’s capable of.