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Total Eclipse (SF) - John Brunner ****

Of all the 'classic' science fiction writers, John Brunner was probably the most variable. At his best - which I would say was The Shockwave Rider - he was great. But equally, quite a few of his novels appear to be dashed off to make a bit of money without a lot of thought. In some ways, Total Eclipse sits somewhere between the two.

It's a book of ideas. The eclipse in the title is not the astronomical version, but rather the eclipse of a civilisation. Earth's one starship makes occasional trips (constrained by budget and politics) to a planet where the remains of a civilisation has been discovered. We follow the latest trip, attempting to make some sense of the baffling remains that have been left behind.

In some ways the attempts to understand the alien remnants are reminiscent of (but far better than) the attempts to decipher alien language in the movie Arrival. Brunner did one of the best jobs I've seen of setting up a genuinely alien culture and the difficulties that xenoarcheologists might have in understanding what they are finding. Although one of the means used to try to get into the mindset of the aliens is downright silly, it's still a genuinely engaging challenge, especially as a kind of parallel emerges with human developments.

The book does have its problems. It's very cold - there is no feeling of engagement with the characters. This is very much an intellectual exercise, and the attempts at building in social interaction feel forced. The presence of a pantomime nasty general in the early pages doesn't help. It also has a couple of issues of feeling dated, particularly around the use of tapes for data and in the programme that it's suggested the aliens undertook - which with our current scientific understanding seems unlikely.

Even so, despite the flaws this is a genuinely interesting book which achieves a far better idea of an alien culture that isn't just a variant on a human one than I have seen elsewhere. Overall, it should be counted as one of Brunner's successes.

The cover image (in good 70s style bearing no connection to the story) is of my 1975 first edition, signed by Brunner at the very DIY-feeling 1978 Windsor Science Fiction festival. The picture below shows Brunner at his signing table, braving the elements.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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