Skip to main content

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.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Science of Being Human - Marty Jopson *****

It might seem at first sight that a book titled 'The Science of Being Human' is about biology (or anthropology) - and certainly there's an element of that in Marty Jopson's entertaining collection of pretty-well freestanding articles on human science - but in reality a better clue comes from the subtitle 'why we behave, think and feel the way we do.'

What Jopson does is to pick out different aspects of the human experience - often quite small and very specific things - and take us through the science behind it. I often found that it was something I really wasn't expecting that really caught my fancy. The test with this kind of book is often what inspires the reader to tell someone else about it - the first thing I found myself telling the world was about why old 3D films used to give you a headache, but modern ones tend not to. (It's about the way that in the real world, your eyes swivel towards each other as things get closer to you.)

It's irresisti…

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's poin…

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…