15 July 2006

Total Eclipse by John Brunner

I read John Brunner's 1974 novel Total Eclipse primarily because Fredric Jameson has praised it numerous times, and I was curious what might have captured Jameson's interest, since he's one of the most influential cultural philosophers alive and also happens to have a considerable and long-standing interest in science fiction.

Jameson listed Total Eclipse as unjustly neglected in a survey by Science Fiction Studies, and in "Shifting Contexts of Science Fiction Theory" he finds "the climactic moments" to be "extraordinary" and says the appeal of such books as Total Eclipse for him is that they "turn on the experience of discovery". He mentions Total Eclipse in his latest book, Archaeologies of the Future, where he calls it a "beautiful and melancholy fable" and notes how it works on multiple levels as an allegory and is distinctive for its focus on linguistic deductions about an alien civilization.

Contrast Jameson's opinion to that of this review, which says Total Eclipse "will fail to satisfy many readers due to its old-hat, excessively talky approach to hard SF, in addition to too many moments of dated, chuckle-inducing melodrama." (The review does praise the conclusion of the book, however.)

My own response was somewhere in between the two. I found it a fascinating book in many ways, but compelling almost in spite of itself, because not only is it full of people telling each other a lot of information, it is, finally, nearly as bleak as Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To.

I was amazed by Brunner's ability to keep dense passages of exposition somehow at least marginally interesting. I continued reading less because of a real passion for the story than because after the recent discussion of exposition hereabouts, I was curious to think about the exposition in Total Eclipse. The book is mostly exposition. It tells the story of a group of people on an alien planet investigating why a remarkable civilization came to an end; meanwhile, Earth is plagued with wars and famines and the one starship that humans have managed to create may never return to the alien planet, and so the thirty scientists there face being stranded for the rest of their lives.

Some of the exposition fills us in on the characters' backgrounds and on the situation back on Earth, but most of it shows us how the scientists, and one linguist in particular, learn more and more about the aliens. Their conversations are closer to those in a dialogue by Plato than those we might expect from real scientists, because the dialogue's primary purpose is, clearly, to advance the reader's knowledge of the mystery while at the same time causing the reader to think about the implications of the ideas. There are mistaken assumptions and bad guesses, yes, but these are usually solved quickly and easily through discussion. The action of the novel lies primarily in what the characters say to each other; the deductions are the actions, and they make little attempt at verisimilitude. The novel does not try to give us a real view of archaeological processes, which are far messier and less efficient than anything in the novel -- instead, it tries to create the illusion in the reader's mind of what it feels like to think in the kind of way such researchers must have to think.

The structure of the novel is particularly interesting if we hold onto this view of Total Eclipse as an instigator of a kind of thought. The first three chapters (of 24) are riddled with characters' thoughts. We move from one character to another quickly, sometimes without any sort of transition. In the subsequent chapters, the thoughts dwindle to nothing, and dialogue becomes the main conveyor of information about who thinks what. By externalizing this thinking and turning it into discussion, we the readers, the observers, get to participate in the process of solving the central mystery: we make guesses ourselves, we see if we can get ahead of the researchers, we test our speculations against each new discovery. It's the same process as with a traditional mystery story, but here the mystery is vast and does not involve chasing anybody or anything -- the materials of the story are mostly static. The mystery is solved in chapter 21, the solution is affirmed in chapter 22, and then the last two chapters move the novel away from dialogue-heavy problem-solving to the fate of the researchers. The novel returns to where it began, with the presentation of internal thoughts, but now it is done differently. Where before the thoughts of the characters were presented as part of the narration (italicized to separate them from the rest), now one of the characters writes a sort of diary, thus mixing the two modes: the internalized thoughts become externalized artifacts within the story, and then, finally, become the story itself.

The effect of this structure is to unify the actions of the researchers with the fate of humanity. It is, indeed, a blatantly allegorical move. Brunner seems to have message, but the novel becomes more than its message through its mix of modes and possible interpretations. The message, we discover, is not so much a prescription as an unanswerable question: Why do intelligent, complex civilizations knowingly commit suicide? The book gives us all the information we need to solve every other mystery within it, but that final question lingers. We begin in our minds, we solve problem after problem together, and then we are alone in our minds again, facing lonely death, with a head full of brilliant ideas while the real problem -- the problem of how to survive -- remains unsolved.

3 comments:

  1. Jameson won the SFRA Pilgrim Award this year; he didn't attend the conference, but his acceptance speech, read by David Hartwell at the awards banquet, was a ringing endorsement of sf that I suspect everyone in the room wanted to nail to their department chairs' office doors--or, perhaps, their foreheads. I hope it gets published somewhere.

    Brett Cox

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  3. I really enjoyed Stand on Zanzibar and Sheep Look Up, so I looked forward to reading Total Eclipse. Unfortunately I found the book to be a big bummer. I became too attached to the researchers so the end was just plain sad. I suppose this is a credit to Brunner that he successfully manipulated me to serve his ultimate purpose. Lastly the irony of my so thoroughly enjoying the dystopic Stand On Zanzibar and Sheep Look Up but being bummed by this book is not lost on me. Oh well. I will read more Brunner and hope for the best.

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