Over the years I've deluded myself into becoming a John Brunner completest -- around twenty-five of his novels line my shelves and I've read most of them over the years. At his best he's without question one of the great masters of the genre -- Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Sheep Look Up (1972), etc. are evidence of this. However, in-between his social science fiction masterpieces are a plethora of unsatisfying attempts at traditionalist space opera. In these works Brunner never fully leaves his pulp roots although he occasionally tries to inject a dose of hard science, (pseudo) intellectualism, and social commentary.
Total Eclipse (1974) fits this mold. A group of scientists attempt to figure out the mystery of a highly advanced race which has apparently, died out. Character interactions are painfully silly along the "Oh heroic main character, you're a genius let me jump into your bed" sort of lines. The entire cast, despite the plethora of female scientists and racial diversity (Arabs, Africans, etc), are entirely interchangeable and bland. After the mystery is solved Brunner desperately attempts to make the work have a relevant social message. Also, apparently dissatisfied with his earlier cavalcade of undeviating naivete, melodrama, and endless faux-biological/linguistic/archaeological technobabble, Brunner tags on a dark ending out of touch with the rest of the work.
For Brunner completests and fans of 70s Hard Science fiction only.
Brief Plot Summary (*some spoilers*)
In the future, mankind has pulled together the necessary resources for a single space sparing vessel, the Stellaris. The powers that be on Earth are increasingly beset by a populace against "wasting" money on space travel due to the crisises of growing overpopulation, pollution, etc. As a result, it's increasingly uncertain how much longer the space program will be funded. Also, various conspiracy theories develop as to the real reasons for the Stellaris` treks into space.
Our paleolinguist main character Ian Macauly -- cut from the nerdy, socially inept, scientist mold -- is summoned by the group of scientists who have taken up residence on the planet Sigma Draconis III. This planet was the home planet of a fascinating race of crab-like aliens which have long since disappeared. The crab creatures communicated by manipulating electric fields, evolved incredibly fast (from primitivism to incredibly sophisticated technology in 3,000 years), appear to make mistakes only once before never repeating them, and left behind a vast assortment of intriguing, but hard to interpret, artifacts (including a moon with a massive telescope). Ian is summoned to solve the alien language with the hope that answer for their disappearance will be solved.
Due to the conspiracies surrounding the program, a particularly egregious/paranoid South American official is assigned to interrogate all the occupants of the archaeological camp. The first third of the book serves as an attempt to info dump the reader under the guise by means of the official's interrogations. Of course, Ian eventually makes him see the light and suddenly is considered a hero. A female scientist fawns over him and desperately wants to get into his bed. Of course, Ian's anti-social nature provides a few giggles and laughs in between the "you're a brilliant man tell me more of your brilliant theories and brilliant brilliance" pat yourself on the back moments.
The rest of the book follows Ian's attempts to unravel the mystery of the crab creatures. He eventually comes up with a plan to make crab suit (!) to simulate the creature's movements, way of visualizing the world, and even the psychological impact of the creature's evolving sexual stages. This incredibly hokey contraption allows Ian approach a solution. But, will the Stellaris even return or have the powers on Earth forgotten them.