Book Review: “Total Eclipse” by John Brunner

This is a departure from the kind of book I normally review. I mostly focus on reviewing modern indie books. This book was published in 1974, and while it isn’t exactly a famous book, it’s reasonably well-known. (375 ratings on Goodreads.)

So, why am I reviewing it? Well, I picked it up on a lark after seeing the cover and decided to give it a try. It’s sci-fi, which I like, and it follows a team of researchers exploring a distant planet.

The protagonist is researcher Ian Macauley, an introverted and extremely intelligent man who is part of the new rotation of scientists journeying to the world of Sigma Draconis. Supervising the team is General Ordoñez-Vico, an authoritarian martinet with little appreciation for science and a great deal of paranoia. Ordoñez-Vico is authorized to make a recommendation to the Earth authorities on whether the mission should continue, and all the science team walks on eggshells to avoid enraging him.

This makes their already difficult task more complicated, as they are facing the incredible challenge of reasoning out what befell the race of beings known as the Draconians, an intelligent race which went from the Stone Age to the Space Age in a very short period of time–and then to extinction shortly thereafter.

The science team is an international coalition of researchers–brilliant people from various fields and all different backgrounds. And even so, they all find themselves turning to Ian for inspiration, as his brilliant, empathic mind–which he likens to a “haunted house”–tries to unravel the mystery.

The characters are well fleshed-out and believable. There’s a romantic subplot between Ian and Cathy, another member of the team, and it doesn’t feel tacked on at all; it seems completely believable and emotionally consistent.

There isn’t much “conflict” in the typical sense; it’s really a mystery. The main plot is centered on uncovering what happened to the Draconians. Some readers might find the middle section of the book a bit talky–it’s a fairly realistic depiction of scholars arguing over theories–but personally, I liked it. It made for a compelling intellectual exercise, and while it’s sometimes a bit verbose, it makes sense that scientists would have discussions like this.

Another terrific concept is the method Ian uses to try to get “in the minds” of the extinct race. I won’t spoil it, but it really is ingenious.

Something else I won’t spoil is the answer to how the Draconians went extinct. The ending of the book does explain that, in a way I found satisfying and logical. And there is a resolution for the human characters’ storylines as well. Though here I’ll risk a little bit of spoilage to note that readers should be warned: this isn’t an upbeat book. I won’t say too much, but don’t expect the sort of sci-fi story that ends with a victory parade and a medal ceremony, let’s just leave it at that.

There are a lot of elements of the horror genre in Total Eclipse. The premise of a team of scientists researching alien life in a remote and forbidding setting is a classic horror concept that runs from At The Mountains of Madness through Who Goes There? up to the Alien prequel Prometheus. Yet, this isn’t a horror novel, or at least not in a monster story kind of way. There is horror, but of a more subtle, realistic kind, and blended very closely with the wonder of exploring a new world, utterly different from our own.

The horror and the wonder mingle together to produce a profoundly weird and memorable mood. It’s something close to the feeling of sublime terror that the literary Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries sought to evoke with Gothic fiction, and yet at no point does it suggest there are magical or supernatural elements at work. The “science” in “science fiction” is definitely emphasized throughout.

And now–even though I promised I would try to stop doing this–a word about the cover. Or rather the covers.

The cover for the Kindle edition that I have is just whatever. It fulfills the minimum requirement of having the author’s name and the title displayed clearly and legibly, but other than that, has no artistic merit whatsoever.

The cover for the paperback edition, pictured above, is a major reason I bought this book. I saw it on Henry Vogel’s Twitter page, and I fell in love at once. Look at it–it’s beautiful. Mysterious, evocative and intriguing. To me, the style of art that went on the covers of these classic sci-fi tales was something of a high point for cover design. Modern photo editing software allows cover designers to create wonderfully realistic images, but these often fail to capture that unique blend of star-gazing romanticism and gritty reality that these older covers do.

Near Anchor Point in Downtown Vancouver. Autumn of 2020.

Built in 1978, Anchor Point is part of a building complex with 3 separate towers. Anchor Point at 1333 Hornby is a 9-storey building at the corner of Hornby and Drake with 171 units featuring city, water, and garden views. Anchor Point is located walking distance from False Creek, Sunset, and English Bay Beaches, and the Granville Street entertainment strip. Bus routs run along Burrard just outside the building.

Hycroft Towers Service Station

This is an early 1950s image of Hycroft Towers at the SE corner of Granville and Marpole Ave. Hycroft Towers was originally the “kitchen garden” of Hycroft Manor (which today is across Marpole Ave from HT). It isn’t clear to me how long these gasoline pumps remained at the entry to the parking garage of HT. (It strikes me as a potentially dangerous place to locate pumps.) Neither is it clear to me how payment for gasoline was arranged as I don’t see any sign of an attendant or booth in the image. Robert Moffatt, in a Dec. 1999 article titled “Vancouver Modern“, for the Vancouver Heritage newsletter, pointed out that HT was the first venture into apartment design of Harold Semmens and Douglas Simpson (architects). Moffatt points out that among the features interior to HT were “…space-efficient storage walls and removable party walls which allowed reconfiguration of the units into 1, 2, and 3-bedroom combinations.” Semmens and Simpson were responsible for designing a number of attractive and enduring buildings in Vancouver, including the Burrard Street Vancouver Public Library Central Branch (1957) – now occupied, in large part, by the local flagship of an American-owned women’s underwear store; VPL Central moved in 1995 to a new building at Georgia and Homer, Moshe Safdie, architect – St. Anselm’s (Anglican) Church on the UBC Endowment Lands (1952), and the United Kingdom Building (1960) on Granville at Hastings.

Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak. When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station. He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master. If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station. He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula. I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans. I thought he was great.

Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction. A kinder, gentler science fiction. His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America. City, a fix-up novels of eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans. You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.

I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those. Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club. I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion. So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965. It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.

That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009. King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982. I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them. Often the idea itself dictates much of the story. If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome, wouldn’t you pick a small town? Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor? Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives? Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall? I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one. I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories. It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.

All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe. Note the covers. The top one is from the first edition hardback. The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read. But look at the cover from this British edition. They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.

There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass. It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville, that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier. Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like. But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships. Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick. It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.

When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them. Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old. They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s. Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned. 1965 Simak reads that way now. Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel. And the ending is painfully hokey. Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me. I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.

Science fiction seems to change every decade like society. Pop culture is always evolving and mutating. Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie. But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien. Still imagining unimagined possibilities. Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.

Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight. A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read. That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out. King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages. Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies. Today we remember authors by the series they write. The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks. They were consumed and forgotten.

Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. They are a unique art form. The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas. The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction. I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.