Sunday, June 19, 2011

 The Archaeology
Of an Ending

Book Cover
THIS REVIEW
CONTAINS SPOILERS!!

Science Fiction books about Archaeology are frankly rather rare. Despite the romance of popular versions of Archaeology, the discipline is plain hard work and very unromantic. One of its chief characteristics is the sheer hard work and tedium involved in doing a dig and classifying and analysing what you find. Very little of archaeology is King Tut’s tomb, or Indiana Jones style grave robbing.

As an aside here Indiana Jones as an archaeologist is a pretty bad one. He is frankly nothing better than a grave robber and treasure hunter and not very good at it either. But of course Indiana Jones is great fun to watch for a bit a mindless popcorn fluff to while away a dull afternoon. As an introduction to archaeology he and the movies the character is stuck in are nonsense.

Since real archaeology is from most peoples perspectives a lot of drudgery and tedium it is rather hard to make it exciting and at the same time preserve some level of connection with the real thing. This brings us to the book I’m reviewing.

The book is John Brunner’s Total Eclipse.1 The book combines two interests of mine Science Fiction and Archaeology.

John Brunner, (1934-1995), was a prolific Science Fiction writer who specialized in at first in writing space opera stories and novels and then dystopias, such as his Stand on Zanzibar. In his novels is a basic pessimism about humanity and humanities future. He also is credited with writing the first cyberpunk novel Shockwave Rider. John Brunner died while attending a Science Fiction convention in Glasgow Scotland.2

The book is the story of linguist Ian Macauley’s efforts to help solve the problem of the disappearance of an ancient alien civilization and species. The story takes place in the period of c. 2020-2030 C.E., (A.D.).

The ancient civilization is on a planet orbiting the star Sigma Draconis.2 After several explorations of other nearby stars found nothing, explorers noticed on the moon of one of the planets an enormous mirror 36.5 kilometres in diameter. This leads to discovery of the remains of the aliens’ civilization on the planet being orbited by this moon.

The problem deepens in that the mystery grows because no one knows what happened to the aliens. Ian is brought in because he is an expert on the decipherment of ancient scripts and a language expert. For the Archaeologists on the planet have discovered tens of thousands of crystals that have electronic signatures embedded in them and it is thought that these are the inscriptions so to speak of the aliens.

So Ian is asked to go Sigma Draconis III, (This is what the planet is called), to help them figure out what the aliens were recording. Also to solve the great mystery of what happened to the aliens or Draconians as they are called in the book. Behind the mystery of finding out what could happen to the Draconians is the fearful question of could it happen to the human race?

So the book is very much structured like a mystery. Ian and his colleagues are trying to find out what happened to the Draconians. How could the Draconians have achieved space travel, built that huge mirror on their moon and then just vanish?

The long dead Draconians are in many ways the stars, so to speak, of this book. According to what the humans have found the Draconians disappeared about 100,000 years ago and their entire history from the beginning of their version of the Neolithic to their disappearance was a mere 3,000 years! In other words they went from the beginnings of agriculture to traveling to their moon in a span of time only about 1/4 of that from the beginnings of the human Neolithic to landing on our moon, (c. 12,000 years).

Further the Draconians are real aliens quite unlike the humanoid aliens that populate far too much Science Fiction. They are large crab like beings with shells and claw like hands. Further they had no discrete sexes. They would be born and have a fairly long male phase than transform into females, (compared to the male phase this was significantly shorter) and then transform into a neuter phase and then die.

They sensed the world not through sight so much as through electric fields that they could sense. They also had the ability to imprint such fields on certain objects.

Their science seems to have been based, partly, on genetically engineering plants and apparently animals to serve their needs. Further they seemed to have found ways to store and use energy in purely mechanical ways without burning masses of various fuels.

One of their most extraordinary feats is that they always seemed to have been able to get things right very quickly. Trial and error seems to have been very minimal in their society. They were also highly, almost stunningly, rational. The development of their civilization seems to have been rationally planned and carried out systematically and there was no mass communal violence of any kind.

The human race would probably be considered by the Draconians to be very irrational and not very smart compared to them.

As the novel unfolds it becomes apparent that the real theme of this book is the possibility of human extinction due to the failure to deal with attitudes and behaviours that are clearly and obviously self destructive. Like the Draconians the Human race has certain built in tendencies that can in the end destroy the species.

The author’s solution to why and how the Draconians destroyed themselves is ingenious and it is something fundamental to the Draconians and the civilization that they created. In order to find that solution read the book. All I can do is repeat that it is indeed very clever.

The novel ends on a fairly bleak note concerning the survivability of the Human race.

There are things in this novel I liked. For example although space travel to the stars is possible the resources involved are so huge that the entire human species can only afford to undertake even one short mission to nearby stars every few years. Further the first couple of chapters have an interfering UN bureaucrat Ordoñez-Vico, whose knowledge of Science and Archaeology can be put well inside a pin with room to spare, but whose capacity to suspect is gigantic.

There are such things in the book as a machine that could end world hunger but does not because it is too expensive. That reads as unpleasantly realistic.

The book also contains a fairly good portrayal of the problems Archaeologists face in trying to understand a lost culture along with the techniques they use. The sections describing the process of decipherment of unknown script are also pretty good. Basically the author has done his research and this book provides a good fictional account of the process; of course the actual process has a lot more dead ends and messiness than the streamlined process shown in the book.

As for characters, aside from Ian, his love interest Susan and the above mentioned Ordonfiez-Vico, the characters are interchangeable ciphers of little interest as characters in their own right.

The book is fairly decently well written and as mentioned above is basically a mystery and the Archaeologists are detectives trying to solve that mystery. As such it has the suspense of a mystery.

All in all I recommend this book.

Brooding over this mystery is the possibility of Human extinction.

John Brunner
1. Brunner, John, Total Eclipse, Doubleday and Co., Garden City NY, 1974.

2. Wikipedia, John Brunner Here, Gimon, Charles A., Heroes of Cyberspace: John Brunner, Here.

3. The star is 19 light-years from Earth. For more info. on this star see Wikipedia, Sigma Draconis Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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