Despite the undeniably gripping premise of this novel, 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.
Set in the early 21st century, the story details the amazing discoveries being made at an archaeological dig on Sigma Draconis III, which, it seems, was populated by an enigmatic race of aliens who evolved from primitivism to technological genius in a scant 3000-year period, only to vanish mysteriously leaving exactly one each of a myriad of artifacts behind. As the novel opens, a fresh team of scientists is arriving at the mystery-shrouded world from an Earth plagued by war and strife. Along for the ride is a profoundly paranoid Bolivian military general, who has been sent along by an equally paranoid U.N. to make sure that the scientists are not in fact digging up some amazing ancient alien weaponry with the intent of unleashing it upon the less well-defended nations of their homeworld. The general, and the whole subplot, are as richly silly as anything out of one of those low-rent 1950's B-movies you often used to see on the late and lamented Mystery Science Theatre 3000. But oddly, he excuses himself from the proceedings after the first 60 pages or so, depriving the story of its clearest source (however overly melodramatic) of conflict and leaving us, for the most part, with lots of exposition and speculation coming from a stereotypically culturally diverse yet blandly homogenous cast of Idealistic Scientists.
Alien archaeology is a tremendously stimulating concept for a hard SF novel, but though I did in many instances find myself compelled by this story of discovery, it's sadly true that Brunner never evokes a suitably awe-inspiring mood of wonder and mystery. Most dialogue exchanges are of the "As you know, Fred, our data shows..." variety, making the novel about as atmospheric as a geology textbook. And I think a little atmosphere is necessary to put this kind of premise squarely in the reader's lap.
Yet, the quest for the reason behind the Draconians' extinction leads to a surprising and convincing resolution — even if Brunner is a bit too direct in his drawing an analogy to the possible fate of humanity — and the final 25 pages of the novel finally introduce (forcefully, to boot) the human dimension, leading to a moving and ironic climax. Fans of old-school science fiction will be the ones most likely to come away from Total Eclipse enlightened.