This was the first novel for author Richard Paul Russo, who is nowadays a well-recognized, award-winning sf author, mainly for his ‘Carlucci’ trilogy of novels that mix the cyberpunk and detective story genres.
The protagonist of ‘Eclipse’ is Benedict Saltow, a young man with a mutation that enables him to feel the emotions of others at a distance. The rarity of such ‘First Order Empaths’ in the Federation makes them sought-after individuals who are valued as advisors for all manner of political and economic undertakings – particular those of the clandestine kind.
As the novel opens, Saltow is adrift in a prolonged state of self-pity on the planet Triumvirate, a sort of world-spanning city-state. A previous assignment has gone bad, and left Saltow with post-traumatic stress disorder that manifests as crippling seizures (in the 80s, PTSD was a very ‘in’ thing with which to afflict characters in sf novels and short stories).
Saltow is hoping for something – anything – to happen to break his self-imposed passivity. This is accomplished when he is contacted by a corporate mercenary named Ryker, who offers Saltow a unique job: accompanying Ryker on an expedition into the trackless jungle of the planet Nightshade, there to determine if rumors of intelligent, alien, humanoid life are true.
Despite his mistrust of Ryker, Saltow agrees to accompany him on the expedition. In due course, Saltow and Ryker travel to Nightshade, and there link up with other two members of the team: a smuggler named Renata, and the backwoods trader named Gerad.
As the expedition sets off into the hinterlands of Nightshade, it becomes clear to Saltow that Ryker is utterly amoral, and as much a danger to the lives of the team members as any outlaws and narco-barons in the jungle. But Saltow’s obsession with First Contact overrules his misgivings…..and when violence begins to coalesce around the expedition, Saltow is obliged to put his trust in Renata and Gared. But they have their own reasons for wanting to find the aliens……reasons that may not guarantee safety for Benedict Saltow……..
In terms of its prose style, ‘Eclipse’ is a well-written novel, particularly for a first novel, but it suffers from the lack of a compelling plot. Most of the narrative is preoccupied with staging one scene after another in which Saltow finds himself pondering his existential anomie, an anomie resulting from his empathic gift (or curse) and his struggles to overcome the psychological barriers that inhibit his emotional exchanges with other people. These scenes are often cast in a Blade Runner aesthetic marked by continuous rain, mist, and moody contemplation.
The expedition that forms the centerpiece of the plot doesn’t even get underway until the last third of the novel, and its denouement has an underwhelming, perfunctory character that really doesn’t justify wading through the first two-thirds of the novel and its labored documentation of Benedict Saltow’s efforts to identify, and overcome, his profound personal alienation from society.
Summing up, many of the themes and ideas that Russo explores in ‘Inner Eclipse’ are those that are also examined in his latter novels, such as the Carlucci series; but those novels also provide more engaging plots, and I recommend them over ‘Eclipse.’