Book Review: The Eclipse of Dawn, Gordon Eklund (1971)


(Diane and Leo Dillon’s cover for the 1971 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

“I hadn’t even voted in the last election.  I knew nothing about it, except Robert Colonby, how he wanted to make America strong again, how he said we ought to exert ourselves” (15).

Gordon Eklund’s first novel Eclipse of Dawn (1971) tells of a future dystopic America (the year 1988) chaffing under foreign quarantine and suffering from a major race war which results in African-Americans creating an autonomous political entity in the American South.  The effects of limited nuclear war spawns a poisonous urban environment and microclimates across the state of California. A return to “Victorian morality” presents but a facade of “purity laid across a morass of fear and guilt” (94).

Robert F. Colonby sets out from his residence amidst the bombed-out remains of Disneyland, where he dines on exotic cuts of meat and “wines dated back to the glory days” (35), across the country preaching the resurrection of the American Republic.  He seeks to win the “first real American election since 1972” (32).  The story is told through the eyes of Jack Jacobi, a failed novelist, who attempts to write a biography of Colonby in order to resurrect his own career.  He falls in love with Denise, a force behind Colonby’s campaign and one of the candidate’s former lovers.  The campaign shows incredible interest in Jacobi’s sister Susan, who claims to have telepathic communications with aliens from Jupiter.  As a Japanese space expedition approaches the planet coinciding with the American election season, Colonby and his advisors wonder if her ramblings might contains truths, truths that would reinforce their messianic creed.

At first glance there is a lot to admire in Eklund’s sober view on American politics—it is a future where hopes are pinned on external forces (benevolent aliens) that may not even exist, where historical narratives of past greatness are but empty gestures that animate for mere moments—-as the political cavalcade rolls in—the ruins of the past.  The real forces of change operate in the background, the individual actions of good people, for example, the Revivalists who “stay in one place just long enough to build a few houses and plant a few gardens” (106).  Colonby’s campaign on the other hand, gathers the unstable, the morally corrupt, the aimless.  The campaign, although well-intentioned in many ways, travels across an America far different than the bombed and mutated landscape of California and Colonby’s war zone surrounded residence, most of the country is making progress on its own….

Although ostensibly a political thriller, The Eclipse of Dawn has the hallmarks of a more contemplatively intentioned novel, which vacillates restlessly between satire and seriousness.  There are no heroes.  Jacobi himself is a despicable individual.  He knows that he seeks to write a biography solely to resurrect his own career and that his own “prose is garbage” (75).  As with other characters, he is a tortured product of his world, little interested in implementing real change and formed by the world of death and pain swirling around him.  For example, he admits to torturing his dog Tonto (40).  Shockingly, these acts of extreme cruelty are part and parcel with the world.  Colonby’s young son kills his own dog with a toy bazooka that shoots real energy bolts, an act that barely phases those around them (38).

Jacobi, leaking desperation, proclaims pathetically while wandering around the grotesque ruin of Disneyland with Denise that “at the bottom of the Seven Dwarfs’ Mine, lost in a plastic mountain, searching for people who’d probably never existed.  Of course I’d believe anything” (49).  He himself is all to willing to invent, and allow to propagate, narratives that Colonby pins his presidential hopes on: narratives initially created to posses more fully those he loved.

Jacobi’s transformed occasionally by fits of primal rage: “I was exhilarated by the chase.  This was the right way to act.  When something is wrong, take action, change it.  I knew if I caught the boy, I’d kill him, rape his sister, eat her flesh” (61).  He is never propelled to any proactive action, rather, reactive attempts to reassert himself (to control his sister, to resurrect his dismal career, etc). Simultaneously, Jacobi sees through Colonby’s exterior and exhortations to resurrect the republic, a republic bathed in the blood of martyrs, a resurrect republic centered on Colonby’s cultic almost-martyred self.  He understands the presidential candidate’s emptiness and lack of serious intent: when asked what his first thing he will do as President, Colonby responds, “I haven’t the slightest idea” (12).  Colonby is fashioned by his advisors as a blunt implement to gain the presidency.  Proclaimed as a messianic figure, propelled by the trappings of the Church of Resurrection, Colonby moves forward interested in the ideas of making “American strong again” but not the realities of governing (15).

Eklund attempts, in a less than articulate way, to explore the act of writing a biography of a figure one does not believe in.  The novel shifts to plot summary chapters (Ch 2, 6, 9, 10), which appear to be sections (notes?) from Jacobi’s biography. In another moment, Jacobi writes a poem and delves “into Colonby’s extensive astrological collection for the necessary archetypes to raise hairs on the back of necks” (75).  One cannot help but suspect that Eklund’s inclusion of clichéd religious imagery—for example, a trinitarian vision while in the Church of the Resurrected Republic—reflects Jacobi’s own artificial attempts to create a work that will sell, inspire, and prop up a figure he does not believe in.  However, the interplay between author and subject, biography and lived experience, crops up far too infrequently to say anything substantive.  Rather, the evolving interpersonal relationships between Denise and Jacobi, Jacobi and his sister Susan, as the campaign moves across the United States form the main framework.  The note chapters thus serve no purpose and recap what we already know.

At a fundamental level, Gordon Eklund’s novel does not mesh authorial purpose and delivery.  Whether the ham-fisted use of imagery and awkward structure are meant to reflect Jacobi’s own poor novelistic abilities or show inadvertently Eklund’s own inability to tackle his ambitious idea, fascinating meditation on a manipulative politician aside, The Eclipse of Dawn fails to deliver all it promises.

Recommended for the most diehard fans of 70s SF only.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.44.30 AM

(Uncredited cover for the 1975 French edition)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Eclipse of Dawn, Gordon Eklund (1971)

  1. RE: The disturbed main character common in literature but not SF.

    Do you think this might just be because outside of SF the plotting is almost solely focussed on that disturbed main character. It doesn’t often relate well to stories that need a stable observer for the reader to see a bigger universe through. Silverberg often comes across as more literary because his characters are less stable. Either that or it’s just the Hard Science Fiction scientist as hero influence.

    • In response to your question only, I do not presume to read into the previous commentator’s statement: I think many genre fans have a series of stringent expectations for what they read. And, a novel with a disturbed main character (with no other redeemable central characters around, well, perhaps Denise but she too is aimless and lost) does not fit the expected convention…. Of course, I could list many many examples of SF authors going this route (Silverberg as you mention, Farmer, M. John Harrison, Malzberg, Spinrad, etc) but, those books tend to receive backlash.

Comment! Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.