BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

REVIEW SUMMARY: Depending on how you squint at it, this is either sf or mainstream, but either way it’s a very good book.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Four college roommates travel across the country in search of immortality. Only two will get it, but only if the third commits suicide and the fourth is sacrificed.

PROS: Superbly written; intriguing plot; a good mood piece.
CONS: I was expecting science fiction and got mainstream.
BOTTOM LINE: A very enjoyable book that left me feeling deliciously somber.

If you plan on reading Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls – and you should – go into it knowing that it’s one of those books labeled “science fiction” that reads more like mainstream fiction.

The premise is simple enough but with an element of the fantastic thrown in. Four college roommates embark on a quest for immortality when one of them, the scholarly Eli, discovers an ancient manuscript in the university library. He convinces his roommates – Timothy the spoiled rich kid; Ned the gay poet; Oliver the bright farm boy – to join him on his quest because immortality is only granted under certain conditions: four candidates must appear together but only two will achieve immortality in the Brotherhood of the Skulls. Of the other two, one must commit suicide and one must be sacrificed.

Today (this book was written in 1972) this sounds like the premise for a cheap reality show and so it is no wonder that the young men search for the Brotherhood only half-believing it’s true. Logic tells them this is a hoax but the desire to live forever is so strong within them that any chance, no matter how remote, is worth a look. So they travel from New England to Arizona in search of the mysterious Brotherhood. The trip itself takes about half the book while the second half involves their trials.

But the plot, as intriguing as it is, is only secondary in The Book of Skulls. The book is really a character study – a four-character study to be exact. The narrative is structured in alternating first-person views from each character. Through their eyes and thoughts we learn about their histories and background, their thoughts and fears, their sexual escapades and prejudices, their weaknesses and their secrets. (Oh they have secrets!) And the mood of the story is perfect for their quest. Each reading session left me feeling introspective and the ending left me feeling wonderfully somber.

This isn’t the kind of book that blows you away but its poetic writing and insightful look into the minds of its characters makes you keeps eating it up anyway. (This, by the way, was what I was hoping for in Geoff Ryman’s 253: The Print Remix but, alas, the structure of that book was too limiting to be effective.) Silverberg shows his command over the written word (again and again) with every page. You get to know these characters, even if you don’t necessarily like them. They play well within their own narratives as well as in the interaction with each other. Who will willingly commit suicide to help his friends? Who will be killed to save the remaining two? These are questions you keep asking throughout the book, but the answers don’t really matter. It’s the personal peek we get into their lives that holds your interest. The question of immortality is only secondary.

And therein sits an issue I had with the book. Well, not an issue so much as an unmet expectation. The book is labeled as science fiction and has a plot that reeks of fantasy, but it reads like neither of these. This book could just as easily be classified as mainstream fiction. This is not a bad thing in itself – genre definition should be an aside, right? A good story is a good story, isn’t it? (I do, however, draw the line a cat-detective fiction.)

Ultimately it comes down, I think, not to genre definition but to expectation. My expectation was that of being a science fiction novel. As Silverberg explains in an enlightening and entertaining afterward to the recently-reissued Del Rey edition (although I alternated readings with my SF Masterworks copy and even an older mass-market paperback edition depending on where I was reading it – hello my name is John and I’m a biblioholic), the science fiction element could be argued to be the immortality aspect. Maybe so. But sf readers should know that the book is light on what one normally thinks of as sf. It simply reads like mainstream fiction. But a damn fine piece of fiction it is.

(One could also argue that the science of sociology qualifies this as sf. In the afterward, Silverberg admits the classification difficulties with this book. SF fans see it as mainstream but mainstream fans see it as science fiction. Take that, bookshelf stockers!)

(One other note about the afterward: Silverberg mentions how The Book of Skulls was nominated for both the Hugo and a Nebula in the same year, but it lost out to a rather “ordinary” book of “modest value”. I couldn’t resist. I looked it up. The 1973 Hugo and Nebula Awards went to Isaac Asimov for The Gods Themselves.)