Some Books: Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Book of Skulls’

In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
Back in the Seventies, when I first discovered SF and Fantasy, I was an avid consumer. Heck, I practically read nothing else. One of my great favourites during this period was Robert Silverberg. I’d timed things well, coming in when he was in the middle of a phase of his writing carer, that lasted about a dozen years, in which his writing was fierce, passionate, elegant and intellectual, not to mention in many respects pretty sexual. I borrowed everything I could get my hands on from the Library, and had at least one short story collection in paperback, and was only mildly disappointed with one novel.
Then, in 1980, there came Lord Valentine’s Castle. This was simply a big fantasy, set on the gigantic planet Majipoor, home to a mountain so big it practically extended into space. Everything about the book was overtly epic, with the title character being the rightful heir, aspiring to regain his crown and in the meantime touring with itinerant entertainers as a juggler.
It wasn’t just the subject, but the language. Silverberg’s style changed, became more open and simple, more ordinary in my perception. It was a long-term, if not permanent shift: certainly Majipoor came to dominate Silverberg’s creativity, whilst the planet held little interest for me. And, as my tastes started to move further away from pure SF, that short story collection, and any other Silverberg books I might have owned, failed a cull and were moved on.
I haven’t read any Bob Silverberg in years, but thanks to Amazon, or GoodReads, he was put back in my head. The Book of Skulls was more or less my favourite of his books during that halcyon period and a cheap copy was available, so here we are.
The Book of Skulls is about four college roommates, all in their early twenties, of wide-ranging backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, social status and physiques. Timothy is a rich WASP, heir to inherited millions, tolerant of but indifferent to things outside his privileged experience. Oliver is a Kansas farmboy, highly intelligent, fiercely driven to improve himself, an Aryan god in appearance though not in heritage or temperament. Eli is Jewish, intent, conflicted, a quasi-mystic, darker of hair and skin, neurotic and self-hating. And Ned, Boston Catholic, equally short, skinny and swarthy, is gay.
These four are on a mission to achieve physical immortality, with differing degrees of commitment, conviction and comprehension.
The story falls into two parts, the first half a road-trip from their Northeastern College, via New York, Chicago, etc., to Arizona, the second half their experiences at the hidden religious retreat they discover, as they – a Receptacle – undergo the training that will taken them to their goal.
There is one major drawback: immortality is only for two of the four. One must willingly commit suicide, and the other must be killed by the two successful candidates. Life for a life. Balance.
Of course, at the outset, you look at the two blonde jocks, physically superior specimens, natural survivors, and the two neurotics, dark and weedy, natural victims, and you have certain expectations. As do Eli and Ned. But any reader worth their salt will expect this blatant cliche to be overturned as, disappointingly, it is.
Silverberg chooses to write the book as an ongoing quartet of first person monologues, the viewpoint changing between the four characters. Unfortunately, from my present day perspective, there’s too little differentiation between the four voices, and between their various subjective opinions. Much of their monologues, in both halves of the book, are tied up in their motivations, the extent or otherwise of their faith in their quest, and whilst each of them has a different perspective, their supposedly individual self-analyses are too similar.
Timothy, insulated from concerns outside his class and his background as a rich kid, is the most distinct. His ‘belief’ is the most superficial, he is financing the trip, he is going with his friends, but in the end he does not believe in the outcome of their trip, just as he does not actually believe in anything, because he doesn’t need to believe in anything except his trust fund.
Ned is the next most ambivalent. He is a trickster, a self-identified clown, primarily gay and very content in that, but capable of having hetero sex when the situation requires it, only he deliberately chooses ugly girls when that happens. Ned both believes and doesn’t believe simultaneously.
Though they’re superficially as different as chalk and cheese, Eli and Oliver are the most intense. For Eli, it’s the mystical element of his nature, which he ascribes to his Jewishness, for Oliver, the most obviously intelligent of the four, it is a matter of, effectively, fear. Oliver hates and fears death. He’s going into medicine to fight it, to claw away from it any little advantage he can get for himself. His father died of a particularly aggressive cancer at age 36. Oliver hates the very thought of losing either his unexperienced future or the life he would build in the prime of it.
But each of the four delves deep into themselves, in endless streams of metaphysical speculations that make it hard to distinguish which of the four is speaking at any given moment, unless they touch directly on their own key characteristics.
And I find the whole concept difficult to absorb. Who are these people talking to? This isn’t a written account, a diary or a memorandum. It’s an internal monologue that spills out on paper four times, over and over again, with nothing to suggest why any of these four are spilling their guts with such verbosity.
The latter half of the book goes into details realistic enough to suggest a potential method of achieving immortality, without having to introduce magic potions. It’s a combination of physical suppleness, mental conditioning, concentration upon manipulating bodily energy internally. All convincing enough, and all working towards the inducement of trance-like states, both physical and mental. In a couple of places, Silverberg doesn’t just risk confusing his audience but, in one reader, does actually lose him.
The final phase is an interpersonal, round robin confessional. Each one has to confess, in turn, their deepest and most shameful secret, to one other, not to be repeated to another party.
Ned confesses to Timothy a time when he became involved with both partners in a gay relationship, both of whom fell in love with him and who both commit suicide at not being able to have him exclusively: he shame is at the charge it gave him.
Timothy confesses to Oliver that, four years ago, in a fury of drunkenness and frustration, he raped his fifteen year old sister.
Oliver confesses to Eli that he once had a homosexual experience with another boy, at the age of 14, which he found more intense and satisfying than any heterosexual experience before or since.
Eli attempts to cheat, by spilling Oliver’s confession to Ned, who has lusted after Oliver all along, and making that into his shameful secret, but Ned refuses to accept that, so that Eli has to confess that the erudite paper he wrote on which his reputation as a highly intelligent and promising scholar was plagiarised from an unknown deceased Romanian.
The confessionals precipitate the end of the book, along the lines that the alert reader has been expecting. Ned uses Oliver’s confession to Eli to approach the midwesterner and seduce him into an hour’s homosexual coupling (this being 1972, homosexuality is defined solely as buggery).
Then Eli, working outside, sees Timothy heading back to their abandoned car. Timothy, the least convinced, the least committed, the most conditionedly indifferent to anything that does not impinge on his privileged life, has had enough, is going back to College, heedless of the quartet’s pledge to the Fraternity, and the threat that, if one of the Receptacle leaves, the other three lives are forfeit.
So Eli runs up behind him and smashes his (appropriately) skull in to provide one of the required deaths, and when everyone gets inside, they discover that, as a result of his hour of homosexual joy with Ned, Oliver has very painfully and determinedly disembowelled himself, to complete the prophecy.
Well, well, so the two alpha-males, the dominant, white protestant jocks, are the pair who die and the swarthy neurotics, the weedy wets, are the ones who get eternity, as absolutely nobody guessed from early on.
There’s something of an ambivalent ending, in Eli’s head. He’s the only one of the four with definite plans for his unending future, decades in succession all the way into the mid-Twenty-first Century (from a book set around 1972), of the various things he will take his time in experiencing. And whilst the first phase of that is staying at the sanctuary anyway, the ending implies that now he has achieved immortality – at least, so much is the assumption – Eli will stay in the Sanctuary forever: what price immortality for so limited an existence, eh?
It’s clear that whatever fascinated me about Silverberg’s writing in the Seventies has long since evaporated by the 2010s. There will be no further explorations into this area of my reading past, and this book will be sent out to fend for itself on eBay on Sunday.
Now for the next old book I’ve reacquired.

The Infinite Jukebox: Oliver – Good Morning Starshine

I’ve had this on my mind and in my ears a lot, lately. It got added to a compilation CD, it got added to my mp3 player, it even turned up on a recent Sounds of the Sixties.

This song comes from late 1969. It’s a part of those hazy days when I first started to absorb music: it was in the top 10, although it had peaked and was slipping down, but it was still on the radio. It’s been an integral reminder of that time of early discovery ever since.

It’s also probably one of the most hippy-dippy songs I’ve ever heard. It’s from the musical, Hair which was still very big and controversial business then. It’s a lightweight sound, an open-hearted, overconfident compilation of all the hippy cliches, about natural beauty, about living with the earth instead of against it, of wide-eyed wonder triumphing against anything remotely concrete. Good morning starshine, the Earth says hello. You twinkle above us, we twinkle below.

It’s naive, unrealistic, silly and twee. And that’s the whole point. Because it’s a glorious rush of optimism, straight from a time when we, naively, thought that things were getting better, and that they would continue to do so. It’s more poignant than ever now, because it’s unsullied by doubt, fear or the terror of the bastards who rule us, whose only thought is to divide us, to take advantage, to think me not us.

‘Good morning starshine’ still believes that it’s good and it’s getting better and it’s never going to stop. It can sing ‘glippy gloop glooby, nibby nabby nooby, la la la la low’ without fear of ridicule and believe in it. It’s an uprush, of light and heart and spirit, and for three minutes it doesn’t matter that you have to close your eyes, it has the power of a time machine, it takes you there.

And it reminds you that we made the most colossal of all mistakes by leaving in the first place.

Can you hear me?