The Book of Skulls

..by Robert Silverberg.

It centres on the subject of immortality and the quest to achieve it. Four college students, newly liberated by 1968, set out for the Arizona desert in search of a monastery where, according to an ancient text, the skill of gaining immortality can be learned.  One of the demands of this immortality cult is that seekers arrive in groups of four, two of which have to die for the other two become immortal. Of the two who die, one has to choose death, the other has to be murdered by his fellows.

The novel is told in a rotating narrative by the four students. Along the way are musings on sex, modernism, and the raw desire for life that these young men carry. In fact, what about the novel is science fiction, since there is no science to it, no mechanical or technological process, no alternative world?

Well there is an alternative world, the cloister of the immortal monks. But it’s the same cloister we see in the novels of Hesse, not anything definitively “science fiction” – with the possible exception of the women brought specifically into the cloister to teach the men about sexual prowess…

And the key part of the novel is the climactic revelation of the moment of supreme guilt that each student goes through. They are demanded to confess their worst sin; in the process two hollow themselves out but one survives it; one’s guilt seems strangely subdued and the explanation of the crime – for that’s what it is – is forced into a sub-Marxist analysis by another student.

It’s an odd story, for which immortality serves as a backdrop in an examination of youth. Intellectual and physical power; the desire to conquer; the feeling that everything can be frozen at this moment of supreme competence – the hubris of youth, in short. But this hubris is not brought down. The lover of life realises he has suppressed his true nature (he is gay) and commits suicide; the intellectual fraud survives to build his immortal life anew; the sceptic dies for his scepticism.

There is a sense that youth is hollow, especially the youth of early 1970s USA, and there is a sense in which the cloister represents the minds of these young men, with its study, physical work, sex and isolation.

In fact I’d suggest that this novel is a social snapshot more than it is a novel. That’s probably because of its narrative style. The author takes stereotyped characters – the jock, the geek, the aristocrat, the poor boy made good – and merges and melts them into four characters.  There are references to several US Presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. Hairstyles are given specific years (” a 1962 beehive” for example). It’s a way of denoting rapid change, and the alienation caused by that change. The fun the students have is re-cast by the confession of one of them that he raped his sister, bringing his whole, seemingly liberated attitude to women and sexual relations into a different light.

In short, I think the novel is saying: this is what young people are like anyway (they believe they are immortal – that is perfectly natural). And here is the effect on them of our culture – it provides an intellectual framework for believing that immortality to be true. It provides a framework for hating life as it really is and for worshipping a mechanistic, commercially-twisted view of it instead.

It is telling that the character who realises he is gay, instead of embracing his true self, disembowels himself. He takes his insides out – ie his inner self is cut out.

But, troublingly, the famous philologist, who built his sparkling and promising career on a stolen idea from a forgotten manuscript, the one who came up with the whole idea of visiting the immortality cult in the first place – survives. The character who is most hollow is vindicated.

We could, therefore, read the novel as his story – his growing up story. His discovery of the ancient manuscript is the spark; his copying of the forgotten one the moment that he gained his opportunity. But his commitment to the “cause” is a kind of submission that gives him release. It’s similar to the discipline he shows at college, studying intensely,  but this time it’s based on a greater self-awareness.

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About Kevin Donnelly

I'm also known as Lawrence George, which is the name I write for Helium under. I think I ought to ditch my pseudonyms before I forget which one is me.
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