Four young men, roommates at an unnamed Ivy League college, decide to spend their spring break driving from New England to Arizona to seek eternal life, if it can be had. That is the premise of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg, published originally in 1972 and republished in 2006 by Del Rey.
Like a precursor to the reality TV model, the story is told from each individual’s point of view, as if the four protagonists were speaking into his own video camera or tape recorder. They are Eli - Jewish, from Manhattan, gifted in languages and leader of the quest; Ned - gay, lapsed Catholic, resident poet, who prides himself on being able to hold contradictory views; Oliver - Protestant, Midwestern farm boy with boundless ambition and a drive to death; and Timothy - scion of a rich Episcopalian family who isn’t into anything seriously, because he doesn’t have to be.
During the course of a research trip in the library archives, Eli discovers a untranslated manuscript in a strange language. Entitled “The Book of Skulls,” it holds the enticing words, “Life everlasting we offer thee.” Intrigued, Eli continues to study the work. His investigation would have ended with an academic exploration had he not happened to have seen a newspaper report about some monks in the Arizona desert whose compound is adorned with skulls and whose inhabitants could be any age, “30 or 300.” Could this be the society of the book? Eli wonders.
Immortality is well and good, but naturally, there is a catch. The Book of Skulls says that candidates must present themselves in a group of four, which is called a Receptacle. And – here’s the rub – one of the four must kill himself so that the others may understand sacrifice, and an another must be killed by his companions, because the cost of life is life.
The boys know this requirement before they set out, but they don’t know if it is literal or symbolic. Timothy never takes The Book of Skulls seriously and agrees to go on the trip to humor his roommates. Eli can convince himself, and although he’s not really sure, his motto is, “Why not look?” Ned is game, saying he both believes and disbelieves. Oliver holds his cards close to his chest but is a true believer. As the narrative unfolds and the reader is treated to the inner thoughts of each, we and they wonder who of them will remain, if they find what they seek. The boys’ - and the reader’s - perception on this question shifts back and forth as the story goes on.
Although Silverberg’s chilling tale is 35-plus years old, it has held up quite well. The occasional use of the word “groovy” notwithstanding, the setting could be today instead of circa 1970. (And since all things ‘70's have returned, even “groovy” doesn’t feel out of place.)
Some of the sentiments of the time would no doubt offend religious readers today (if they are tempted to pick up a book with such a title). For instance, “God is dead” is a statement that was often heard during the late 1960s, and Eli makes an impassioned speech on the subject to psych up his companions when their enthusiasm wanes during the long car trip. The cultural attitudes that tried to replace religion are empty:
We agree that coolness is out, pragmatism is through, skepticism is obsolete. We’ve tried that whole pack of attitudes and they don’t work. They cut us off from too much that’s important. They don’t answer enough of the real questions; they just leave us looking wise and cynical, but basically still ignorant.
Religion, on the other hand, is of no help either. People go to church,
Out of habit. Out of fear. Out of social necessity. Do they open their souls
to God? When did you last open your soul to God, Timothy? Oliver? Ned?
When did I? When did we even think of doing anything like that? It sounds
absurd. God’s been so polluted by the evangelists and the archeologists and
the theologists and the fake-devout that it’s no wonder He’s dead. Suicide.
Where does that leave us? ... Where’s the mystery? Where’s the depth? We have
to do it all ourselves.
This is pretty heavy stuff, but the topic does sound like the kind of discussions that take place in the hallways of dorms at two o’clock in the morning. Eli is speaking in these passages, but the boys’ thoughts are just as learned and full of observation. Would four Ivy League boys really think such complete, profound, and eloquent thoughts? Probably not, at least not all the time, but the fact that they are highly-educated and very smart makes suspension of disbelief here no struggle. And, although the thoughts are as complete as if each boy were writing a diary, they are replete with baser ideas, as well – stereotypes of Jews and gays abound, as well as those of the Episcopalian, moneyed class and the wholesome-on-the-surface Midwest.
The writing in The Book of Skulls is taut and literary. Although Robert Silverberg is an award-winning science fiction author, the book almost does not fit in the genre (in an illuminating Afterword written in 2004, Silverberg puts this book in the context of its times and discusses how the book does and does not fit the science fiction genre). Even as the story moves towards its inevitable end, the reader is in suspense, and at the end, there are no true answers. Silverberg, through Eli, decries the lack of mystery in modern life, and his response in The Book of Skulls is to add some. Well done. This book was nominated for science fiction’s top awards in 1972 for good reason.