Monday, 6 December 2010
I've always known Silverberg is one of the Great Old Ones. A cornerstone of the genre, author of books like Nightwings, Thorns and Dying Inside that are classics in the genre, and would be classics outside the genre as well if the consensus cogs would get their heads out from up the bums of D. DeLillo, I. McEwan and so forth for long enough to notice. But it's one thing to admit a writer into your personal canon and and quite another to be reminded, knee to the groin, uppercut to the jaw, nose leaking blood, head pinned down in the sand, that here, make no mistakes, is the real thing - a champion brawler, and he's not pulling his punches.
The Book Of Skulls is a yarn about four young men on a quest for immortality. It's a playing out of a cunningly crafted problem in human nature - given that only two out of four will win, that one must kill himself and one must be killed with the consent of the others, who will crack, who will triumph, and why?
It's a quadruple character study as we weave in between four first-person narratives, each one not perfectly reliable, each one rendered with perfect pitch. A virtuoso performance, but that's not all. Why are these four young men on this quest? Which of their motivations has what it takes to survive all the hardships and doubts on the way? What makes a person strong or weak? Silverberg unfolds answers to these questions with a feel for plot, language and character that is frankly awe-inspiring.
He also scores one for the genre in general.This story could not have been so profound and so real if it was just another 70s yarn about college boys from different backgrounds roadtripping across the US of A. It's the fantastic element that throws everything into perspective, that lets Silverberg give his story the momentum, presence and the power to say something about the everyday human concerns that underpin it. They say speculative fiction is about thought experiments and this is a thought experiment in human nature, conceived and carried out by a behemoth talent.