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The Book of Skulls (SF Masterworks 23) by Robert Silverberg
(Orion Millennium, £6.99, 222 pages, paperback; first published 1972, this edition 1999.)

Four students head south, following the trail one of them found in an ancient manuscript, the Book of Skulls. If what the manuscript says is true -- if their translation is accurate -- then two of the friends will be granted eternal life. Of the other two, one will end his own life and the other will die at the hands of his friends. It is a price they all agree is worth paying.

Eli, the linguist, the finder and translator of the manuscript, is a believer teetering on the brink of disbelief.

Timothy is a cynic, heading south with his friends only because it is warm in Arizona -- or so he proclaims, for he is a disbeliever fearful that he might actually believe.

Ned is the cool one, the detached literary observer, the one who always has an answer. By rights he should be the one to choose suicide, to make the romantic sacrifice, but if he is to do that he will first extract a price, for Ned wants the ass of...

Oliver, the athlete, the hard-worker, a country boy made good by his own hard work and determination. Just as Oliver has made himself the successful student he is, he will make himself believe in the Book of Skulls: he's determined that he will be one of the survivors.

The Book of Skulls is told in a series of first-person narratives, switching between the four protagonists. It is told in page-long paragraphs of extended interior monologue, with little action or incident and much reflection on the past and on the nature of existence. It doesn't exactly sound like a gripping read, but Silverberg is a master ventriloquist: the contrasting voices of Eli, Ned, Timothy and Oliver give what should be a slow book considerable impetus.

The Book of Skulls could be quite accurately described as a heavily-padded novella, but few can pad as interestingly, as eloquently, as Silverberg. What he delivers is a very 1960s blend of meditation, sex and self-analysis leading ultimately to transcendence. A slowly building narrative with few surprises but considerable impact.

Orion's Masterworks series is inevitably based to a large extent on what the publishers have available on their backlist, and not a comprehensive overview of genre excellence. Silverberg illustrates this point perfectly: he appears on this list with a solidly good work like The Book of Skulls, rather than his true classics, such as Dying Inside or Nightwings, simply because the latter two books are published in the UK by HarperCollins and not Orion. But the point is academic: the Masterworks series is a superb list, and it's refreshing to see that, of the few genre publishers in the UK, at least one takes a mature and appreciative view of science fiction and its heritage.

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 26 February 2000