Review of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I was surprised by this book, first, because it was not science fiction. At least, in my opinion.

Nothing supernatural happens, though the characters concert toward a supernatural goal. To me, this was a realist novel, driven by the four main characters. It is told in alternating first person, with each of 42 short chapters labeled with the narrating character’s name. There is some repetition, and about 25% of the content relates to the sexual psychology of college-age males, with the backward political incorrectness characteristic of the sixties. Oliver, Ned, Eli, and Timothy are the main players in the drama, and they are pitted against one another in a trial that begins as a comradely, light-hearted road novel with dark undertones.

The essence of what they are doing is seeking immortality, cheating death. In their reckless, short lives, they have never attempted something so ridiculous and so serious. They travel in a group toward a cult-like enclave destination in Arizona to fulfill sacred rites outlined in an esoteric text they stumbled upon. Along the way we learn more about their relationships with stray women (objects of desire) and one another, but most of all, we witness their delving into themselves. The internal monologues are raw, unfiltered, and crass, reducing human experience into a tunneling wormhole of psychological insight. It is rude, profane, and American in its concerns and discussions of privilege, religion, free-thinking, free-acting, self-indulgence, and regard for the underlying impetus of mankind’s existence. With Silverberg’s salacious style, the book sustains high-level readability while challenging the reader to predict the outcome and figure out the hidden depths of character beneath the clichéd surface personas initially presented.

In the spirit of denying society’s strictures, these children learn what it means to grow up, to face themselves and to attain a deeper understanding of their flaws.

Silverberg is an incredible author, not only for the 25 million words he published, but because he never once passed a Bechdel test within his entire ouevre. He channeled a massive fount of inspiration and determination to grind out mountains of literary material, some of which is actually worth reading. Sometimes you will wonder if he could go two pages without bringing up sex, but then you read something like Lord Valentine’s Castle and the plethora of ideas are resonant in a fictional world brimming with life. In his best work, Silverberg makes for very addictive reading. If you can stomach his personality, which is unveiled more often than not, he can stand next to the greats in the science fiction pantheon.

I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s realist novels while reading this. Don’t go in expecting science fiction or fantasy. I will be reading many more Silverberg novels, but will he be able to top this?

Why is it so good? That’s hard to pin down. The simple premise works. It’s nothing revolutionary, but the intent and voice and execution are clear, hard-edged, and pristine. The prose is lucid in its fluid arguments. The central conceit is universal in nature, and memorable. The ending is powerful because the astute reader will see it coming from a mile off. It all fits together.

Review of Majipoor Chronicles (Lord Valentine, #2) by Robert Silverberg

This was unexpected. After reading Lord Valentine’s Castle, which I was a big fan of, I bought the rest of the series and jumped into this book, the second volume. 

It is a collection of unconnected stories, with a flimsy framing device, set on Majipoor, exploring locales, eccentric inhabitants, races, creatures, politics, and various adventures. A few of the stories were entertaining, a few of them were silly, and several were inconclusive.

The first story, about a woman living with an alien in the jungle, was an unconventional love story. Not terribly moving, but contains excellent descriptions of the rough wilderness.

Then we get a clear commentary of war politics (Vietnam?) in a war tale about the Metamorph conflict.

The third story was an impressive story about a ten-year voyage halted by sinister dragon-grass. I loved this story. It was unexpected, and reinforced the Medieval quality of many of the societies of Majipoor. The technology levels can be confusing in Silverberg’s most expansive world building creation, but if you come into the Majipoor stories ready to accept magic, science, sex, and adventure, a lot of these iterations will satisfy your curiosity.

The fifth story was also quite good, about a desert journey, and dream manipulation. It conveyed the immense landscapes on the planet with brilliant imagery.

Then comes a tale about a soul-painter – another romance about finding one’s muse.
Several more lackadaisical stories followed those.

I am getting the sense after reading several Silverberg titles, that he was interested in depicting the far-flung experiences of extraordinary individuals. He is no different than most pulp writers, but his work is very easy to read, fairly engaging, and when it is good, it can hold its own against Heinlein, Asimov, and other big shots of science fiction. While the first book in the series is clearly better, this second installment gives us a mixed bag of story elements, churned out rapidly for sheer entertainment. I read this lazily, over a couple weeks, picking away at it. It was not nearly as immersive, yet I can’t say it was poorly written. Though I fail to remember several bland stories, there was a pleasant and undeniable sense of the grandeur and psychedelic tinge of this colossal and beautiful world of Majipoor. I think that was the whole point. If you just want to revisit the enchanting setting, give it a go.

Silverberg’s work – the more I read of it, the more I want to read of it – contains an exuberance for life. His characters are always trying to get the most out of it, pursuing every pleasure and opportunity for gain. This is epitomized by the frame-story’s character Hissune’s search for another life in the archives in the labyrinth. It reminded me of the kids from Book of Skulls, seeking after an ideal existence, and gaining unexpected knowledge and maturity along the way. They selfishly consume life, and its offerings, wisdom, and hardship, taking into possession the stories these things congeal into. It represents a vicious and unending battle against boredom and mortality.

Review of Lord Valentine’s Castle (Lord Valentine, #1) by Robert Silverberg

A grand and imaginative adventure on an alien planet.

Our prototypical hero has been transplanted from his rightful throne, and he must rise from rags to power through the sheer will contained in his magical dream-enhancing powers and his innate juggling ability. He will gather a band of weird followers, and inspire all those around him with his glorious destiny. If this sounds corny, it is. Silverberg has produced some questionable literary material in his time, but this is good, relatively clean fun. Unlike the other science fiction novels of his I’ve read, he seems to have put a great deal of effort into designing a complex system of well-realized constraints.

All told, it is an effective novel or journeying, with danger around every corner and never enough tension to make you gasp. You get the pulp-novel jokes that fail to make you laugh, the slyly inserted sexual encounters, the tentacled beasts wrapping their tentacles over peoples’ faces, tentacle-tickling them into submission, the psychedelic undertones reverberating through almost every chapter, pretending at mysticism, the labyrinth wandering, ornate architectural descriptions worthy of Lovecraft, the tricksters appearing out of the woodwork to impede and cajole our band of misfits, the segment at sea, with its predictable outcome. How could you not have fun in such a well-realized fictional set-up? The world building really elevates this book out of the crowded realm of its fantasy trappings. Majipoor is a memorable, colorful planet, chock full of strange islands, allegorical chimeras and inhabited by a dozen alien races, each with their own history, relation to the hierarchies ruling the bureaucratic government and an endless wilderness, as treacherous as any intelligent adversary.

The stakes are fairly low, when you consider that Lord Valentine is really the only one who needs to take back his rights. In the grand scheme of things, Majipoor was not in shambles as a result of his usurpation. He could have lived a merry life among the entertainers. But he chose to forsake simplicity and pleasure for the mighty calling of Fate. He makes for a silly protagonist, another product of wish-fulfillment. But seldom have I ever encountered another world I would have liked to explore more. The reward is in the discovery, and there is a magnificent treasure-trove of fantastical elements to unearth, even if the book is none too deep.