Four frat boys depart on a quest for immortality based on some old manuscript about a skull-worshipping cult: now, can we expect anything worthwhile from a premise so sophomoric? We can if it is Robert Silverberg writing, evidently.
With the right balance of wit, erudition, humour, and earnestness, Silverberg pulls it off. The House of Skulls exists: that is made plausible enough. And a proper dose of irony prevents this immortal-life-and-death mystery, with its Aztec and ancient symbology and mumbo jumbo, from ever veering into ridicule. Anyway, The Book of Skulls, though classified as science fiction, is actually a piece of social and private commentary. The point is in the relationship between the four students: an East Coast wasp scion, the overachieving son of poor Kansas farmers, a young Jewish New York philologist, and a flippant, gay, aspiring poet. Silverberg's desert classic is both extremely funny and penetrating, written with brio and truthfully told - and the trick of having all four main protagonists as narrators works especially well.
More than that, The Book of Skulls does not shrink from broader subjects: friendship, trust, mortality, atonement. In this sense, it belongs to a 1960s and 70s sci-fi tradition prepared to take on big themes. Think Stranger in a Strange Land, or some of Philip K Dick's novels. This is a metaphysical work. And it has a refreshing vitality, an optimism one fails to find in nowadays equivalents. It dares to be about something, unlike the shrivelled dystopias being churned out by more current authors, the meagre servings that are McCarthy's The Road, say. The Book of Skulls is not quite on a par with Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, but almost.