So to turn this back to writing, I wanted to share a short passage from a book I’m currently reading. I finally got around to starting The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg, which I bought awhile back. Although it’s classified as science fiction, it seems like it would fit better in the horror category. Apparently there was some dissension in the ranks when it was first published in 1972, when it was nominated for a Nebula award, and then in 1973 when it was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards.
Be that as it may, I wanted to share a short passage from the book that really grabbed me. To set the scene a little, the characters are four college roommates: Eli, Ned, Oliver, and Timothy. They’ve set off on what for most of them is a lark, a spring vacation road trip to the Arizona desert, in search of a mythical group that they hope will grant eternal life to two of them. Only two. After a whirlwind tour of Chicago en route, a strange depression seems to overcome them all, except Eli, who tries to rekindle his friends’ interest in continuing their journey.
“God’s been so polluted by the evangelists and the archaeologists and the theologists and the fake-devout that it’s no wonder He’s dead. Suicide. But where does that leave us? Are we all going to be scientists and explain everything in terms of neutrons and protons and DNA? Where’s mystery? Where’s depth? We have to do it all ourselves,” Eli said. “There’s a lack of mystery in modern life. All right, then, it becomes the intelligent man’s task to create an atmosphere in which surrender to the implausible is possible. A closed mind is a dead mind.” He was warming up, now. Fervor taking hold of him. The Billy Graham of the Stoned Age. “For the last eight, ten years, we’ve all been trying to stumble toward some kind of workable synthesis, some structural correlative that’ll hold the world together for us in the middle of all the chaos. The pot, the acid, the communes, the rock, the whole transcendentalist thing, the astrology, the macrobiotics, the Zen — we’re searching, right, we’re always searching? And sometimes finding. Not often. We look in a lot of dumb places, because basically we’re mostly dumb, even the best of us, and also because we can’t know the answers until we’ve worked out more of the questions. So we chase flying saucers. We put on Scuba suits and look for Atlantis. We’re into mythology, fantasy, paranoia, Middle Earth, freakiness, a thousand kinds of irrationality. Whatever they’ve rejected, we buy, often for no better reason than that they turned it down. The flight from reason.”
1972. Hippies and flower-children still roamed the streets, although already endangered. The search for meaning was on in a big way. Fringe science was given serious treatment by the media. “In Search Of…,” hosted by Leonard Nimoy, was only three years away, exploring all the things Eli just talked about and more: Atlantis, flying saucers, Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster. People wanted to believe. Something. The counterculture revolution left a lot of people looking for more from life than the house with the picket fence and a comfortable suburban existence. Have we forgotten that? We seem content now to measure our lives with our 401k, our IRAs, the three-car garages. Pity. I have to say, I miss the atmosphere and attitude of the 1960s and early 70s. Ok, the ’70s went downhill fast, which lead to the horror of the ’80s greed and the Big Hair bands, but still. I’m only sorry the ’60s didn’t leave us with a more lasting legacy. Anybody feeling nostalgic besides me? Ah, the power of the written word.
You can tell I’m tripping on this book. Four guys on a road trip would not normally be the kind of thing I’d want to read, with the notable exception of the ultimate road trip book, On the Road, but Silverberg’s writing stuns me. This is good stuff.