Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit Books
Where I Received the Title: Library
Though he has had a long career, I would consider Kim Stanley Robinson one of the most relevant voices in science fiction. His approach to the genre is with a sense of realism — he makes his futuristic settings plausible even if they are improbable. His previous novel, 2312, looked at a time when humans inhabited the entire solar system. In his latest novel, Shaman, Stan rewinds history to postulate the lives of humans before there were even civilizations.
The novel beings with a boy named Loon, stripped to the nines, about to embark on a thirteen-day wandering as a rite of passage to become a shaman. The weather is cold and rainy, so he must salvage dry kindling to start a fire and find vegetation for temporary clothing until he can find prey for food and fur. As the central character of the novel, Loon survives various predators, escapes a group of neanderthals, or “Old Ones” as they are called, and comes back to camp in style with a deer-toothed necklace and a report from his mushroom-induced vision.
Loon’s return marks him as a shaman apprentice to the much older and sharp-tongued Thorn. Loon doesn’t desire the apprenticeship, but makes do for the good of the clan and to eventually have the right to paint inside the caves.
As summer approaches, the clan heads north from the Salt Sea (Mediterranean), with the intent of meeting up with other clans at a festival. Here, Loon takes an interest in an adopted woman named Elga. Despite Thorn’s objections (he believes a true Shaman should remain single), the women of the pack allow Loon to marry her and bring her with them. In doing so, Elga brings her baggage of a rival clan that has an interest in taking her back and kidnaps her. Thus begins the adventure of a young apprentice searching through the icy tundra for his newfound love.
Like Stan’s futuristic stories, Shaman is in many ways a utopia. The people have no lesser intelligence than today’s humans, just more primitive technology. In contrast, the dwindling population of neanderthals are more likened unto beasts and one story that lives within the clan is that a neanderthal had married a bear and neither of them knew the difference. Women are given a more prominent status than in many ancient civilizations. One of the pack members is chastised for forcing himself upon his wife and is told he must give her all of the power, lest he be exiled from the clan. Heather is a healer of the clan and makes most of the major decisions for them.
The pack’s harmony with Mother Earth is also part of this utopia. Humans have a marriage bond with her and in Loon’s wandering, he masturbates with the ground. Robinson likens the cave to Earth’s womb and the shamans are the spurtmilk, impregnating her with painted animals. Sex as a recreational activity with little consequence is typical of Robinson’s writing, perhaps ideal because of its entertainment value without hindering or depleting the surrounding resources or habitat. We see Loon frolicking in the night with a young woman named Sage, accepting the fact that she may do the same with other young men in the pack. He also sleeps with Elga the first time they meet.
The clans are without cities or societal structures, but also lack one other piece of critical technology — a written language. Without a means of documentation, all stories are passed down orally. This is the shaman’s responsibility to remember and pass down to the children. Perhaps even more importantly, the shaman has a responsibility of painting the caves. Painting is the only responsibility of a shaman that Loon finds appealing. He has little interest in providing spiritual counsel or strategizing how they will gather enough food for the winter.
Winters are long in ancient Europe and Mesopotamia with a setting sometime close to the ice age. In some respects the novel reminds me of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear (which I read for an anthropology class years ago). Robinson spends significant time discussing the daily lives of the humans and there is even a relationship established with one of the neanderthals. Cave paintings are at times discussed over a series of pages, while significant pieces of action happen in but a few sentences. His style and emphasis of the setting also bear resemblance to Cormac McCarthy’s, The Crossing.
While Robinson succeeded wonderfully in depicting humanity’s early life, he left less of an impression on me in terms of plot and character growth. Loon in many respects is a passive character. In his rite of passage, he alone must navigate the dangerous woods. He finds himself prey to several beasts. When the true conflict of the story happens, it is Thorn who has the agency. Loon, who harbors an injured leg throughout most of the novel, limps along without providing much assistance. Great heroic acts are performed off the stage, so to speak, and Loon only learns of them through dialog. While he matures and learns to accept his role as shaman, Loon fails to realize real character growth. His wife is also somewhat shallow, playing the role of an obedient wife with no internal struggle of her own other than her concern for Loon. Thorn and Heather, on the other hand, are well-developed characters with their own conflicts and fallibilities.
Despite the novel’s shortcomings, Shaman is a beautifully written novel and a fresh return to a setting that has been under-explored. Robinson writes with wonderful prose and is elaborate in describing the world around the characters. This novel appeals mostly to those who are interested in anthropology and understanding the way people might have lived during the time. For those looking for a riveting adventure, this wouldn’t be my first recommendation.