Review of Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

17669062Title: Shaman

Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Publisher: Orbit Books

Format: Hardcover

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.


Kim Stanley Robinson and Jonathan Lethem interviewed about Philip K. Dick

I wanted to share a video interview from YouTube that I really enjoyed watching today. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jonathan Lethem are interviewed about how Philip K. Dick influenced their work. Each author appreciates entirely different things about PKD’s work.

PKD is one of my favorite authors and it was  interesting to learn that both authors appreciated the same novel of PKD’s lesser or “cracked” works — Now Wait for Last Year. I am instantly adding it to my to-be-read pile!

[Edited to add — Jonathan Lethem edited the three-volume (thirteen novel) Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick, which I proudly own. Fortunately, this novel is smack, dab in the middle of the second volume]

My Hopes for the Hugo Award for Best Novel

I didn’t vote for the Hugos this year, which like voting for the US president, should take away my right to complain if my preferred candidate doesn’t win. But I did want to offer a short commentary on the novel I think that absolutely should win the Hugo award.

The candidates for best novel are:

  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
  • Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
  • Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW)

I should note that there are two novels that I didn’t read: Blackout by Mira Grant (third in series) and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (189th in series). For each of these, I read the first book in the series, but have not read further.

What I find in common with four of these novels is that I would call them good commercial fiction. Now that’s not a bad thing. A book that appeals to a broad SF audience embodies much of what SF is about. Redshirts is a comic parody and is worthy of attention, but it doesn’t do anything to advance the genre. The story and characters are not particularly complex, closer to what I would call a beach read than a selection for a book club or classroom discussion.

Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy is also an engrossing read, doing for zombies what Richard Mattheson did for Vampires in I am Legend. It takes a scientific look at the outbreak and almost has a YA feel to it in terms of characters and pacing. The first novel was respectable, but it didn’t grab me enough to keep on reading.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s fourteenth book in the Vorkosigan series has as big of a following as Jim Butcher’s double-digit long series. I really struggle with such a long-running series being on the ballot. Like Butcher, Bujold has a large following of fans that like the adventures in her fiction, but I am surprised it is under consideration for best novel of the year. Without reading the novel, I may be missing something that is completely new with this particular volume, but my guess is it reached the top of the pile based on its fandom.

Saladin Ahmed is a fellow Michigander, so a part of me wants to support his sword and sorcery novel for the Hugo. He wrote it at the right time, when non-western fantasy has gained a lot of traction. I would compare it in esteem to Paul S. Kemp’s latest sword and sorcery series, Tales of Egil and Nix. Enjoyable? Absolutely. Good writing? Yes. Substantial merit worthy of a literary award? Not what I think of when I read these books.

11830394This brings me to the final novel — 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Stan does so many good things in this novel that I feel advance the genre. Even though I think his Extracts and Lists are a bit strange, his writing does take risks and has some literary merit for doing so. He is inventive in his ideas with an absolutely fascinating layout of how Mercury could be habitated by humans. His use of dual sex organs can serve as a commentary of our society and its movement toward gender neutrality (a different word from equality). It also builds on his Mars trilogy, taking it to the next logical level in our solar system.

While there are fantastical elements in the novel (an alien wombman and very unplausible habitats), Stan’s work stays true to our world. It is intelligent in its use of science and even though the plot is fairly straight-forward, it carries a good story from beginning to end. In fact, it is the story’s lack of complexity that prevents me from giving it the highest accolades.

2312 has already won the Nebula Award for best novel and without hesitation, I strongly am hoping this novel wins the Hugo as well. There has been a lot of criticism of recent nominations, but this novel is quite deserving of its nomination and perhaps even of winning. I am hoping those better than me who actually got the voter packet will agree.



Review: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: 2312

Author: Kim Stanley Robinson


Publisher: Orbit

Format: Hardcover

2312 is Kim Stanley Robinson’s long-awaited novel that returns to the milieu that made him popular — outer space; for me, 2312 was my introduction to the author.

A few things were apparent before embarking on this novel.

  1. Kim Stanley Robinson is a well-recognized and award-winning modern science fiction writer
  2. This novel marks a return to a universe similar to his famous Mars Trilogy
  3. The book was heavy!

A brief synopsis: Swan Er Hong is a terrarium designer and artist who lives on a traversing city on Mercury. The unexpected death of her grandmother and mentor, Alex, draws her into a conspiracy that could put the lives of millions in the solar system at risk. As she begins to dig deeper into Alex’s death, she finds her home planet sabotaged by a terrorist attack. But fortune is with her, and after barely surviving, she is reinvigorated in finding out who is behind what becomes a series of attacks.

I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the greater part of the novel. World-building is a key element, as Robinson explores what it would actually mean to terraform Mercury (where citizens can only survive at the brink of dawn), Venus (where a sunshade filter  required), and various moons throughout the solar system. One must enjoy the science as well as the fiction to enjoy this novel. The novel achieved brilliance in many parts and I was especially intrigued in a couple of the survival stories of Swan and Wahram, a wombman with dual sexual organs and a toad-like belly. In the middle of the novel, the action gets bogged down slightly, but it is only temporary and the ending is both exciting and satisfying.

Robinson is an excellent writer, interweaving his scientific pursuits throughout the narrative, while allowing the prose to flow smoothly. The characters are intriguing and there were moments where I was reading at the edge of my seat, avoiding the temptation to gloss over the paragraphs to find out if certain characters survive the subzero environment of deep space or the brutal heat of the sun. In addition, there were many twists to Swan’s pursuit of Alex’s work that kept me guessing.

One thing I found odd was the use of extracts and lists interspersed between chapters.

Extract (1): Take a book, 576 pages to be exact, and fill it with descriptions of planets and moons from our solar system. Add to it a protagonist from Mercury, her pot-bellied partner from Saturn, and citizens from the terraformed worlds in between. Develop a clever plot that takes advantage of the setting and is neatly tied up in the end.

seemed that the extracts were used for information, explaining the setting in a way that the prose could not. Other times, the extracts were somewhat random and I didn’t know why they

perhaps it was an attempt to be literary   tell the story in a way   different   I could have done without    editing is your friend

List (1):
dual sexual organs, sex scenes awkward and read like a science text book

fascinating world-building, particularly on Mercury, where habitation is near-impossible. Terminator on rails.

post-singularity seems probable, but is it possible?

Qubes linked to the human mind. AI companions.

economics, politics, science, climate change, a revolution on Earth, Terra reanimated, extended lifespan, technological integration, terraforming

Despite the novel’s tendency to get trapped in the minutiae and the odd format of the lists and extracts, I found most aspects of it original and profound. The plot was not overly complicated, but kept me interested. I am especially interested to check out Robinson’s Mars trilogy now. For those who like science fiction, this is certainly one of the must-reads for the year.