The first book by Kim Stanley Robinson I read was 2312, and I was so impressed I read Aurora soon after that. In hindsight, I started with what must be his most ‘regular’ science fiction novels, one set on a generational starship, and the other in a high-tech future society spread out over the solar system. Since then, I’ve been mostly trying to read KSR in order of publication, and I enjoyed most of his earliest output too.
I wasn’t to thrilled about last year’s New York 2140 though, and before starting yet another near-future book with 1984’s The Wild Shore, I decided to balance things out a bit, and read the book published between 2312 and Aurora.
It’s interesting that Shaman is Robinson’s least speculative book – it’s not SF, but straight out historical fiction about the tribe of people who made the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, 32.000 years ago, during the Ice Age, in what is now the south of France.
In interviews, KSR twists the meaning of the word “science fiction”, and calls this book SF in the sense that is fiction about the origins of science – a trick Stephenson also pulled when he published his Baroque trilogy set in the 17th century.
As always Robinson did his research, and he devoured 4 bookshelves worth of scientific literature: archeology, and anthropology about people who lived in Stone Age conditions when Western civilization arrived – Inuit, Australian Aboriginals, and various indigenous tribes. All this research notwithstanding, there is obviously an amount of speculation in Shaman, as there is no way of knowing things for sure. So, while it is twisting the moniker again, Shaman could be called speculative fiction too.
There’s a certain poetic quality to these ‘speculative’ scenes – like the bird’s eye view contest at the end of the book, but I don’t want to spoil it – and at the same time a deep sense of humanity: genetically the people in Robinson’s book are the same as us, and he does a wonderful job in imagining an earlier version of our society, before writing was invented.
What struck me again and again was the cooperative nature of our species. It’s not the first time I read about it, but it always fills me with a sense of optimism to see that our basic drives are drives of cooperation, compassion and empathy with our fellow humans, and even non-humans. There’s tribal differences – obviously one might say, but not always, as tribes work together a lot – and a certain amount of violence, but overall the balance is clearly in favor of Homo Sapiens being a social species – not the brute, primitive, immoral and egoistical beasts some people still like to believe we are: primeval devils underneath a thin veneer of civilization.
Like his other books, Shaman is a positive piece of writing – albeit not without tragedy – and KSR’s thoughts on that go a bit against the grain, as this extremely insighful part of an interview with Amazing Stories Magazine shows – lest we forget Robinson has a PhD in English literature.
Dystopias are all basically the same, and easy: oppression, resistance, conflict, blah blah. Like car crashes in thriller movies. But utopian novels are interesting (I know this is backwards to the common wisdom) because they force us to think about what we are, what we could become, and if we were to make a decent civilization, what would endanger it, or keep it from spreading, etc. One point I’ve been making all along is that even in a utopian situation, there will still be death and lost love, so there will be no shortage of tragedy in utopia. It will just be the necessary or unavoidable tragedies; which perhaps makes them even worse, or more tragic. They won’t be just brutal stupidities, in other words, but reality itself. This is what literature should explore. Also, thinking of utopia, I’ve always felt this: since we could do it, we should. And that will take some planning, some vision.
But yes, we are mammals, and Robinson beautifully manages to evoke that too. Humans being bodies was a returning theme in Green Earth, and it is here too – I’m sure Frank Vanderwal, a character from GE, would love Shaman. As we are bodies, we get hungry, we walk, we sprain ankles, we die. A lot of the book’s subject matter is simple and straightforward – to the extent that certain Goodreads reviews complain about a lack of plot. Having a linear, simple plot however is not the same as lack of story, nor of emotions. Especially in the second half of the book, the characters’ tribulations are truly exciting, at times even nerve-wrecking, and always heartfelt. (More on that simplicity later.)
A few other reviewers object to the amount of sex in the book, but as humans being bodies is a theme, and as the protagonist starts out as a 12-year old boy on the brink of manhood, his erections are part of nature. Robinson is not a puritan, and the sexuality he depicts is not out of sync with reality. Not that this book needs trigger warnings: the overall atmosphere is gentle and calm, on might even say balanced.
If there is one thing of criticism to give it might be that: the noble savage trope indeed, but one has to admit: it’s hard to imagine prehistoric people not in sync with their surroundings. I’m actually on the fence about this one, but it’s not to the same extent as I wrote in my review of Herbert’s Soul Catcher, a novel which is unclear about its relation to that Romantic trope. I guess Shaman is different as Robinson doesn’t contrast 2 kinds of society: there’s no vibe of paleolithic tribes vs. the wicked West. It’s also obvious his beef is not with science or scientific thinking in itself, on the contrary. What we do get however is a portrayal of a kind of ‘permaculture’ avant la lettre, something we should try to transform our current society into, and that means no more waste, among other things – using the whole caribou.
Robinson’s use of language is wonderful. Simple too, and full of sayings – as that would have been an important way to transmit knowledge. He uses similes that aren’t anachronistic, always echoing the knowledge horizon of his characters, never overstretching themselves. He used Basque and Proto-Indo-European as models for certain words, but that doesn’t dominate the prose, a few terms here and there.
Like in other books, KSR plays a wee bit with point of view and the narrating voice – nothing spectacular, and nothing difficult at all. It’s well done, and again suits the story. Those who would worry about Robinson’s famous info-dumps: there aren’t any in Shaman.
This quote from an interview goes a bit deeper into certain of these issues, showing the level of thought Robinson puts into his work.
Once I realized that the narrator had to be talking and not writing, that made a huge difference. Then I had to think about words. I had to think about every word … I realized that as a normal writer, one of my most common phrases to start a sentence would be “in fact.” The word fact began to look wrong. They didn’t have facts. That’s a modern concept … I couldn’t use all kinds of words. I tried to examine every word … I did develop a different vocabulary for all of the words for sexual parts. That was because the English language words are all heavily weighted by Judeo-Christian or modern pruderies or concerns. They all had baggage. I went back to Basque and Proto-Indo-European and I used real words. I just used real words from their time. What we’re finding is that Basque is amazingly old, Proto-Indo-European is amazingly old … There are about 100 words that linguists now have determined are probably as old as 15,000 years old that never changed like “mama” and “aye.” I’ve been getting a fair amount of incredulity and a little bit of objection to having my characters say “mama mia,” but it turns out that both of those words are outrageously ancient … There were lots of language games I had to play.
Robinson as a writer might not be as different from the shamans in his book. There’s clearly some meta-passages about the illusion of reality art can generate, and shamans in this story are first and foremost storytellers – storytellers with a clear goal: keeping information going from one generation to the next. Robinson has been explicit on the moral obligations of writers before, and I quoted some stuff in the first part of my review of Green Earth, should you be interested. This next quote ties into that, and even has a rather Romantic view on the artist’s role in society.
But for shamans it was different. They ventured into realms far beyond luck, into dreams, into the sky, into animals and Mother Earth. They entered spirits, and spirits entered them. Clearly they needed their luck to do that, or something like luck; and if their luck was gone, not only would their shaman’s work got harder, but the whole pack might suffer.
There’s also an interesting dichotomy in the book: the old shaman dismisses science, when a woman is experimenting with different kinds of wood for snowshoes.
Hers aren’t the interesting things to be right or wrong about. Those are just the way things are. (…) But things we can know in that way are a very small part of what matters. So it’s a form of looking away. You get to the hard questions, Heather just looks away.
He does so by taking reality for granted. It is echoed later in the book, two times even.
There are no secrets, there is no mystery. We make all that up. In fact it’s all right there in front of us. You have to have enough food to get through the winter and spring. That’s what it all comes down to.
He could see it all as plain as Schist’s bulging face: things that happened in the light of day, on the surface of Mother Earth, these were very clear and simple things.
Those two quotes tie into the same matter-of-factness Robinson’s displays in his talks and interviews, and establish an interesting paradox with Robinson’s love for science – and I don’t mean his wife being a chemist.
To establish a ‘permaculture’ on Earth, it’s pretty clear what needs to be done. The problems of today’s society are also easily identified. It’s one of the reasons Robinson resonates so deeply with me: I’m weary of both muddled, mystical transcendentalism or too complex political analyses: ultimately, it seems to me things are “very clear and simple” indeed.
At the same time there are other things than ‘things that happen’, and the mystery of existence as a whole remains and will remain just that, a mystery. That shouldn’t detracted us from the many, many things that are clear and simple, and art and literature can play its part to express the mystery. There’s room for that in Shaman, and the book does so itself, and luckily without the obfuscating so many other novels bring about.
(…) in that moment when some part of Loon had been born, his wander’s great moment, when he realized the world was stuffed with a meaning he couldn’t express. Right here he would express what could not be expressed, for all to see.
Robinson, in his attempt to express things, sheds light on stuff – and he doesn’t need grand theories or metaphysics for that. As I wrote before, this is an easy, linear book – I even thought of David Lynch’s The Straight Story while reading. It was pleasant to see Robinson inserted a meta-passage in the books final part, wherein he nods to the reader knowingly: this book doesn’t have the complexity of 2312.
Although this time he was telling the story as simply as he could.
Again, linear and simple doesn’t mean bereft of content. There are insights about the nature of time, the importance of mothers & women, the verbal nature of peace. Shaman is a Bildungsroman that’s just as much a story about discovering a world that doesn’t exist anymore, as it is about discovering our present-day selves.
It’s apt that Loon, the main character, starts the story naked, alone and without any tools. That first part not only shows the brutal nature of the conditions then, and the ingenuity of the human mind, it also serves as a metaphor for us readers, ready to embark into a world which we know nothing about, and in which we would not be able to survive more than a few days.
In the end, it turns out this novel is also about a pragmatic morality and the guilt that may come with that. Still, the Ice Age people deal with things – as the hand that was dealt to them was clear and simple indeed. It might be a cliché, but we could all learn from that.
Suffice to say Shaman comes highly recommended for each and everyone of you who are interested in what it means to be human. It’s an adventurous story – admittedly with a slow build up – that managed to tickle my sense of wonder multiple times. Isn’t that one of the main reasons why we read speculative fiction? So here is the full package: informative, scientific, escapist, imaginative, emotional.
Shaman is a rare book, so do not let genre distinctions hold you back. Besides, why would the science fiction reader do so, given this final KSR-quote from that Amazing Stories interview?
(…) sf looks at the present and imagines the various futures that could come to pass, given where we are now. It’s not prediction of one future, but consideration of a multitude of possible futures, and that gives sf readers their particular flexibility of mind, their ability to react to history without huge surprise and disorientation. In effect, they saw it coming. So sf reading is a kind of cognitive mapping that orients people in time. It’s not just great fun, but useful too.
Alleged flexibility aside: Shaman is a wonderful tool to help us orient ourselves on the arc of time. That’s a fact.
My other Kim Stanley Robinson reviews are here: The Wild Shore (1984) – Icehenge (1984) – The Memory Of Whiteness (1985) – The Gold Coast (1988) – A Short, Sharp Shock (1990) – Pacific Edge (1990) – 2312 (2012) – Aurora (2015) – Green Earth (2015, the revised Science In The Capital trilogy (2004-2007)) – New York 2140 (2017) – The Ministry For The Future (2020) – The High Sierra: A Love Story (2022).