Category Archives: Robinson, Kim Stanley

Shaman: Read from October 24 to November 04, 2013

For a long time I’ve been hoping to find a good piece of scholarship dealing with the peoples of the ice age, specifically the people who painted the caves in France and modern-day Europe. I know that there isn’t all that much to go on, however, I assumed there would be at least a few people in this field of archaeology, anthropology, and sociology who could at least offer some solid, historical, factual knowledge on what these people were like, how they lived and survived, what they might have possibly believed.

Sadly, I never really found a work of non-fiction that I felt was suitable – either because the time period was too recent (Mesopotamia and the fertile crescent peoples) or the books were new-age, wack-a-doo nonsense with pictures of burning crystals superimposed over photographs of cave paintings.

About ten years ago I picked up a book called Red Mars because someone recommended it to me and I wasn’t even 50 pages into it before I went back to the bookstore to buy the sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars. In those books Kim Stanley Robinson embarked on a grand thought experiment concerning colonizing the red planet. His book wasn’t filled with any aliens (though the people living on Mars grew quite distant from the people left on poor Earth), and neither was his book filled with any unnecessary action or typically ‘science fiction’ plot points. The books were clearly written in his simple yet intelligent voice and they dealt simply with people and how they interacted with each other. In fact at times you almost forgot they were even on Mars.

And that was the real key: Robinson is able to draw you into his worlds slowly, carefully, and hardly without you even noticing.

This book is another grand thought experiment, but instead of an alien planet he writes about our own alien planet tens of thousands of years ago when we even lives side by side with our evolutionary ancestors, the Neanderthals. But the book is never strange, it’s always about people, a boy named Loon being trained to be a Shaman, and most importantly it’s about survival. This is a world where people have to stick together to stay alive but could very well take place even today in the wilds of Siberia, or remotest Canada, or Patagonia because aside from their perspective on how the universe works, they are no different than we are. They love, they fight, they create art, and they die.

In a way Robinson takes away a lot of the romantic mystery of what living during the ice age would be because it really isn’t that different from how many people live today. People are people all through history and just because they lived a long time ago does not mean they are some alien species from Mars.

Above all, however, this book is a supreme work of imagination (and I’m sure research, too based on the many people he acknowledges at the end). We can never know what our ancestors were thinking when they crawled into caves and painted on the walls, but we do know that they were good at it and that when people are good at something they probably enjoy doing it, too.

Robinson follows very simple A to B logic in making the story very believable – if you need to tell time, how do you do it without a clock? Or how do you know what ice to step on or avoid? Or how do you treat a wound? Robinson is always turning these simple questions into plot points to advance the story and I get the feeling he had fun trying to think the story through and how the characters would act and survive given such limited tools and knowledge.

As for historical accuracy, well, I can’t say how accurate the book is, and I doubt anyone really could, but it feels authentic and that’s good enough. The story is very simple, there is no epic battle or major intrigue, and there is really only one major change of location for added drama, but mostly it’s about being immersed in a world very different from our own but also very similar to our own – like looking into the eyes of a Neanderthal and seeing a glimpse of ourselves or looking at the beautiful cave paintings and seeing the vast and recognizable reservoir of human talent and ability over the millennia.

This is a wonderful book that while not earth shattering in scope, is quite an achievement in imagination.

90% done with Shaman

Though Robinson doesn’t dwell on it too long he does touch on the idea that different bands of people would govern themselves as best suited their needs: some where a man was in charge and others that were more communal or where women made the decisions. Couple those differences with the time and distances separating peoples leaving them to view the universe uniquely and you get a glimpse of how our cultures evolved.

80% done with Shaman

When ever the book takes a turn that I’m not totally convinced of – such as the attack and escape – I let it go because ultimately the book is about survival and what a tenuous grasp we have in existence in the world.

For a lot lucky of people alive today life is not a day-to-day struggle for basic survival, though for many others it actually is. This book serves to bridge that gap just a little bit.

65% done with Shaman

There’s a moment when Loon looks around at his new surroundings and realizes that he, and his people, are poor. It’s an interesting scene on a number of levels because so far the story has been describing an idyllic world, somewhat dangerous, but beautiful, mysterious, and pleasant. All that changes with this new perspective and, though this is fiction, you can’t help but realize we’re not descended from Loon.

50% done with Shaman

I loved the story of the traveler who tells the story of the man who wondered what was in the east and walked and walked and walked, walked for years and years and the land just went on and on and on and so he turned around and came back because he was lonely and now that he was back he wanted to go east again.

It’s a wonderful way to explain the loneliness and restlessness of people.

43% done with Shaman

I couldn’t help but get the impression that the chapter where Thorn is teaching Loon how to paint the animals on the cave wall that Robinson had had this image in his mind when he first started the novel. Thorn even has the line where he says ‘you have to think how it would really be’, and that’s what Robinson is doing – the whole novel is a thought experiment inspired by those beautiful and haunting images.

23% done with Shaman

Though Robinson is making nearly all of this up he nevertheless has done a good bit of homework, especially on wilderness survival. Catching trout by damning a stream, making clothes, starting a fire – he handles Loom’s wander carefully and with common sense attention to detail. When we find out Loon is only 12, all the other details that went unexplained make much more sense.

This is very enjoyable so far.

13% done with Shaman

One of the things I loved about the Mars trilogy, and so far the beginning of this novel, is Robinson’s ability to turn seemingly insignificant details into a story. His skill at explaining the process of how things work has the effect of slowly creating an entirely real and living, complex world all around you, one small detail at a time.

And I LOVE the idea of who the ‘Old Ones’ are.