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.