Friday, October 4, 2013

Shaman - Kim Stanley Robinson

I didn't read Robinson's previous novel, 2312, until a year after it was fist published. I guess I felt the story Robinson was writing had too many things in common with what he had done before that I couldn't get really excited about it. It turned out to be a good read but not one that ranks among my favourites. Shaman on the other hand, is one of those books I wanted to read as soon as it came out. In fact, I even tried (and failed) to get a review copy. Robinson's work is much more varied than the epic science fictions he is best known for and this book is a good example of that. Shaman takes us back in time instead of forward. That in itself is something Robinson has done before in The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo's Dream, but certainly not this far. Shaman is a novel set during the ice age, some thirty-two thousand years ago.

Loon is the apprentice of the moody shaman Thorn. He didn't ask for the job, it just happened to him. After the death of his father, Thorn's real apprentice as Loon thinks of him, and his mother, the shaman and the herb woman Heather take care of him. He is not particularly interested in most of what Thorn is trying to teach him except for the art of making cave paintings. Loon is determined to find his own path in the unforgiving world. The fist step on that path is the wander, an initiation into manhood. That is far from his last challenge though.

Throughout his career Robinson has mixed in the evolution of humanity into his novels. One particularly clear example is Frank Vanderwal, a character in the Science in the Capital trilogy. He is constantly explaining modern human behaviour in the light of patterns we picked up while still being 'primates on the plain.' He even lives as something of an urban hunter-gatherer for a while in Fifty Degrees Below. Another example that comes to mind in Nirgal's run with the primitives in Blue Mars. More primitive modes of living in modern times are thoroughly discussed in Robinson's novels. Shaman itself, appears to be in part inspired by the Chauvet Cave, a site with extensive cave paintings, discovered in the Ard├Ęche department of France. I recommenced you have a look at some of the art in that cave after finishing the book.

While many of Robinson's characters can opt for a (temporarily) more primitive lifestyle, Loon doesn't have a choice. He simply know any better. What keeps him busy are the most primal concerns of all: food, shelter and sex. What struck me about this novel was the sharp contrast with what is probably the most famous series of novels set in prehistory; Jean Auel's Earth Children series. Where she presents life during the ice age as utopia, where a human being can make a decent living with a bit of planning and a good set of survival skills, and where paradise is lost after the discovery of the link between sex and procreation, Robinson's reality is much harsher and probably closer to the truth. Loon suffers periods of starvation followed by a summer of plenty. His weight fluctuates considerably over the course of the seasons and he is always aware of the upcoming lean season. All things considered it is a miracle he still has time for his more spiritual pursuits.

In essence Shaman is a coming of age story. When we meet Loon he is very much a boy, unsure what to do with his life. Throughout the book he grows and builds the confidence he'll need to eventually step out of the shadow of the previous generation. It is quite a transformation to see him change from a moody boy to a confident man. Loon has a few brushes with death over the course of the book. Perhaps the most dramatic section of the novel and a turning point in Loon's life is his track back to his people after months of captivity with a northern tribe. It shows him the world is larger than he imagined. It's a journey that will push him to physical and mental extremes. Such treks show up in several of Robinson's other novels as well. Valerie's journey across Antarctica with her clients in toe comes to mind, as well as the evacuation of Burroughs in Green Mars. All of them are life threatening but none are quite are harrowing as Loon's journey though. The question of whether or not Thorn has a hand in Click's death will stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

Robinson spends relatively little time on the landscape and ecology of the land. Where in other books he is known for long passages of scientific and philosophical theories and speculations. Shaman is much more direct. Loon tackles the challenges that are right before him. He is at home in his environment. He accepts it as it is for the most part without considering his place in it or asking why the world looks the way it does. What keeps Loon wondering is people; the passage of time, the cycles of life and changing of generations, the cultures and survival strategies of other tribes are what occupies his mind. He may not realize it himself but he does posses the kind of curiosity and mindset that would suit a shaman.Something he starts to accept over the course of the novel.

I had high expectations of this book and Robinson's met them. How often does that happen? In a way Shaman is very different from the books that Robinson has written until now. It lacks his passion for the process of science for instance. On the other hand, there are lots of thematic links to his other works. It may not be the solar system spanning science fiction of his more popular books, I still thinks that even fans of his work that don't usually venture outside the genre will appreciate this. Loon's journey is fascinating, harrowing and at times heartbreaking. The only minor flaw in the novel is that after a dramatic opening section it takes Robinson a while to get the story going. It is hardly worth mentioning really. Shaman is an absorbing read. For me, it is one of the novels of 2013 you have to have read.

Book Details
Title: Shaman
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 456
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-84149-999-4
First published: 2013

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