Kim Stanley Robinson is known for his meticulous worldbuilding. So when Robinson heads to neolithic Europe for his newest novel Shaman, Robinson creates a world that has familiar outlines — but resists both clichés and lazy assumptions about prehistoric life.
First, it must be pointed out, Shaman is not a science fiction book. There are only a few times when the technology outstrips either what is known or what can be surmised about Aurignacian Culture so long ago. The book is technically a fantasy novel, as it is narrated by the third wind. That is just what it sounds like: a third burst of energy that occurs after your first and second winds fail. This is lightly done, with the third wind only making itself known sporadically through the 450-page book. There are also a few supernatural, though apparently literal and objective, moments in the story. The story is, for all intents and purposes, realistic (pre-) historical fiction. But I suspect it will be enjoyed more by science fans, and presumably, science fiction fans, than by readers of realistic fiction.
Shaman takes as its subject Loon, who is training to become the Wolf Pack’s shaman, beginning in the last two weeks of Loon’s childhood and ending several years later. The book begins with Loon’s Wander – a two week rite of passage in which he must prove that he can survive alone, naked and toolless in the chill early spring wilderness. As Loon struggles to find food and shelter and make fire and clothes, Robinson smartly submerges readers in the reality that consumed humanity for the vast majority of our 200,000 years on the planet.
Robinson makes physicality paramount in this section and throughout the book. Whether Loon is dealing with sex, hunger, pain or cold, the novel makes sure you understand that these are the issues at hand, not psychology or introspection.
The only other part of the book that compares to the reality of bodies is Robinson’s thorough descriptions of the landscape. Readers could probably find the place on a map based on his descriptions alone – though that’s unnecessary, just Googling a few key details will be quicker.
Robinson’s landscapes – booming sea ice, glaciers, forests, meadows, canyons, hills and steppes – dwarf the characters. Characters struggle with the landscape far more, and with just as much peril, than they do with the lions, hyenas and other predators of their world.
For all that danger, starvation and death lurk constantly on the shores of the Urdecha River, Shaman is not a particularly fast-paced or heavily plotted book. There are gestures toward more traditional plots at some points: will we discover that one character has a hidden agenda or another is secretly a murderer? But except for a section in the middle of the book, Loon and the other members of his pack operate in a world of incidents that sometimes relate to later events, but may not.
Loon’s first encounter with Neanderthals resonates deeply and strangely with his last, but this is not something that the character reflects on. While the characters’ minds are human – they have long term plans, can deceive, understand others’ points of view – their lives keep them operating in an extended now that leaves their characterizations somewhat simplistic. It takes some time to get used to this more casual flow of events, but it ultimately feels more real.
Robinson’s use of dashes instead of quotation marks to set off speech is also nice touch, suggesting imperfect paraphrasing rather than direct quotes. It’s as if Robinson is trying to highlight both the reality and the unknowability of the lives of people 30,000 years ago.
The best thing about the book is how remarkably well-researched it seems to be, eschewing many of the fantasies that other books set during the neolithic indulge in. Loon does not tame a horse some 25,000 years too soon, start a civilization or invent writing or some other seemingly self-evident modern convenience. Early domesticated dogs appear only where there is evidence for them.
Certainly, aspects of Loon’s kit owe something to Otzi’s gear 22,000 years later — including reed weaving, legging and belt attachment, and frame backpacks. But where we lack solid 30,000 year old evidence of basket weaving, knitting, lunisolar calendars, poison darts, sculpted maps or webbed snowshoes, Robinson has no problem adding them to the story. He generally offers reasonable suppositions that focus on what could have been technically possible and what might be necessary to survive in an often frigid environment, avoiding impossibilities. Though there are nits to be picked here — only one moment felt egregious, but if I hadn’t noted it down I wouldn’t have remembered it by the end, suggesting it was a momentary distraction.
When there is actual negative evidence Robinson plays it straight – Loon and others are only equipped with stone scrapers, choppers and cutters: the hafted knife hasn’t been invented yet. Everyone in the book has black skin, conforming to the current theory that pale skin probably didn’t evolve until after the spread of agriculture. He also pulls from reputable academic sources, giving hunters the spear throwers suggested by Leon Underwood, interpreting Gregory Curtis’ minotaur story from The Cave Painters and including details from Jean Clottes and David Lewis-William’s The Shaman’s of Prehistory. Robinson does throw a tiny and possibly fictional bone to the Clovis-Solutrean hypothesis, which seems to be more about what kind of stories capture the imagination both then and now then about actual archeological facts.
Which is, I think, ultimately the point. Life for the inhabitants of Europe was different 30,000 years ago – hard, grinding, horribly short — but it was also very familiar. The yearly rhythms of Loon’s life and his struggles aren’t modern, but his desires to build a family, to make great art, to do better, to find his own path are.
The tragedy of pre-history, which the novel acknowledges, is that the loss of an individual is the end of their knowledge and their story. Robinson manages to give those lost individuals their story back. Shaman may not appeal to those who demand tight plots or explosions. For those willing to let the story take its own pace, it is at once both strange and familiar and an entirely immersive experience in a whole other world.