Saturday, December 26, 2015

Review of Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

While for many people cave paintings strike little aesthetic interest due to their simplicity, it’s virtually impossible for a person not to ruminate upon the circumstances of what brought them into existence.  Religious art, Louvres of the past, or mere pre-historic vandalism, we can only speculate on the larger significance of the paintings to the groups of humans who created them thousands and thousands of years ago. 

Perhaps the least likely inspiration for a science fiction novel, Kim Stanley Robinson nevertheless took one such cave painting as inspiration, the Chauvet Cave in France, and created its backstory in Shaman (2013).  Rich in prehistoric detail, from social function to sheer survival in the Ice Age, speculation on life before recorded history may never been as realistically or engagingly created in fiction. 

Opening on a Jack London “To Light a Fire” note, Shaman starts with the young man Loon being sent out on his rite of passage: two weeks in the wild with nothing to aid him save the brains in his head.  Leaving camp naked on a cold and rainy day, Loon must find, kill, or make everything he needs to survive, from fire to food, clothes to shelter.  Living through the ordeal, he is welcomed back to Wolf Pack and expected to formally begin his training under Thorn, the group’s head shaman.  Through a bountiful summer and back into the cold teeth of winter Loon acquires knowledge, finds love, and becomes a stronger member of the tribe.  But when tragedy strikes the group the following year, he is forced into the wild yet again to regain what is lost.

An interesting aspect of Shaman is that it features Robinson at, perhaps, his most relaxed.  With the technology of the setting nearly as limited as human life could have it, plotting takes center stage.  As such (i.e. the majority of Robinson’s other fiction), what knowledge we have of primitive human life in Europe is bound up in story rather than info-dumps.  Loon’s story an adventurous one, moving across the European continent from the south of France to an England frozen over with ice and snow, the reader gets to see more of Robinson’s pure storytelling skills.

Along with the bare skills necessary to survive in the Ice Age, Shaman provides Robinson a chance to speculate on how societies of the time may have been constructed and operated.  Wolf Pack a semi-anarchical society, the shaman Thorn is not by default leader, nor is the man Schist who often makes key decisions about food storage and dealing with other packs as their dominant alpha male, nor is the hard wisdom and dominance of Thorn’s wife.  Everyone having a role, from the women to men to children, the exigencies of their situation force the people to respect mortality more than any petty differences leading to dissension.  Disagreement and separation happen, but always food and shelter for the morrow come as top priority.

The general “civilized” presentation of Wolf Pack is refreshing.  Beyond any Far Side joke about “Zug want meat” Shaman portrays primitive humanity as capable of organization, having a calendar, being able to negotiate and trade with other tribes, of celebrating holidays, and knowing rudimentary medicines.  Save their contact with nature and limits of technology, the people of Shaman resemble humanity of today—an apt perspective. There is true celebration in the kill of an elk, sex is more open, and religion is bound up in aspects of nature, that is, rather than any polytheistic hierarchy or monotheistic deity, but nevertheless the people are people we know, not abstract extrapolations (like Zug).

One interesting aspect of Shaman is that Robinson includes “Old Ones.”  The singular sapien rather than the doubled, the prior version of hominids on Earth flash in and out of the story’s picture.  Our modern brains often believing a line exists between homo sapien and homo sapien sapien, Robinson puts the fade of the former alongside the rise—or at least survival of—the latter.  I only wish there were mammoths…

In the end, Shaman is a fascinatingly realistic view of human life in Europe during the Ice Age.  From the little details of fire-building to snares and traps, Robinson takes the cave paintings of Chauvet Cave as his inspiration to tell the coming-of-age tale of an apprentice shaman in a community of early humans living in what would be southern France today.  Robinson having obviously read deeply on the literature available to speculate on the lives of prehistoric humans, this is a story whose imagery via the small details of a life with basic technology will really stick with the reader—or at least me.


  1. Great review! I spent a couple of hours looking at the pictures of Chauvet Cave after finishing the book. His descriptions are very vivid.

    1. Thanks, there is also a 70-80 minute documentary on the cave which brings in a wide-ranging group of experts to talk about the cave.