We’re reading SHAMAN by Kim Stanley Robinson

13 Sep

Adam Roberts looks for the join between sf and historical fiction.


This conversation –

R: What are you reading?
A: It’s the new Stan Robinson novel. It’s about Pleistocene men and women.
R: What, like Tony Hart’s Morph?

– leads me to think there are people in the world who could do with being better educated about our paleolithic forebears. And this vivid, thoroughly researched and thoroughly absorbing novel could be the way. Were Tony Hart still alive, I feel sure he would agree with me.

A little while ago, news of the subject of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book leaked onto the web:

“I’m finishing a novel set in the ice age, about the people who made the paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, about 32,000 years ago,” he said. “I do a lot of snow camping in the Sierra, and I put my snow knowledge into it and tried to explain how we became who we are now.”

”It’s only science and archaeology that allow us to write historical fiction with any accuracy,” Robinson added. “So it’s kind of science fiction in a way.”

Robinson can call his novel what he likes, and I’ve never been one to force pigeonholing definitions on a book, but I have to say it really doesn’t read like SF. There are glancingly fantastic elements to it: it is narrated not by one of the characters, but by “the third wind”, a sort of supernatural force that comes to people in extremis and helps them find the inner resources to push on through, something often needful in the world of this book. From time to time the p.o.v. shifts inside the head of a bear or wolverine, without altering very much. But mostly, though, Shaman is given over to a detailed rendering of ice-age quotidiana. The ordinary day-to-day of a small tribe of early humans, living well-enough in the summer, struggling with the cold and ever-present starvation in the long winter.

The narrative of Shaman, such as it is, concerns three things. One is young Loon being picked by the tribe’s Shaman, Thorn, as his successor, and having to learn all the lyrics to “Ebeneezer Goode”, sorry, I mean: learn all the shamanistic rites and stories. Two is Loon falling in love with and marrying a girl from a different tribe called Elga. It seems Shamans (Shamen?) aren’t supposed to marry, but Loon does so anyway. Three is a lengthy inset narrative set-piece: Elga and Loon are taken as slaves by a tribe of northerners. These people keep domesticated wolves and (because they hunt seal on the ice, amongst other things) aren’t starving all the time like our protagonists’ tribe—in other words, they are us, or more like us; and Robinson introduces them to play a variant of the game William Golding plays in The Inheritors. When Thorn and a geezer called Click help Elga and Loon escape, there is a prolonged, tense chase across most of the length of prehistoric France, and we’re cheering for them to get away. The only niggle is, it’s too exciting; or, to be a little more precise, it’s exciting after the manner of the standard chase-and-flight thriller. It jars a little, when read against the background of the rest of the novel, because in Shaman as a whole the excitement is of a completely different, and much rarer kind. Very little happens in this exteriorised, frantic, adrenalin-rushy way; and it is enormously to Robinson’s credit that, nonetheless, he manages to write this in such a way that we, as readers, are so wholly drawn in to the ordinary struggles of life. He pays us the compliment, in fact, of assuming that we will be interested in the ordinary goings-on of ordinary people.

In the paleolithic, these goings-on mostly concerned getting food. Other goings-on included: dealing with the elements; encountering bears and wolverines and so on that might eat you; keeping a respectful distance from the Old Folk – Neanderthals – would were also liable to kill you; telling and listening to stories. But the overwhelming sense of paleolithic life one gets from reading this novel is what it is like subsisting on little or no food for long stretches. What it feels like when your belly button is a fingers-width away from your spine. How Elga’s substantial breasts simply melt away from the withering lack of calories. One thing the novel does rather brilliantly is have you empathising with an aesthetic of female beauty that inspired the maker of the celebrated Venus of Willendorf figurine. There are many, often beautiful descriptions of landscape, weather and animals. People get on with the business of life. Sometimes they go into caves and paint animals and people on the walls. All this is related to the reader in Robinson’s leisurely, precise, unshowy but vivid prose.

There is less actual shamanistic stuff than I thought there was going to be: some songs and rituals, the occasional encounter with a ghost, and no spirit-flights into the northern lights or shape-changing-into-a-bear-and-back. But then again Robinson’s tenor has always been Realist. That might look like an odd thing to say about him, given that his vehicle over the years has mostly been fantastic—science fictional. But it’s so common a textual strategy in our genre as to be, really, the norm: a fantastical premise elaborated via careful research, respectful attention to the laws of science, and a style and form that owe much more to Zola than Borges: the accumulation of a great many precisely observed details, prose that aims to be as transparent and neutral as possible, the whole aesthetic game of verisimilitude. I’ve never been entirely sure why so many SF writers should want to match non-realist subjects with realist textual strategies. Perhaps where one improbability – the SFnal premise – is swallowable, adding a non-probable style is an unlikelihood too far.

At any rate, Robinson’s scrupulous attention to detail and plausibility pays dividends. Bottom line: you believe it. Indeed, I found myself wondering just how far Robinson went by way of practical research. When Loon eats a bear penis, and the narrator says “the penis was chewy and tasted like kidneys”, is this a canny guess by KSR, or did he pop down to his local deli and order himself a raw bear penis just to… you know? Is there a writerly equivalent to Method Acting?

Mind you, verisimilitude is more than just a matter of what flints people used to scrape animal hides with. It has a larger, we could say ideological component to it as well. And, slaver-Northmen aside, everybody in the book is nice. This is a point worth dilating upon, since it’s part of Robinson’s writerly modus operandi, and may have something to do with his Marmite reputation amongst readers. (To be clear: I love KSR with a genuine passion, but I know folk who do not.) Loon, through whom most of this story is filtered, is an immensely likeable individual: resourceful, charismatic, brave and enduring. But then, everybody in his tribe is nice. One of the men admits to forcing sex on his wife whether she’s in the mood or not, and all the other men are immediately and vocally horrified with him. Women are to be respected, not objectified! It’s a commendable sentiment, although I wonder how pre-historically accurate it is. KSR’s position seems to be: the default setting of humankind is basically nice. He believes that, statistical outliers aside, we all basically want to get along, to not hurt other people, to live in balance. His last novel, the marvellous 2312, is like this too: its human characters are various and multitudinous, and some have “attitude”, but all are pretty nice, deep down, and that niceness – the capacity for collective work towards a common goal, the tendency not to oppress or exploit – is common to almost all the characters Robinson has written. His creations almost always lack inner cruelty, or mere unmotivated spitefulness, which may be a good thing. I’m not saying he’s wrong about human nature, either; although it is more my wish than my belief.

Another question is how timely, or otherwise, a book like this is. Caveman/woman fiction has its <em>en vogue</em> periods, and its periods when it falls from fashion. Conceivably it is coming back into fashion—Stephen Baxter’s Northland Trilogy (or, strictly, the first volume, Stone Spring, 2010) was well received, and The Croods did pretty well at this year’s box office. Perhaps Shaman will ride a new wave of interest in the period. I’m not so sure, though.

The last time we saw this, I’d say, was the 70s/80s, a period I’m old enough, being older than many paleolithic individuals managed (Hah! IN YOUR FACE!) to remember pretty well. Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear (1980; there were many sequels) is doubtless less cheesy in actuality than it is in my memory of reading it as a teen; yet that memory is positively gorgozolaesque, not helped by the thought of Daryl Hannah in animal skins with her carefully coiffured, just-tangled-enough bottle-blond hair, like an LA model on a shoot. Auel’s series was huge for a while, of course, and it spoke to a set of distinctively 80s concerns, partly to do with nascent environmentalism, and the sense that civilisation had alienated us from “authentic” living. It was around this time that Walter L. Voegtlin’s “Paleolithic diet” was first promulgated, the core assumption of which is that a return to the eating habits of the sorts of people Robinson writes about is the royal road to health and fitness.

Before that we had the Flintstones and its analogues (all those frozen-caveman-awakens-in-the-modern-world yarns, from Stig of the Dump to Californian Man), in which comedy is generated by the ironic gap between stone age primitivism and modern day technological convenience -although I’ve never been sure whether the point here is to intimate that primitivism is buried just below the surface of modern civilised manners, or on the contrary to flatten history and insist that people “back then” were basically exactly the same as white US suburbanites, no matter how far back we go.

Robinson’s project is not like that, I think; and though I finished Shaman as full of respect for his prodigious gifts as a novelist and imaginer as ever, I did not, quite, fall in love with the novel the way I have with some of his earlier books. In part it may be that I found less by way of genealogical connection between those days and these. It made me glad I have no problem sourcing food in the winter; and that I have a nice brick structure to live in. Otherwise I wondered about its point of connection with modern life. But then, I’ve never eaten a raw bear penis.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts says goodbye to Jack Vance.

Read Kim Stanley Robinson in Arc 1.4, out now.

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