Thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman

I have seen Kim Stanley Robinson’s books in the science fiction section of my local bookshops for decades going back to the days when I worked in one of them.  His readers are accustomed to Robinson’s intelligent and thought-provoking prose about the far future. 

Shaman is very much about the long ago past and after reading this 2013 novel, I do not understand why it is labeled Science Fiction.  The book even says Science Fiction right on the spine above the imprint label.  There is a little bit of hocus pocus, but it is nothing so out of this world as any mystical goings-on you might find in a story about a tribe of Native Americans.  There is more paranormal wackadoo going on in Dan Simmons’ Black Hills and it is labeled Historical Fiction.  I know Kim Stanley Robinson is known primarily as an author of science fiction, but I do not understand why that means this work of historical fiction ends up on the SF shelf.

Taking place over a period of a few years, Shaman is the story of Loon, a young apprentice shaman living with his prehistoric tribe during the Ice Age.  We join Loon as he is a boy on the verge of manhood, beginning his shaman wander, a rite of passage during which he is stripped of everything including clothing, and told to disappear into the wilderness and not return until the next full moon.  What follows is a tale of survival told the Kim Stanley Robinson way.  His words are a paint brush.

The pace of the story is slow, much like the pace of Loon’s life.  Devoid of the hustle of the modern world, Loon and his tribe exist just to survive.  They are not worried about their 401(k), getting to a sales meeting on time, or navigating through gridlock traffic.  These humans are practically still just animals.  They hunt, they eat, they breed.  They maintain a connection to nature by naming themselves after birds (Loon, Hawk), plants (Heather, Moss), and rocks (Schist).  They recognize and appreciate their place in the ecology, unlike modern man who has paved over nature and replaced tree lines with skylines.  I enjoyed experiencing the simplicity of the ancient world through Loon’s eyes.  There are certainly harrowing moments that elevated my pulse, but I found Shaman to mostly be an exploration of early mankind’s life, like watching a well-produced documentary.

Robinson explores the cyclical nature of life, the passing of years marked by the seasons, the passing of days marked by the path of the sun across the sky.  He puts great effort into detailing these cycles and their importance to Loon and his Wolf Pack.  I found it almost hypnotic.  His setting is so crystal clear that even now, a week after finishing the book, I retain a vivid image of the woods in which Loon and his pack live, the river nearby, the tufts of snow on the ground late into Spring.  The seasons do not mean much to industrial man, but early mankind’s entire lives revolved around the seasons.  Summer was bountiful with rich hunting and gathering opportunities.  Autumn was a time to begin storing food for the long Winter.  The Hunger Spring was the worst, when food stores were low and wildlife had not yet returned so hunting was poor.

In a prehistoric society, the people told stories to retain their history and build their culture.  These stories were passed down through the generations.  The Wolf Pack’s shaman Thorn spends much of his time trying to teach his reluctant apprentice Loon the value of these stories and the importance of getting the details right.  I found myself wondering how much the stories might have changed over so many years, like a multi-generational game of Telephone.  In the Internet Age, information is at our fingertips.  Prior to the Internet, I could go to a library and read any number of volumes of scholarly information.  None of that existed thirty thousand years ago.  History was verbal.  This is how legends are born.  One person tells a story, the next embellishes a little, the next embellishes further.  Before we know it, we are sitting around the village bonfire listening as our shaman tells us the story of a man so strong, he killed an invulnerable beast with his bare hands and now wears its pelt as a trophy.  Loon’s own story is narrated by a seldom seen third party.  Is this the real tale or has it been sweetened to enhance the listener’s experience?

I thoroughly enjoyed Shaman and think even more highly of it as I continue to ponder it days after reading the final page.  Robinson can always be counted on to impart knowledge in an entertaining form and with Shaman, I feel as though I have been given a well-researched glimpse into a world I would not normally think about.  It is not science fiction though.  Not even a little bit.