Kim Stanley Robinsons' SHAMAN has now been out for a bit over two months. As the winter approaches, you might consider taking a step outside of your current life as an urban-dweller, with food available any time of the day any day, with buildings heated or cooled at will, and delve into our ancestor's minds -- a world challenging and stimulating, in an environment that actually still exists "out there" if you bother to seek it out. If you're not convinced yet, here are some recent interviews with the writer and some reviews on his work and most recent novel.
Above: Drawing of the Chauvet cave paintings by Eric Le Brun.
In an interview for the Library Journal, Stan explained many details in the thinking that went in writing Shaman.
More important for this book were certain other adventures in the Sierra, especially winter trips on snowshoes, in steep terrain, sometimes in storms, once or twice injured. These were crucial experiences for when I wrote about my characters’ escape from the northers.
In this novel, I looked to Anglo-Saxon for the feel of old words; to proto-Indo-European, a lost language recovered by historical linguistics; and to Basque, a very ancient language. Sometimes I used these older words to replace sexual terms in our language that have too much modern baggage.
And for those who were bothered by the fact that no map accompanied the book (but keep in mind that Loon's pack had no print maps or writing to begin with!), here is some context:
Yes, the story takes place mostly in the area around the Chauvet Cave, near Vallon Pont d’Arc. The stone bridge that crosses the Ardèche River there overlooks the home camp of my characters. During their seasonal trek to the caribou steppes, they walk to north of the Massif Centrale, and then some of them continue as far north as the southern edge of the Ice Age’s great ice cap, in Cornwall. They can walk there because there was no English Channel at that time, sea level being so much lower.
I think of my novel Shaman as a particular kind of science fiction, which examines what we are as human beings by looking at how we became what we are now. Also, it took the sciences of archeology and anthropology to provide the information necessary to write the book, because prehistory is literally prehistorical, in that we have no texts from the time, and have to infer what life was like by what was left behind, and by analogy to first peoples still around when industrial society colonized the planet. So, this is partly a scientific process, and I have made use of all those findings, some of them very new, to write my book.
In particular, the 1991 finding of the ice man on the glacier between Italy and Austria, with all his gear frozen and intact, was a big inspiration to me; his gear kit was very sophisticated and resembled my backpacking gear in design, and I wanted to write about that. Then the discovery of the Chauvet cave in 1994 gave me my particular story; it was painted 32,000 years ago, the paintings are beautiful, and they suggest an animal-focused culture with mysterious beliefs. So I tried to tell the story of the people who painted the cave.
[...] Dystopias are all basically the same, and easy: oppression, resistance, conflict, blah blah. Like car crashes in thriller movies. But utopian novels are interesting (I know this is backwards to the common wisdom) because they force us to think about what we are, what we could become, and if we were to make a decent civilization, what would endanger it, or keep it from spreading, etc. One point I’ve been making all along is that even in a utopian situation, there will still be death and lost love, so there will be no shortage of tragedy in utopia. It will just be the necessary or unavoidable tragedies; which perhaps makes them even worse, or more tragic. They won’t be just brutal stupidities, in other words, but reality itself. This is what literature should explore.
Also, thinking of utopia, I’ve always felt this: since we could do it, we should. And that will take some planning, some vision.
[...] sf looks at the present and imagines the various futures that could come to pass, given where we are now. It’s not prediction of one future, but consideration of a multitude of possible futures, and that gives sf readers their particular flexibility of mind, their ability to react to history without huge surprise and disorientation. In effect, they saw it coming. So sf reading is a kind of cognitive mapping that orients people in time. It’s not just great fun, but useful too.
Please give us a glimpse of your writing process from conception to award-winning novel.
It usually starts with an idea, fairly simple and basic. Inhabit Mars and terraform it. What would the world be like if all the Europeans had died in the Black Death? What if Galileo were taken by time travelers to the moons of Jupiter? What if a mercurial personality and a saturnine personality fell in love?
Then I build from there. Often it takes many years, and eventually I have a sense of the story’s basic outline, with some events, and the climax or ending, but a lot of vagueness. Eventually I need to figure out a form, and then a narrator. The story tends to create the characters necessary to live the story. And so on it goes. Much is never decided until I am faced with writing particular scenes. That’s when it gets really hard.
Talking to the North Adams Transcript before appearing at the David G. Hartwell ‘63 Science Fiction Symposium at Williams College as part of a panel on climate change, Robinson commented on science fiction, climate change and our attitude towards it, as well as the relationship between being human and our technology. Some food for thought:
"I often talk about what young people can do in terms of their careers and in terms of how they're going to live, what it means for them," said Robinson. "What I try to do is counter the idea that it means renunciation and suffering and that they're going to have to live like saints. This is a false image of how they have to live in the future. The future becomes a project for them, in the existential sense. They've built their lives around something that has an actual meaning. Life has meaning again and climate change, rather than just being disastrous, is actually being given a meaning to our civilization's existence."
[...] The reaction to climate change is just part of Robinson's wider concerns -- the human relationship with science and technology and how we negotiate a balance so that it does less harm than good. It's something that Robinson thinks is one of the most ingrained issues of our existence on this planet.
"My most recent novel, which was set in the Ice Age with Paleolithic people, makes the point in a different way that we are a high tech species," he said. "Technology is actually one of the first things we did as homo sapiens that really made homo sapiens. In other words, we really started using tools and that's what co-evolved us into being who we are, so we have to admit that. It does become an ecological matter of can you use your technology to stay in a healthy balance with the biosphere at large now that we're a global civilization and have immense powers compared to any times in the past."
[...] "I often think that bad category errors are being made," Robinson said. "By that I mean that often -- and GMOs are a great example -- people are scared and angry at the idea, but it turns out that the operation itself is very little different between that and hybridization and the stuff that we've been doing to plants our entire lifetime as a species, so that the anger has been misplaced. It's not genetic engineering, it's capitalism. Ownership of the natural world, people are very angry at that, and then they get angry at science instead of the business system, the economic system, that we live in. This slippage, this is where the left is so messed up, liberal sentiment in the United States -- and I'm totally onboard with that, that's what I am myself -- but when they get angry at science when it's actually capitalism that they're angry at, they're making a terrible error."
[...] "You've got to properly assess the risks, then you've got to do a true cost/benefit analysis of how much we're willing to pay socially and economically to manage the risks that we're creating. These are complicated things that aren't fully understood. And we have to start make distinctions between science and capitalism, and supporting the one and attacking the other, because I think of science as a public project for the public good and I think of capitalism as just privatization and an oligarchy and injustice. This is my own political ax to grind. It's something that drives a lot of my stories."
In an interview for LiveScience, Robinson talked about science fiction and went through the different kinds of SF: near-future, future history, space opera, utopia, political/economic:
"All sci-fi put together gives you a feel for the future that is fuzzy" [...] The futures are not always compatible, but "taken together, they give you a kind of weather forecast," Robinson said.
Of course, reviews for Shaman abound!
Fellow writer Cecilia Holland reviewed Shaman for Locus:
Writing historical fiction is a rite of memory, of recovery – to imagine what the few surviving data can no longer tell us: how it was to live in another time. Stan Robinson has always been a writer of huge ambition – he owns Mars, after all – and in taking on this theme, he has another huge purpose: not to tell us what this most ancient of human worlds was, but somehow, through the act of fiction, to make us remember. This is what we were once. This is our true nature, indivisible from all nature; what it means to be human, then, and now.
On the whole, I suppose the story’s on the slight side, but what narrative drive Shaman perhaps lacks, the author more than makes up for with his masterful handling of its central character, whose coming of age from boy to man and from man to shaman the novel cumulatively chronicles. This is in addition to Robinson’s carefully layered characterisation of the others Loon looks to, like Heather and Elga and Click, whom I loved. To a one, they are wonderfully done.
But if Shaman is about any single thing, it’s about legacies lost and left. Of particular significance, then, is Thorn, the long-suffering so-and-so in charge of painting the caves and preserving the memories of the tribe he tends. [...] we arrive, at the last, at the heart of the matter, for it is he who asks the question Shaman answers: what do we leave behind, and why?
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.
(Also, this had to happen.)
Val's Random Comments (a frequent Robinson reviewer):
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 utopian, 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.
The learned experiences of the tribe ,the hard won history of survival , is passed on through the wisdom and songs of the shaman. More spoken word than musical theatre. Mostly stories about staying alive, the acquisition and quest for food. The pursuit of the next meal is all. The tribe, the clans, pursue the next meal with the greatest of intents and respect. They revere everything they kill to eat, before and after death. [...] Thorn the shaman is a grumpy cantankerous and unpleasant old sod who seems to take delight in tormenting his only pupil, Loon. [...] Thorn knows that even if he manages to pass on his accumulated knowledge there is the certainty that so much will still be lost. Without a written record even the spoken and learned wisdom will acquire cadences of its own, changing in turn the full message passed, little by little over generations. The Druidic past when guessed at became invested with romantic ideals it most likely never possessed. Wisely Robinson puts at the heart of the shaman’s lore a savage logic that could in actuality serve the needs of the clan. He creates very complex and personal conflicts within the clan.
Though the plot is straightforward bildungsroman material, Shaman brims over with some of the finest writing Robinson has yet produced. It immerses us in a vivid world of flickering lamplight and intricate ritual, a life of “smoke and mushrooms and dancing and flagellation”.
[...] Of course, this is not to say that the novel is a dry recitation of anthropological facts. Far from it. The pack’s sexual politics are, for example, as developed and intricate as any contemporary society. [...] Meanwhile, its members transcend their somewhat stock origins and achieve a credible life of their own. In particular, Robinson’s shamans are a colourful lot who consume heroic quantities of “berry mash” to “launch their spirits out of their bodies”. They are part-medicine men, part-counsellors, and deeply immersed in oral literature. Through them the author rejects the so-called Great Leap Forward, eschewing any notion of a sudden cognitive revolution in favour of the slow accumulation of human knowledge over generations. “It’s fragile what I know,” Thorn tells Loon. He must pass on his wisdom the same way embers from an old fire are preserved to light a new one. In fact, this is exactly the lesson which Loon and the reader learn on the first night of the boy’s wander: the difficulty of kindling a fresh spark, a symbolic new idea.
[...] For Robinson, stories are about optimism and the belief that life will always go on. Shaman is no different. It is an intelligent, and at times mesmerising novel. The perfect book for archaeology buffs, those who love the outdoors, or readers who prize an unusual perspective in their fiction.
More interviews & reviews soon!