In A. E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher, one character has the grand misfortune to become unmoored in time. He begins swinging like a pendulum, from far past to distant future, accumulating more energy with each oscillation. Only a single outcome is possible: at the terminus of one swing, he will explode, more or less initiating the Big Bang.
But the seesaw would end in the very remote past, with the release of the stupendous temporal energy he had been accumulating with each of those monstrous swings. He would not witness but he would aid in the formation of the planets.
It’s starting to look like Kim Stanley Robinson is on that same cosmic ride, with similarly large and laudable results. In 2009, he gave us Galileo’s Dream, which was set — admittedly, with futuristic segments — mainly in the historical past era of its eponymous scientist. Then in 2012 came 2312, which brought us to that far-off future date. And now we get Shaman, delving back into prehistoric climes. If Robinson’s thematic pattern continues, we should vault into truly intergalactic realms in his next outing. Hopefully, he has many more swings of the literary seesaw before he goes off in a final fireball of glory!
Tales concerning “the origin of man,” to employ the thematic signifier used by The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, have been part of the SF genre since its earliest days. Once anthropology and geology had opened up the pre-record keeping darkness of humanity’s long, slow, sustained infancy as suitable grounds for speculation, writers began trying to imagine human existence as it must have been with only stone-age technology. H. G. Wells and Jack London offered early efforts, and subsequent decades saw the occasional companionable tale.
But by the time Norman Spinrad’s story “The Age of Invention” appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in July 1966, the subgenre had devolved to parody.
One morning, having nothing better to do, I went to visit my cousin Roach. Roach lived in one of those lizard-infested caves on the East Side of the mountain. Roach did not hunt bears. Roach did not grow grain. Roach spent his daylight hours throwing globs of bearfat, bison chips and old rotten plants against the walls of his cave.
Roach said that he was an Artist. He said it with a capital A. (Even though writing has not yet been invented.)
As I approached the mouth of Roach’s cave, I smelled pungent smoke. In fact, the cave was filled with this smoke. In the middle of the cave sat Roach and his woman. They were burning a big pile of weeds and inhaling the smoke.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Turning on, baby,” said Roach. “I’ve just invented it.”
And so the mode languished, until 1980, when Jean Auel’s bestselling The Clan of the Cave Bear revived the serious theme, inspiring countless imitators. Of course, fresh scientific findings, insights and speculations about our ancestral beginnings were just as deeply instrumental in the renaissance.
You can count on Robinson for two things here: to be utterly au courant with the latest academic findings on our ancestors; and to provide engagingly dramatic and empathetic embodiments of that data. In other words, Shaman provides a resonant, imaginative, quietly powerful story while still honoring as much of the reality of the past as we have yet discerned.
Our hero is Loon, an adolescent lad in training to become a shaman, under the tutelage of sour old Thorn. (Their relationship carries echoes of T. H. White’s Wart and Merlyn, with some metaphorical talk of Thorn even living backwards, like Merlyn, from future to past.) We first see Loon on his transitional wander ordeal, sent naked into the cold wilderness to survive and experience a guiding vision. Robinson mixes humor, pathos, suspense and ingenuity in a naturalistic treatment of the quest. Immediately, Loon’s bright mentality and his environment both emerge in sharp relief. When Loon returns to his “pack,” he has set a bold foot onto the trail toward his mature standing in the tribe.
Subsequent chapters enlarge Loon’s relations with the highly individuated members of his extended pack, in a round of quotidian and seasonal doings. Included are relations with “the old ones” or “lunkheads,” who can be no other than our Neanderthal peers. Nature is evoked with poetry and precision. Loon begins to take on more duties and virtues of a shaman, discovering that his affinities are with art (shades of Spinrad’s satire!), and with the bardic poems that might recall to the modern reader Hiawatha’s stanzas.
By midpoint of the book Loon is mated with his heart’s desire, a woman from outside the pack named Elga. They have a child. Then, all their calm and peace is overturned with one dramatic occurrence. Most of the rest of the book is spent in a struggle to regain freedom and safety and domestic bliss. After much travail, Loon emerges deepened and strengthened, with a coda remaining that involves Thorn and the tribe and a furthering of Loon’s art.
This type of novel, done right, has to walk a tightrope between polarities. Our ancestors must seem alien—yet allied and sympathetic with our own concerns: different in mind and abilities and sensibilities, yet harboring the same essential eternal spark of our species. Spirituality must be depicted, yet balanced with the mundane. The life and culture of our forebears must be seen as worthy on their own merits, yet somehow proleptic of our “civilized” glories to come, without teleological fixity. The tribe must live a life of tradition—yet innovation and invention must have a place. The language couching all this cannot devolve into pidgin childishness, yet should not be overly ornate or too sophisticated and rococo. Simple yet with gravitas. The protagonist must be exceptional, yet representative.
Robinson deftly avoids all these pitfalls and hits all the high notes. The reader engages deeply with the characters and their world while still squirming with a delicious sense of estrangement.
From time to time in the book, a first-person voice interrupts:
I am the third wind
I come to you
When you have nothing left
When you can’t go on
This numen blows through those who can hear it today just as strongly as it did 30,000 years ago. And Robinson helps us all to hear it.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.