Kim Stanley Robinson


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

November 25, 2013

really liked Shaman, it may be the best thing that I have read by Kim Stanley Robinson. (Which is a bit ironic, since he is a famous, award winning science fiction author, and yet Shaman isn't really a science fiction novel, nor am I aware of it winning any awards.) Yet I enjoyed it much more than Red/Green/Blue Mars or Years Of Salt and Rice. I still haven't read 2312, but that sounds interesting.

Robinson has apparently done extensive research on Stone Age living. He uses that knowledge to tell us the story of Loon, a young man in a tribe of cave men (they call themselves the Raven clan) living in Ice Age Europe 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. Everything Robinson tells us about Loon - his weapons, his wilderness skills, his clothes and foods - sounds like authentic cave man details. Yet the those details are mentioned in the flow of the story, rather than in long boring information dumps. One of my chief complaints with previous novels by Robinson is how they digress into topics that bog down the main story. But I found Shaman to be a fascinating adventure from beginning to end.

The most exciting part of this novel describes Loon's desperate attempt to rescue Elga from kidnappers who live far to the north, near the ice and sea. Loon's quest allows Robinson to show us a broad swath of the ice age environment. Huge sheets of ice and snow. There are some thrilling moments when thin ice must be crossed. At one point, Loon watches as the spring thaw breaks up huge sheets of ice on a vast frozen river - it is an epic scene. Loon's era is so long ago that the cave men are armed only with spears - no arrows or slings or horses (though the northern tribe does have some wolf-dogs). Navigation is by memorizing landmarks, looking at the stars, and simple dead reckoning.

Of course, we have no idea how cave man spirituality actually worked, but Robinson does a credible job describing how Loon and his compatriots feel they fit into their world. There is talk of ghosts haunting bones, and ancestor spirits and animal totems. The important cave paintings have a lot mystical meaning. I liked the mysterious hike out to the shrine(?) of the northern tribe. Despite their primitive existence, Robinson shows that their social skills were as advanced as modern humans - the Raven clan bickers amongst themselves, and then unites at the 8x8 feast with the other clans.

Robinson also shows the feast and famine nature of their existence. When they slaughter a herd of migrating caribou, the entire clan feasts. But when the long icy spring continues without thaw, the people starve. The Raven clan attempts to store food in deep pits, but there is only so much that can done in the crude conditions.

One aspect of this novel that puzzled me was the predators. In the first section of the novel, when Loon is on his "wander", he must elude lions and wolves and other dangerous predators, such as the Neanderthals. But after that opening sequence, these animals seemingly disappear, never to threaten the again, even though Loon spends a lot of time crossing vast landscapes with little protection. I thought the danger of these animal encounters liven up the first section of the novel.

Robinson spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the cave painting. I confess this part did get a bit slow for me at the end of the novel. Apparently the cave art described in the book is based upon a real cave in France shown in a documentary called "Cave of Forgotten Dreams".

I was impressed by this book. It seemed like a realistic story about our ancestors during the savage times of the Ice Age.