Shaman is the story of Loon, a young man who comes of age thirty-two thousand years ago, in the paleolithic era. At the beginning of the book, he is stripped naked, pushed out into the rain and told not to come back for two weeks. He is on his shaman wander. Staying alive is his most immediate goal. Returning in style seems equally important. After several mishaps, Loon manages both feats—thankfully, as it would be a rather short book if he died in the first chapter.
Loon is not entirely sure he wants to be a shaman, and throughout the handful of years that follow, he strives for adulthood with a quiet force that while presented as uncertainty is actually borne of a relentless conviction that he will be who he wants to be, regardless of what others require of him.
Of course, he grows up to be exactly who he is supposed to be. (You’ll need to read the book to figure that one out.)
His journey to manhood is dogged with the usual trials, the most important of which is the pinch of a hungry belly. The story is set in an era where food is of paramount importance. It means all. Without food, there is no life. Thorn, the shaman he is apprenticed to, drives this point home somewhere toward the end of the book (as if the preceding four hundred pages of detailed hunting and gathering hadn’t already) and this is where the simplicity of their life can seem superficial. Feeding themselves and their clan is a constant struggle.
As a novel, Shaman communicates much more than the wolf clan’s determination to feed itself, however. More than Loon’s journey. With the simple prose he is well known for, Robinson defines both the gentle slopes and sharp turns of these peoples’ rather complicated existence. Their relationships with each other, with neighbouring clans, the ‘old ones’ and with the people of the north. Their rituals and superstitions. Marriage, birth and death. Hierarchy and the role of men and women. Leadership. Moral fortitude and tolerance. It’s all here—or was there. Their days might have been largely defined by what they would eat that night, but not to the exclusion of being utterly human.
Shaman is not speculative fiction in the traditional sense, but anything written about such distant periods of history has to be speculative in a sense. Who knows if the attitudes detailed by Robinson actually held true. The interpretation of nature and ghosts. The apparent enlightenment of these people. But he did a lot of research for this book and it reads like a labour of love—and an homage to our existence. Who we are, essentially. Which is what science fiction is often about, really. Particularly when written by Kim Stanley Robinson.
I really enjoyed this book. As usual, I hit the sixty percent mark and wondered if what I read was largely pointless. (I paused at about that mark in The Years of Rice and Salt and 2312). Shaman seemed like another extended ramble, this time about the likeable Loon; exquisitely detailed, but paced just behind the curve of excitement. But, still, I couldn’t put the book down. Something compelled me to keep reading—and that is exactly the point. It’s a story and the point is in the telling, more so than the details, themselves. Here, Robinson has cast himself in the role of shaman and he knew that telling his tale in a simple and linear manner would allow his audience to complicate the experience at will as they related it to their own lives.
Shaman will be one of those books I remember reading, and the experience of reading, and I recommend it for readers of all genres.
Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.