I tell you, once upon a time kids had to walk to school barefoot. And not just barefoot, but naked. In snow and rain. Uphill. And they had to not get eaten by wolves. And be chased by Neanderthals. And eat shrooms. Or at least, they did if their school was learning how to be a shaman. And if they lived back about 30, 000 years ago. And their name was Loon, the protagonist of Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderfully detailed Shaman.
That naked walkabout occurs at the start of Shaman and it’s a fantastic introduction to this complex culture and world that Loon inhabits. A world he has to learn more about if he is to become his small group’s storyteller/shaman/cave painter/keeper of memories as his mentor, the current shaman, Thorn, desires. Loon, on the other hand, is just a bit grumpy over the idea of all this work — he doesn’t have the head it seems to memorize Thorn’s “stupid” tales, he’s not sure Thorn is as insightful as he puts on, and he definitely doesn’t like being stripped naked and sent out into the cold night. What he does like, though, is painting in the sacred cave, and that idea runs like a thread of light throughout the novel until it culminates in an absolutely great scene inside the cavern itself. But that’s getting ahead of the game.
Along with Thorn, we are introduced to a handful of others among his group — the headman Schist, a pair of boys roughly Loon’s same age, and especially Heather — an aged, tart-tongued herbswoman who calls things as she sees them and suffers fools not at all. Needless to say, she terrifies everyone in the group. When Loon’s group gets to a great gathering, he meets a woman whom he takes back to his group as wife. Unfortunately, another group believes they have an earlier claim on her, and so when they take her, Loon decides to go after that tribe who lives in the far north.
This part of the story, which takes place well, well into the novel, introduces more action and is I suppose the narrative thrust of the tale. But really, this is neither an action novel nor even a plot-driven one. Instead, it’s a novel that asks us to inhabit a time and place as foreign to us as are most of the far-flung planets or exotic lands that most science fiction or fantasy escort us to. It is a novel of seasonal tides, when time is marked by natural events (the breaking of the big river for instance) and by those stories, those memories that Thorn keeps and hopes to pass on to his disgruntled apprentice. It’s a novel where life is steeped deeply in the natural world, but almost as deeply in the spiritual one as well, which is not all that separate from our own.
Mostly, it’s a novel of survival, but not in the “adventure” style (though there is some of that) but in the simple day-to-day existence — hunting, herb-gathering, trade, sex, death, recovering from wounds that nowadays we wouldn’t think much of. It’s not a bitter survival, a gritty, eyes-closed to the world around you survival, but an an eyes-wide open moment to moment survival. Where a glimpse of a horse, or ice, or the sun can catch in a character’s throat. As does the majesty and motion of animals on a fire-lit cave wall. It has in it the kinds of days where one character tells another: “This is what we live for! Days like this! So come on.”
Nor is it merely the survival of a body, of flesh, but survival of spirit, of story. It’s about handing down from one generation to another so that what is important survives beyond the flesh. Because, “It’s fragile what we know. It’s gone every time we forget. Then someone has to learn it all over again . . . I remembered every single word I ever heard, every single moment of my life . . . I talked to every person in this whole part of the world and remembered everything they said. What’s going to become of all that?”
By the time we reach that moment in Shaman, that’s an almost unbearable plea for continuity; it almost breaks the heart. There are several such moving moments in the novel, as well as a good amount of humor. As one expects by now of Robinson, the prose is crystal sharp, doing exactly what it needs to do when it needs to do it — stripped down to bare essentials when required, raised into heightened style when needed. There’s no doubt this is a slow book, especially its first half. I can easily see lots of people putting it down early because “nothing happens.” Because it’s just a “what this guy does during the day” kind of story. But putting this book down would be a mistake because eventually you’ll be wholly enveloped in this world that Robinson creates with such authority, with such a convincing tone, so that not only will you mourn the novel’s ending, but you’ll also, at least part of you, bemoan the passing of this world and time. Highly recommended.