Shaman

Image: 

Shaman is the title for the novel by Kim Stanley Robinson published by Orbit in September 2013. 456 pages.

It describes the life of humans living close to the Chauvet cave in Vallon-Pont d'Arc, about 30,000 years ago, during the Ice Age.

The official synopsis reads:

Kim Stanley Robinson, the New York Times bestselling author of science fiction masterworks such as the Mars trilogy and 2312, has, on many occasions, imagined our future. Now, in SHAMAN, he brings our past to life as never before.

There is Thorn, a shaman himself. He lives to pass down his wisdom and his stories -- to teach those who would follow in his footsteps.

There is Heather, the healer who, in many ways, holds the clan together.

There is Elga, an outsider and the bringer of change.

And then there is Loon, the next shaman, who is determined to find his own path. But in a world so treacherous, that journey is never simple -- and where it may lead is never certain.

Structure

Long narrative chapters, including many songs. Limited third person narrative from the point of view of humans, which is actually revealed to be narrated by the third wind, a spirit that comes in to help people when they are at the end of their strengths. Certain short chapters are told from the point of view of a cat, a wolvering, and an old one (a Neanderthal).

Summary

Loon's Wander

At around the Spring solstice, Loon's wander: left naked, he has to survive for 13 days in nature, alone, and tell the tale to his people. Loon is twelve.

The Wolves at Home

Daily life at Loon's group of people, the Wolf pack, close to the Urdecha river. Learning things with their shaman Thorn, painting, the songs. Helping the women making things while recovering from his wounded leg. Then hunting elg. Starving through the spring. Finally, ducks arrive: summer!

Elga

Summer trek north-north-west, to caribou hunting ground. Then to the festival: 8th day after the new moon of the 8th month! Dancing, games, stories, finally sex. Loon meets Elga from the Eagle pack; they decide to marry and she joins them on their trek back.

The Hunger Spring

Loon and Elga's wedding. At the eleventh full moon, annual gathering in the cave; Thorn paints lions and bisons (and they leave hand marks). Elga adapting. Hunting, meeting travelers. Elga pregnant, gives birth to a boy. A difficult spring, so much that a member of the pack dies. Finally, summer.

Under the Ice

At the eight-eight festival, Elga is abducted. Loon leaves with Pipiloette to find her. Loon is captured by the northeners, the jende, and passes the winter with them, separate from Elga. The jende have captive people that they don't consider as people, and captive wolves; they live in large heated huts; they store frozen meat, carry fish from the salt sea, gather firewood; they have better snowshoes than the Wolf pack. Loon and a group survived being trapped on an iceberg floating in the sea; trekked on the ice plateau. Meanwhile, Thorn takes the old one Click with him to try to take Loon and Elga back. In late spring, Thorn and Click reach the jende and with Elga they escape.

Hunted

They manically try to escape the ice men and their wolves, trekking fast and for days. Loon's bad leg is so worn he has to walk with poles. They finally lose them after a storm, they cross a river with ice with difficulty, they nearly starve, while it is still snowing. Click dies, and they have to eat him to survive, and use his frozen body as a sled (Loon later has a vision of Click's spirit saying goodbye). And they finally reach home, exhausted.

All the Worlds Meet

Resting, recovering. Thorn is tormented by Click's ghost. They miss the eight-eight festival. Loon makes better snowshoes to give to the northeners as compensation for Elga. Next spring, they give Click a proper burial. In the festival, the Wolf pack and the northereners settle their dispute, arbitrated by corroborators. Elga gives birth to a baby girl. The pack is torn with disagreements and also because it is getting too large; discussions of splitting into two packs. Thorn falls ill for a long time and eventually dies.

Shaman

Soon after Thorn's death, Loon goes deep into the cave and paints, a group of horses, to his great satisfaction; his fire goes out and he has to find his way out in complete darkness (using a bear skull in the process). The pack separates in two, with Loon serving as both groups' shaman. Loon has a final vision of Thorn; Loon starts teaching his son Lucky in the ways of the shaman.

Characters

Loon: orphaned, raised by Heather and Thorn. His father Tulik was Thorn's real apprentice.

Thorn: the pack's shaman. He was taught by Pika, the "bad shaman".

Heather: the pack's head woman. Was Pika's model for the woman in the cave mating with a bison.

Others in the Wolves pack: Sage, Schist, Ibex, Hawk, Moss, Chamois, Bluejay, Thunder, Nevermind, Rose, Starry, Spearthrower, Ducky, Windy.

Elga: from a pack northeast, was taken into another pack, then met Loon and joined the Wolf pack.

Pippiloette: traveler from the Lion pack, travelled across the world as far as he could.

The ice people: Kaktak, Elhu, Orn; Bron is another captive with Loon.

Click: an old one, a Neanderthal. Wounded, he is taken care of by Heather. Joined Thorn in his expedition to save Loon and Elga.

Lucky: Loon and Elga's child.

Quartz: the neighboring Lion pack's shaman.

Third wind: comes to you when you have nothing left, to go on. The narrator.

Geography

Urdecha: main setting. The river Ardèche. Loop Meadow, Loop Hill, the Stone Bison are all recognizable features of the Vallon-Pont d'Arc part of the Ardèche, where the Chauvet cave is situated.

Ordech: river flowing into Urdecha, confluence at the Ordech-meets-Urdecha.

Lir: important river flowing north. The Loire river?

Five Rivers: just north of the site of the eight-eight festival, where several creeks meet the Lir, with the river Maya north. Possibly modern-day Angers, where the Loire is met by several rivers, including Mayenne.

White cliffs: the jende live north of some white cliffs, north of which there is an ice plateau. England and the Cliffs of Dover?

Ice Cap South, Puy Mir: west of the Wolves' pack. The Massif Central and Puy-de-Dôme?

Songs and stories

At the time Shaman took place, knowledge and history was orally transmitted, and songs and stories repeated again and again were very important. We read about the process of passing down information from one generation of humans to the next with the relationship of Thorn and Loon. Thorn corrects Loon about ill-remembered verses but at times Loon prefers his own version: that too is part of the process, and the songs, like memory, are a living changing thing. There are several instances where the songs are repeated in the text, and the reader has the benefit to leaf through the pages and read the earlier version and spot the differences. Stories and accounts of deeds are told in verse, like lays, helping in memorizing them. Remember! Remember! Robinson's songs in Shaman are also myths and reflect the beliefs of that time; some can be connected to later ancient myths, versions of which have survived until today.

Here are the songs and stories in Shaman, in order of appearance in the text:

  • Loon's account of his wander: summarizing his 13-day wander of the first part.
  • The story of the long winter: a winter that lasted ten years, told by Thorn, one of his favorites.
  • The seasons: and what we do in them. Loon has trouble memorizing it. Partly repeated when Loon returns home in part seven. Partly repeated again when Lucky is learning it from Loon.
  • Thorn's riddle about the second wind.
  • The break-up story: said to break the ice at the start of spring. Repeated when they are being hunted by the northeners.
  • The great flood story: With a storm the water covered the land completely, and finally receded back to the west. The great storm story is very old, found in the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah.
  • Loon's riddle about himself.
  • The story of how the animals got summer: The animals stole summer from the summer people, but then started sharing it back and forth. There are many myths on the procession of the seasons with beings transitioning from one world to the other, like the story of Persephone.
  • Thorn's short song about rain and hail.
  • The ways to cut and eat and use the body of a caribou.
  • The story of the swan wife: A man gets a wife who is not of this world; she leaves and the man has to go through adventures to reunite with her again. Stories of human meeting nature or human meeting divine are common in all world mythologies.
  • "We had a bad shaman": Thorn's rememberance of his own shaman, Pika. Also, the first line in the novel.
  • The song to Mother Earth: told by Thorn exploring the paintings inside the cave, inside the womb of Mother Earth.
  • The account of Pippiloette's travels to as far East as he could go, until nobody he talked to could understand him.
  • Thorn's curse at the northeners pursuing them.
  • Song to help the dying people into the next world (2 verses).
  • Goodbye-farewell song to a spirit: told by Thorn to Click's spirit.
  • The spirit-freeing song (3 verses): told by Thorn to Click's spirit.
  • The good-bye song: Loon and Thorn to Click. Repeated in the eighth part, Loon to Thorn.
  • Elga's angry story of her own life at the judgement at the eight eight festival.
  • Thorn's defense at the judgement at the eight eight festival.
  • The solstice song: a thanks.
  • "I am the third wind": the narrator appears! Repeated over the entire novel, each time with an additional verse, until it is given in its entirety at the very end.

Interview Comments

The Sacramento Bee, December 16, 2012:

"I'm finishing a novel set in the ice age, about the people who made the paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France, about 32,000 years ago," he said. "I do a lot of snow camping in the Sierra, and I put my snow knowledge into it and tried to explain how we became who we are now. It's only science and archaeology that allow us to write historical fiction with any accuracy," Robinson added. "So it's kind of science fiction in a way."

On KSR.info, articles with KSR interviews and reviews:

Essays and Criticism

Reviews

Resources

Tags: 

Comments

Comment: 

Ice age people exclaiming "mama mia"? Really? And that is just the one that made me find this book a joke and no longer only had me question whether it was written to make a deadline (which was not long into the book). There are so many of these weird one liner sayings that are all wrong for the context. Granted, I had never before read anything by the author but if this the usual style I doubt I will pick up another. Too bad, I do enjoy a good ice-age novel like those of Jean Auel and Michael and Kathleen O'Neal Gear's.