There are no dragons in Kim Stanley Robinson’s ice age novel Shaman. There are no elves, no spaceships, no magic. Rather, Robinson achieves the fantastic by showing the reader that’s what old is fresh, and what’s new is timeless. The magic of Shaman is found in humanity’s quest for continuity and meaning.
Shaman is set during the ice age, and its premise is simple: a boy, Loon, is apprenticed to his tribe’s shaman, Thorn. Loon reluctantly pursues the shaman’s path and grows into a man. There are a lot of animals and trees.
The story works. Shaman begins with Loon’s “wander,” his initiation into manhood through two weeks of solitary living in the wilderness. It’s not giving anything away to say that he succeeds. Loon’s wander is a life-altering experience, a rite that will shape the rest of his life. Just weeks after his return, Loon watches his tribe from a hilltop and wishes that he could have stayed on his wander “forever,” rather than hearing his people say the same things over and over again.
Robinson successfully captures a sense of what life might have been like for our ancient ancestors. He describes the various tasks that took up their days, mostly oriented around gathering sufficient food for survival. Processes like painting or crafting snowshoes are described in minute detail. Rather than boring the reader, though, these discourses demonstrate the boundless potential for creativity shared by all people, ancient and modern.
Robinson makes evident that there is a connection between humanity’s past and its present. Loon’s maturation reveals a process of discovery common to all people across time. Loon defies his elders, he enjoys first love, he starts a family. Though for humanity as a whole all is old, the individual experiences things anew. It is the duty of people to pass their knowledge on to the young, as Thorn makes clear to his apprentice.
Nature figures prominently in the book, of course. Robinson lavishes great detail on the landscape and weather, influences from which modern people have insulated themselves, but which were matters of survival for ancient humans. Animals are almost characters in their own right, perceived as brothers and sisters by the men who hunt them. “Thank you!” the hunters cry after making a kill. Loon interprets as a blessing the siting of a horse at the end of his wander. Here are people in tune with the land.
What according to Robinson is the nature of shamanism? It is not spirit quests or dancing or chanting. Rather, shamans are people who take upon themselves the role of storyteller. By constructing narratives, shamans pass knowledge on to their people. They ensure the continuity of the human experience. They make meaning. In that sense, Kim Stanley Robinson is a shaman.
What you need to know: Shaman is a wonderful book. Robinson provides great detail about the natural world and the lives of ancient people. There is no (or very little) magic or mystery here; Shaman is about the wonder to be found in very real human experience. Some readers may be put off by the level of detail or pacing in some parts; try to persevere.