Our Prehistoric Contemporaries

By David SeedOctober 7, 2013

Our Prehistoric Contemporaries

Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

THE GROWTH OF popular interest in evolution towards the end of the nineteenth century helped the emergence of science fiction by opening up possible scenarios for future development, but these time spans could also work backwards. In The Fire in the Stone Nicholas Ruddick has shown that an important subset of SF explored humanity in periods predating historical records, hence its designation as prehistoric fiction. It was not at all unusual for the same writers to try futuristic and prehistoric fiction — writers such as H.G. Wells and Jack London, or more recently Ray Bradbury. Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel, 2312 , took place on a Mercury of the future and focused its action on the city of Terminator, which circles that planet on enormous tracks propelled by solar energy. It is a segmented narrative punctuated by extracts of scientific data that Robinson compels us to assimilate while we keep track of events. In that sense it is typical of Robinson’s fiction in having a didactic purpose, which adds another dimension to our reading.

Shaman couldn’t make a starker contrast with its predecessor — in temporal setting initially since the story takes place thirty thousand years in the past, but also in narrative form. With a single linear plot, the novel traces out the experiences of a teenager named Loon as he grows to manhood. The action falls into three main sections, starting with Loon’s solitary “wander” around the landscape. Then he meets and marries a woman from the North, but shortly after the two are taken captive by another tribe. Finally, with the help of fellow tribesmen, Loon and his woman escape and trek across country to their home ground while the Northerners follow in pursuit. The novel’s double climax comes with a confrontation between the two tribes where diplomacy wins out, and with Loon’s final emergence as a fully fledged shaman. Shaman is thus a coming-of-age novel, one that probably draws distantly on American captivity narratives by Fenimore Cooper and earlier writers. The role designated in the title suggests an intermediary between humanity and the spiritual world, but in practice Robinson’s emphasis falls most strongly on the immediate data of physical experience, although in some episodes Loon encounters the visionary forms of dead parents and other tribesmen. The narrator is identified as his “third wind,” a kind of tutelary presence shadowing Loon’s actions and thoughts, though again in practice we tend to the spiritual dimension as we are caught up in the details of the action.

The immediate difficulty confronting any writer of prehistoric fiction is how to make characters credible without introducing glaring anachronisms. Jack London ducked this issue in Before Adam by framing the action within a modern boy’s dream. Wells’s story “The Grisly Folk” describes prehistoric figures who communicate through monosyllabic grunts on an animal level. Robinson took a cue partly from William Golding’s The Inheritors, a novel for which he has expressed real admiration, by using a tightly disciplined form of dialogue and narration, which sticks closely to the physical immediacy of the action. He incorporates terms like “corroboree” (an Australian aborigine dance festival), “igini” (a Guinean term), and even “omoo” (after Melville’s South Seas novel) to close up the gap between the prehistoric past and the reader’s cultural present, even drawing on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that our sense of reality is inflected by language when Loon tries to learn the tongue of another clan.

The novel traces out a long complex learning curve as Loon develops skills in reading the wilderness. An intermediary figure who played an important role in Robinson’s account was the poet Kenneth Rexroth. Robinson read online the latter’s guide Camping in the Wilderness which he had written for the Works Progress Administration around 1939, and which is based on the principle that “the trail is what counts.” In 2012, Robinson published In the Sierra, an anthology of Rexroth’s writings on the Sierra Nevada, and clearly drew on him for the detailed attention he pays throughout Shaman to Loon’s growing awareness of landscape and creatures. A further trigger to Robinson’s subject was given by the discovery in 1991 of Oetzi, one of the oldest preserved human bodies, which was found frozen in an Alpine glacier, complete with backpack and clothes of a surprising level of sophistication.

As the reader engages directly with Loon’s discovery of tool-making and survival skills from observing different animal species, we tacitly recognize the persistence in our present culture of ancient behaviors, which is one of Robinson’s main points. Loon gradually approaches the condition of becoming a shaman when he learns what the anthropologist Karl Kroeber (Ursula Le Guin’s brother) calls the “ecological sacredness” of the environment. This is not a transcendental state so much as a multi-faceted sense of connection – with the land, with other species, with other tribes, and within Loon’s tribe. He only rescues his wife Elga with the help of a Neanderthaler, a member of an older human group, who is named Click, and that in turn naturalizes him for the reader within existing African language groups. On their flight from the northern raiders, Loon and his companions almost starve, only being saved by the unexpected death of Click. Robinson doesn’t linger over their consumption of Click’s remains, presenting the event as a form of communion rather than cannibalism, a process triggered by necessity that carries symbolism for the bonding of the survivors.

As the narrative progresses, Loon develops a greater skill at delivering songs and constructing stories. During the festival, when he marries Elga, he temporarily possesses “owl’s vision,” a heightened visual sense of the whole scene as if from above. Loon also develops skills at painting — a theme that was suggested to Robinson by the primeval cave paintings in Chauvet, which contain representations of a whole range of animals as well as hand stencils. The latter figure in Robinson’s text as hand-prints marking the opening of chapters. Chauvet became the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which Robinson saw while planning the novel. The discovery of Chauvet triggered an ongoing controversy about the nature of these paintings, with Robinson taking them as images from tribal rituals. More broadly, and this would contrast Shaman with older prehistoric fiction, he writes directly against a Darwinian view of these tribes as primitive. On the contrary, throughout the novel Loon and his companions come across as startlingly contemporary figures, never as quaint relics of a remote era.

The climax of the novel comes when the aged shaman Thorn gradually recedes from the present, finally dying and bequeathing his role to Loon. He adopts this new status by entering a deep cave, symbolically enacting the death of his old self and his subsequent emergence as shaman; but the cave has a sacred symbolism too, representing the creative matrix of Nature and the site for the sacred paintings Loon produces on its walls. The novel traces out a broad progression from Loon as individual to his final centrality in his culture, enacted through the festival that concludes the novel. It is a festival that celebrates natural cycles, and so the ending avoids narrative closure. Perhaps the continuity between the novel’s action and the reader’s present is supplied ultimately by Nature itself.                    

LARB Contributor

David Seed is a professor of English at the University of Liverpool. He is the author most recently of Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (2011) and Cinematic Fictions (2012).


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