Welcome Kim Stanley Robinson (KimStanleyRobinson) and Host Siun
What a treat for us to once again have Kim Stanley Robinson as our guest for the Firedoglake Book Salon. Many of you will remember our discussion last year of Robinson’s 2312 in which he took us 300 years into the future all the while teaching us so much about this very moment. In his new novel, Shaman, he takes us 30,000 years back, to Pleistocene times, the Ice Age, a transitional time in the long slow evolution of humans and our earth home. And yet, while the time zones differ dramatically, the heart of this new novel is very close to that of 2312 and again, to this moment of now.
Shaman tells the story of Loon, a young shaman in the making who we first meet as he sets out on his wander. Fourteen years old, sent naked and alone into the land to survive and learn for fourteen days. As we slip into Loon’s experience, we begin to see his world in stunning detail as Niall Alexander highlighted in this excerpt:
The blue of the sky throbbed with different blues, each more blue than the next. The clouds in the blue were scalloped and articulated like driftwood, and crawled around in themselves like otters at play. [Loon] could see everything at once. His spirit kept tugging at the top of his head, lifting him so that he had to concentrate to keep his balance. The problem made him laugh. The world was so great, so beautiful. Something like a lion: it would kill you if it could, but in the meantime it was so very, very beautiful. He would have cried at how beautiful it was, but he was laughing too much, he was too happy at being there walking in it.
This wonder at the world “so great, so beautiful” is, for me the heart of Robinson’s work – from Wild Shore to today’s Shaman. Whether we are looking back from the future in nostalgia at an earth not yet devastated or forward from the Loon’s Ice Age, he reminds us to look – deeply, beyond sight looking at this amazing planet of ours and to cry and laugh with Loon at the wonder of it all.
And yet Robinson does not simply remind us of the wonder of the world around us but also of the wonder of the worlds that are we humans. In Shaman, the human is stripped back to the core, emotions and actions so closely intertwined, experience so direct and clear.
Before this book, I have always shied away from tales of early peoples as most seemed almost cliché romances of “primitives.” In this novel, Loon and his clan are never cliché. Robinson has instead found a voice that seems right for our pre-modern brothers and sisters, fueled by the senses, reminding us to pay attention in ways we’ve slipped away from. This call to attention, to notice the small moments and sensations, to revel in the sheer physicality becomes for me not a romance of the past but a lesson to be learned again, now. Robinson invites us – particularly in the first half of Shaman – to take the time to experience the world as Loon does. He is not afraid to ask us to slow down and walk beside Loon as we read — and perhaps learn again how to slow down in our world too.
In an essay about the influences that shaped Shaman, Robinson writes of his fascination with Ice Age man, in particular the discovery of “a five thousand year-old body [that] emerged from a glacier in the Alps in 1991,” which led to thoughts about how much he was or was not like us today.
And it felt like part of my science fiction work, because in imagining what we might become in the future, it seemed more and more important to understand how we got the way? we are now; and that happened in the ice age. That’s when we evolved into what we are.
And somehow at this center of what we are is memory. In Shaman, the power and importance of memory weaves throughout the book from Thorn’s insistence that Loon preserve his people’s tales and chants, to the paintings that link these ancestors to us today. In Shaman, memory is personal but also communal and this looking back 30,000 years makes us think hard about but also feel the connection to our earlier selves, rediscovering a shared knowledge, shared memories of what it is to be human on this earth. Or as Alan Cheuse wrote in his review of Shaman for NPR:
Maybe it’s because the world he creates feels so authentic and complete, but for several nights running, something happened to me that’s never happened to me before, in all the years I’ve been reading novels. I dreamed I was living in Loon’s world, traveling in the same tribe, along streams and rivers, through forest and over hills in an ancient state of mind.
Please join me in welcoming Stan back to FDL – and in the pleasure that is this wonderful new book, Shaman. (more…)