My Kim Stanley Robinson Essentials List
Book 9: Shaman
How many great cave man stories have you read? I've seen a handful of movies set in that era. "10,000 B.C." by director Roland Emmerich, better known for his films "Independence Day" and "2012", features our ancestors and some great computer-generated mammoths. "1,000,000 B.C." stands out for its star Raquel Welch, and the dinosaurs and pterosaurs of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Also worthy of mention is the first-ever Doctor Who story, titled "An Unearthly Child" or "100,000 BC",* written by Anthony Coburn. In this four-episode story, a tribe of cavemen capture the Doctor and his companions and demand that they teach them the secret of fire. It's an interesting story, which Terrance Dicks revisits in his later novel The Eight Doctors (the first BBC novel featuring the eighth Doctor), but is hardly regarded as essential by most fans of the classic series. It certainly pales in importance next to story that followed, the seven-episode story written by Terry Nation, and simply titled "The Daleks."
I've read quite a few time travel stories, in which modern man travels back in time. Uusually those trips take him to the dinosaur era rather than to visit his primitive ancestors, and when he does visit his stone era cousins, they function as minor characters in the story. Although I can think of a few that have been written, I can't remember any novels I've read that featured ice age cavemen as prominent point of view characters.** Perhaps this gap in my reading says more about my interests than proves a dearth of stone age literary fiction. But it seems to me that most of us, as modern humans, view our far-flung ancestors as less capable than ourselves, and therefore much less interesting sources for storytelling.
Of course, there's all the Hollywood grunting and growing, or the stilted limited dialogue that tends to color our perceptions of these early societies.
One thing you realize early on in Shaman is that Kim Stanley Robinson has done his research. He knows the minutia of these people's lives, and all this grounds us in stone age society. The other thing he demonstrates is that stone age man wasn't less capable than us, he was more capable, which was how they survived against animal predators and the harsh conditions of the Ice Age. These people had to be extremely inventive, and utilize everything at their disposal to survive. Many of us couldn't identity ten different plants accurately when taking a short walk. These people would know all the plants they saw, as well as each plant's nutritive and medicinal value. Most of us wouldn't have a clue how to store our food for weeks or months at a time, and so when there's a power cut, or our refrigerators malfunction, our food spoils within hours or days. Nor could we hunt an animal with the most primitive of weapons, let alone construct them. And as for utilizing every single atom of the animal: again, the cave people knew far better than us how to maximize their resources.
Care to set a broken limb by yourself, or sew up a major wound and treat it with nearby plants and any herbs or concoctions your mother has dried and mixed down by the river? I'm guessing not.
When we start to think about stone age man in those terms, he suddenly grows more interesting, don't you think? And that's all due to the extensive research and masterful storytelling of Kim Stanley Robinson.
Thankfully, he also gets around the dialogue issue, assuming that these intelligent, resourceful people could actually communicate meaningfully with each other. Which they must have done, or couldn't have survived under such hard conditions, could they?
*Is it just me, or do TV and Cinema like to title cave man stories with dates?
**I haven't read Clan of the Cave Bear, or any of its sequels, by Jean M. Auel, a bestselling series that explores interactions between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans. It's been on my list forever--well, at least for several glacial eras of my life--but so far I haven't gotten around to it.
P.S. I was going to make this a Part 1, and tell you more of what I liked about Shaman, but I'd just would have been giving away more of Kim Stanley Robinson's great story. So I think I'll spare you from that. Besides, I think you've already got the idea why Shaman is important to me: the book changes my perceptions of Ice Age man, and makes me want to read more about how they lived. If you missed my earlier entries on this novel, or would like to read more about the protagonist Loon and adventures, follow the links below to my earlier posts.
Related Dragon Cache entries
Kim Stanley Robinson: Growing Up in the Ice Age
Brighton's Ice Age Hunter
Poole's Sacred Cavern
Ice Age Seven Sisters