What a difference a moment makes.
I speak, albeit obliquely, of a single, solitary sequence at the very outset of Kim Stanley Robinson’s last novel; a prologue so powerful, a passage so painstakingly picturesque, that I would have recommended 2312 right there and then, solely on the basis of its first few pages.
Some months later, I named 2312 my favourite reading experience of the year because there was, fortuitously, much more to it than a brilliant beginning. But even if the rest of the book had been utter rubbish... even if its characters had left me cold and its narrative had meandered meaninglessly... even if its themes and ideas had been realised with a heavy hand... even then, the lonely, lovely—no, glorious moment with which it opens would have lent the remainder incredible resonance.
Though they are few and far between, I fear, it’s moments like these—moments that take us out of ourselves and deposit us elsewhere and elsewhen, in startling worlds and circumstances none among us can hope to know in our natural lives—it’s moments like these that remind me why I fell under the spell of speculative fiction in the first place.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel comes complete with several such set-pieces, so complete and pristine that they inspire a sense of wonder similar to that suggested by very best SF... yet Shaman it isn’t science fiction in any sense. It takes place many millennia ago rather than many millennia hence, in the last years of the Pleistocene period—during what’s commonly called the ice age—when Neanderthal man shared the slippery surface of the unblemished earth with our own ancient ancestors: a setting as affecting and astonishing in its way as the dizzying desolation of deep space.
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.
So muses Loon, Shaman’s central character, during the wander Robinson’s breathtaking new book begins with: a walkabout of sorts which paves the way for one of the moments I mentioned earlier. But this time, our sense of wonder does not come courtesy a suicidal sunwalker’s decision to live as the killing light of said star spills across Mercury’s ancient face, as in 2312. This time, a horse is all Robinson requires to make the magic happen.
That said, the sequences share a sunrise:
The god animal was lit by the sun almost from below. Long black head, so etched and fine. The land’s witness to the end of his wander, pawing once, then nodding and lifting. Throwing his great head side to side, his black eyes observing Loon across the gulf of air between them. Black mane short and upright, black body rounded and strong.
Then without warning the horse tossed his long head up at the sky, off toward the sun, and this movement popped in Loon’s eye and bulged out across the space between them, scoring his eyes such that he could close them and see it again; Loon’s eyes spilled over, the tears ran down his face, his throat clamped down and his chest went tight and quivered.
A beautiful thing, truly, and a testament to the sensory strengths of Robinson’s particular prose and mode of storytelling. What would be unremarkable in the hands of most other authors is instilled instead with a sweep of soaring emotion. There’s no more to this here horse than meets the eye, yet to Loon—and indeed to readers who have hardly begun to grasp the hardships ahead of him—it represents a beginning, and an end as well. After all, he is “walking into a new world, a new kind of existence,” where he will have to “face something, learn something, accomplish something. Change into something else: a sorcerer, a man in the world.” Thus this moment—and marked so marvellously!—means everything to him, and to be sure, it touches us too.
Loon’s inaugural wander is one of the most memorable sections of Shaman, certainly, but there’s plenty of Robinson’s new novel left to recommend yet. What follows is an affectionate account of Loon’s life as part of the Wolf pack, and though it goes on a little long without incident—they hunt, they gather, they starve; they live, they dance, they die—beyond this there is a breathtaking trip into the wintry wilderness, a festival during which Loon learns about love, and a rite of passage into the bare flesh of Mother Earth herself which culminates in a last gasp of absolute darkness.
On the whole, I suppose the story’s on the slight side, but what narrative drive Shaman perhaps lacks, the author more than makes up for with his masterful handling of its central character, whose coming of age from boy to man and from man to shaman the novel cumulatively chronicles. This is in addition to Robinson’s carefully layered characterisation of the others Loon looks to, like Heather and Elga and Click, whom I loved. To a one, they are wonderfully done.
But if Shaman is about any single thing, it’s about legacies lost and left. Of particular significance, then, is Thorn, the long-suffering so-and-so in charge of painting the caves and preserving the memories of the tribe he tends. When the time is right, he plans to pass the proverbial torch to Loon. But Loon has a lot left to learn, and precious little interest in Thorn’s wisdom, be it worldly or otherwise, so as that latter tries to make an impression on his indifferent apprentice, he can seem a bit of a mad old man.
We had a bad shaman.
This is what Thorn would say whenever he was doing something bad himself. Object to whatever it was and he would pull up his long gray braids to show the mangled red nubbings surrounding his earholes. His shaman had stuck bone needles through the flesh of his boys’ ears and then ripped them out sideways, to help them remember things. Thorn when he wanted the same result would flick Loon hard on the ear and then point at the side of his own head, with a titled look that said, You think you have it bad?
As vindictive as Thorn sometimes seems, it is through him, I think, and his budding relationship with Loon, that we arrive, at the last, at the heart of the matter, for it is he who asks the question Shaman answers: what do we leave behind, and why?
Though rather more modest in its scope and conventional in its concepts than Kim Stanley Robinson’s staggering space operas, Shaman tells an ambitious, absorbing and satisfyingly self-contained tale on its own terms. At once delightful and devastating, it transports us to a moment in time, reverently preserved and impeccably portrayed... and if that moment is off in the other direction than this author tends to take us, then know that he is as adept a guide to the distant past as he has ever been the far-flung future.
Shaman is available now from Orbit
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.