When you first enter the vividly painted prehistoric world of Shaman, you might see it as a departure for Kim Stanley Robinson. This is, after all, the author of some of the most sophisticated and compelling science fiction of the last few decades; a winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards; a man fascinated by the possibilities of humanity’s future. So what could he possibly have to say about man 30,000 years in the past?
Almost immediately it becomes clear, though, that Robinson is still trafficking in the universal meditations that make his entire canon so fascinating. Though rich in historical detail and wrapped in powerful, engaging prose, at its heart Shaman is a tale of how humanity chooses to tell its own story, and of one young man’s fight to understand his place in the world.
Robinson’s hero, Loon, is an apprentice growing up under the thumb of an often difficult and at times hostile shaman, Thorn. Through Loon, Robinson shows us not just the interactions of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and what those meetings might really have been like, but also a compelling version of how the famous cave paintings of Chauvet, France, were created, and what they meant both for their creators and for us now.
The novel’s great strength is an immense and seductive tactile quality, brought about not only by Robinson’s incredible yet never overwhelming attention to detail, but also by his prose, which combines streamlined punctuation with thorough research and remarkably sensitive internal characterization to create a novel that is itself a kind of mystical experience. We follow Loon from inside his head, as he sees and smells and touches a world often alien to us, and we come to understand it in a very vivid way.
Robinson hasn’t really left science fiction behind with this book. He’s still showing us a strange world; it just happens to be a strange old world this time. Because of this, he’s produced a novel that fans of 2312 and Clan of the Cave Bear alike will happily get lost in, a merging of new ideas and old achievements that brilliantly captures some of the great truths of the human condition.