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Shaman
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, 456 pages

Shaman
Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson has travelled and worked in different parts of the world (including Washington, DC and in Switzerland) with his wife, Lisa, an environmental chemist. His work has garnered many awards including the Nebula Award ("The Blind Geometer" and Red Mars), the Asimov, John W.Campbell, Locus and World Fantasy Awards ("Black Air") and the Hugo Award (Green Mars).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: 2312
SF Site Interview: Kim Stanley Robinson
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Galileo's Dream
SF Site Review: Sixty Days and Counting
SF Site Review: Fifty Degrees Below
SF Site Review: Forty Signs of Rain
SF Site Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2002
SF Site Review: The Years of Rice and Salt
SF Site Review: Antarctica
SF Site: Kim Stanley Robinson Reading List

Past Feature Reviews
A review by D. Douglas Fratz

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Over more than three decades, the rigorously intellectual imagination of Kim Stanley Robinson has investigated the human condition in settings throughout time and space. Although his main focus has been the near future and the next few centuries in brilliant hard science fiction stories, he has also created profound narratives set in human history -- most notably in his novels Galileo and The Years of Rice and Salt. Constant throughout his oeuvre has been a keen sense of place and joy in the diversity and creative spirit of humanity.

In Robinson's latest novel, Shaman, his imaginative intellect spans for the first time further into our past, into human prehistory. It is the story of the humans 30,000 years ago who created the extensive cave paintings discovered in the 1990s in France. The narrative features several tense and harrowing sequences, starting with its 12-year-old protagonist Loon's initiation into adulthood by spending two weeks naked in the freezing wilderness. The longest such sequence is the rescue of Loon's wife Elga, who has been abducted by a tribe far to the north. Another occurs in the art caves. But the real strength of the novel lies in the quieter times as the small group of humans in Loon's tribe struggle to survive in the harsh ice age.

As in most Robinson novels, the landscape plays a central role. Robinson does a marvelous job of making ice age Europe a beautiful if harsh place, filled with diverse flora and fauna. But the characters are also fascinating, and well drawn, especially young protagonist Loon, who despite his youth, has surprising depth. I think perhaps my favorite character is Heather, the medicine woman of Loon's tribe, and his adopted mother. All of Robinson's characters are believable, all are common men and women, and none are geniuses who single-handedly discover all of the key advances and discoveries of human prehistory.

It is apparent to me that Robinson has done his best to make this a rigorous hard science fiction novel based on the best evidence available and current anthropological knowledge. One notable anomaly is his use of the seemingly mystical "third wind" as a character. At least seven times in the story, during times of extreme danger to Loon, when he is about to give up his struggle to live, the third wind intervenes as a narrator, usually in a verse. The final time is as follows:

  I am the third wind
I come to you
When you have nothing left
When you can't go on
But you go on anyway
In that moment of extremity
The third wind appears
And so it is I come to you now
To tell you this story
 

Robinson has often treated the feeling of mysticism as basic to the human experience, but has never (in my memory) included actual fantasy elements in his science fiction stories. It therefore seems unlikely to me that in this case Robinson meant the third wind to be taken literally as a mystical being. I can only conclude that the third wind is the sub-subconscious deep within Loon's brain that acts to assure survival. I believe that the survival instinct in the man's reptilian brain stem is being used by Robinson as a narrative device.

This is a novel that few writers could write so successfully. At its core, Shaman is Robinson's most profound novel on what it means to be human. It is a celebration of what is good in our species. It is a hopeful statement that that which is good in us helps us survive, and—more importantly -- makes us worthy of surviving.

I would love to one day read Robinson's take on humanity 30,000 years in the future. That could perhaps be the greatest final challenge left for one of the field's most rigorously insightful intellects.

Copyright © 2014 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


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