SHAMAN. By Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit. 464 pages. $27.
Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily a science fiction author and is best known for his futuristic "Mars" trilogy.
His newest novel, "Shaman," is anything but a futuristic imagination. It is an imagination of the Ice Age, a novel about people who lived more than 10,000 years ago in an extreme environment, fighting every day just to survive.
"Shaman" reads like what you'd expect from a celebrated sci-fi author. It is fast-paced, detailed and totally immersive.
Taking place before recorded history, most of what we encounter is pure speculation and the absolute conviction and coherence of Robinson's constructed world is remarkable.
The routines, rituals, and reasoning of these ancient people are meticulously detailed and brought to life with stunning force. Reading this book seems like a natural undertaking into the minds of early man: learning what it takes for the characters to survive is brutal and unsettling, but never once does an action seem disingenuous or a thought out of place.
The novel is focused on the Wolf tribe, about 30 people living in the southern part of the known world.
We are introduced to our protagonist, Loon, as he is beginning his "Wander," a two-week outing into the wilderness. He is cast out from his community with no belongings, not even clothes for protection from the cold, harsh environment in which the novel is set. He is sent out a child and, if he survives, will return a man.
Loon is the apprentice of the tribe's shaman, Thorn. It is a position that not many would ask for, least of all Loon himself. Thorn is the tribe's spiritual leader and healer. He memorizes the creation stories and recites them for future generations. He paints the tribe's sacred cave.
The shaman's role is to provide comfort to people living in an unforgiving time and to help them leave their mark on the world.
Loon has difficulty accepting his role as a future shaman. Like most young adults, he is full of doubts and unsure if he can live up to what is expected of him.
As the novel progresses, Loon finds love in an itinerant girl named Elga. They are happy and have a son together, but after a time, Elga is captured and taken far into the harsh North.
It is in Loon's trek to rescue Elga, and in his escape back home, that we see his true development as a person. We watch him become a man and accept his role in the community as he is fighting for his love against foes both human and environmental. His story isn't a cliche, however. True to life, there aren't many easy answers found to life's difficult lessons.
"Shaman" is a novel placed so far in the past that it might seem impossible to relate to the characters found within. Many of their actions seem barbaric and primitive. It is in this juxtaposition of cultures, though, that the novel attempts to become more than just an adventure story.
In an interview for Amazing Stories, Robinson said: "I think of my novel 'Shaman' as a particular kind of science fiction, which examines what we are as human beings by looking at how we became what we are now."
The characters are primal and some of their actions seem alien, but they are undoubtedly human beings who, like us, cling to what they have, fight for who they love and try and find meaning in life.
Robinson masterfully paints an ancient world so visceral that we cannot help but gape at it. He creates characters so well-rounded and approachable we cannot help but connect with them. For fans of survival stories and science fiction, "Shaman" is well worth the read, but even those unsure of the genre are sure to be enraptured.
Reviewer Taylor Pratt-Thomas is a writer in Charleston.