Veteran sf writer Kim Stanley Robinson follows up last year’s critically acclaimed 2312 with a novel that looks backward at humanity’s distant past rather than toward our potential future. In Shaman (LJ 8/13), Robinson follows the life of Loon, a member of the Wolf pack, from his rite of passage through his ascension to shaman in a newly formed tribe. Winner of multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, Robinson was also named a “Hero of the Environment” in 2008 by Time magazine.
For readers unfamiliar with your work, Shaman may seem a departure from your usual sf novels. If we look closely, where will we see the science in this paleontological novel?
In the last two decades, archeology has made huge strides in its understanding of Paleolithic people, and I’ve used those scientific advances to try a fresh portrait of them. The newly discovered Chauvet Cave [in southern France] gave me a time and a place for my story, and the Ice Man, discovered [c. 1991] emerging from a glacier with all his gear intact, was very suggestive [of] their technology. So this book is sf in that only by way of science do we have this ever-clearer vision of our past, making it possible to tell the story.
Fans of your previous novels will see echoes of them here in the ice, the long journey by foot, and, above all, the original “feral” lifestyle that you describe to one degree or another in the “Mars” and “Science in the Capital” trilogies. What do you find so compelling about these themes that you return to them repeatedly?
For 40 years I’ve backpacked in the Sierra Nevada of California, and during those hikes I often think about what it might have been like for earlier humans, in the nomad years when we came into ourselves. And when snow camping, I find the icy landscapes compelling. We evolved to our current form in ice ages; we not only endured but thrived. That’s very interesting to think about, not just in itself but when it comes to deciding how best to live now.
You recently participated in the Sequoia Park Foundation Artists in the Back Country program. Were there specific events from that or other of your outdoor adventures that made their way into Shaman?
The week I spent with those other artists, camped at high altitude in Sequoia National Park, was great fun. We told stories around the fire in the old way. More important for this book were certain other adventures in the Sierra, especially winter trips on snowshoes, in steep terrain, sometimes in storms, once or twice injured. These were crucial experiences for when I wrote about my characters’ escape from the northers.
The geology that you describe in your novel is quite detailed. Are you describing an actual landscape?
Yes, the story takes place mostly in the area around the Chauvet Cave, near Vallon Pont d’Arc. The stone bridge that crosses the Ardèche River there overlooks the home camp of my characters. During their seasonal trek to the caribou steppes, they walk to north of the Massif Centrale, and then some of them continue as far north as the southern edge of the Ice Age’s great ice cap, in Cornwall. They can walk there because there was no English Channel at that time, sea level being so much lower.
You have some interesting word usage in Shaman and in your other novels. What motivates you to choose unusual vocabulary or make up words?
I do love to use odd words for their look and sound, like distinctive rocks in a rock wall. Science gives us many new words a year to play with, often using Greek and Latin, so that you get old words brought back, too. In this novel, I looked to Anglo-Saxon for the feel of old words; to proto-Indo-European, a lost language recovered by historical linguistics; and to Basque, a very ancient language. Sometimes I used these older words to replace sexual terms in our language that have too much modern baggage.
In all your books you seem fascinated by what it means to be human. What is essential to humanity for you?
Mammals with language. That to me catches our essential animal nature, the way we are like the rest of the mammals, such as mice or cows—but then again we’re very different from our horizontal brothers and sisters because of language most of all.