Meet the author
Who: Kim Stanley Robinson, reading from “Shaman” and signing copies of the book
When and where: 7:30 p.m. Friday, The Avid Reader, 617 Second St.; and, with young author Andy Stewart, at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, at the John Natsoulas Gallery, 521 First St.
Kim Stanley Robinson, a longtime Davis resident whose future-oriented books have picked up multiple awards, embarks on something of a new direction in his latest novel. The book is titled “Shaman,” and it’s set in humanity’s distant past — the Ice Age, to be specific.
The idea has been simmering in Robinson’s mind for “20 to 25 years, since they found Ötzi in 1991″ — a well-preserved “natural mummy” of a man who lived about 3300 B.C., revealed by a retreating glacier in the Alps between Austria and Italy. “He had been crossing a glacier when he died,” Robinson said. “He had been arrowed in the back. And all of his kit was frozen with him” — a cloak of woven grass, leather leggings and shoes, a copper ax and more.
Robinson recalls being fascinated as the details of Ötzi’s life began to emerge as researchers studied the find. As an experienced backpacker and snow camper who has made numerous trips in the high mountains of California, he recognized that in some ways, Ötzi’s gear bore some resemblance to the things contemporary hikers carry. He started to imagine what Ötzi’s life might have been like.
“I wanted to write about that,” he recalls. “But I didn’t have a method, or an editor” interested in the project at that time.
Even so, Robinson began learning more about what life might have been like in the Ice Age.
“When the Chauvet Cave was discovered in France in 1994, it contained many cave paintings,” depicting at least 13 different species. Robinson was interested in the 2010 3D documentary film made by Werner Herzo, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which is the closest look that most people will get. (The cave is closed to the public to preserve the paintings, since too much human breath could trigger their deterioration.)
“I decided that I wanted to tell the story of the people who painted that cave,” Robinson said in a recent interview.
The project involved “years of research. I’ve got three shelves filled with books I’ve gathered.” And the author sought out archeologists and cultural anthropologists he’s come to know along the way. He also visited caves in California’s Sierra Nevada, as well as sites where tribesmen made arrowheads and spear points out of obsidian; petroglyph sites in the Owens Valley; and Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in the Santa Ynez Mountains, near Santa Barbara.
“And I realized that they all had the same shaman culture; clearly, it was worldwide. One can infer it was a religion before people left Africa. The reason shamanism is everywhere is we took it with us,” Robinson said.
As his research continued, Robinson concluded that the painters of the Chauvet Cave “had full language. We can tell (from physical remains) that they had the full vocal apparatus by about 50,000 years ago — that’s what physical anthropologists say. So I was confident that they had language. It was an oral culture, they didn’t have books.”
And as Robinson thought more about this, “quotation marks began to look weird to me.” He didn’t like using italics to indicate dialog, either. “So I went with the em-dash, and asked my editor if he liked it or not. He said ‘Ah, good idea.’ ” On the printed page, “it looks like something translated from their language, not a precise translation, but something that gets the spirit.”
The book, released about two months ago, has been earning good reviews. Robinson is particularly pleased with the remarks of NPR’s reviewer Alan Cheuse, who said, “Robinson keeps the stylization of the language to a minimum in this novel, without stooping too low, so that the novel can break free of the page and linger in the mind, which is what happened to me, something that’s really never happened before.
“For several nights, while in the reading of this novel, I dreamed I lived in it. The book just took me over and there I was, running in the same pack as (the character) Loon, wandering along streams and rivers, through forests and over hills in an old state of mind.”
The idea that he’d gotten the reviewer to dream about the Ice Age world is particularly pleasing to Robinson, an indication that his effort to create that world has succeeded, at least for some readers.
“Shaman” is quite different from Robinson’s previous novel, “2312,” a future-oriented tale that was set 200 years ahead of 2012 (the year in which “2312” was published). “2312” received the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel — an honor bestowed by science fiction writers on one of their own. It’s the second time Robinson has received the award, the other coming for “Red Mars” in 1993.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8055. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffHudsonDE