Award-winning sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson was in Phoenix last week for a pair of events, one in conjunction with Project Hieroglyph’s new anthology Hieroglyph, and the other related to his own novel, Shaman. Both events were sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, which seeks to bring writers and scientists together to inspire creativity and innovation.
I unfortunately missed the Hieroglyph event, but did attend Friday’s Shaman event at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix, entitled “Chauvet Cave Paintings and the Human Mind”. Robinson, known for futuristic space operas like the award-winning “Mars” Trilogy and 2312, as well as ecological sci-fi like his “Science in the Capitol” trilogy, described the event as somewhere between a lecture and a reading.
And it fit his explanation filled with loads of scientific, archeological and anthropological background material that informed the writing of Shaman, a historical novel examining the life of the shaman who painted the stunning artwork in Chauvet.
If you don’t know anything about Chauvet, it is a pristine collection of cave art, far older than previously believed. It was discovered less than 20 years ago and immediately closed off from the public to prevent damage. To appreciate the beauty of its art, watch Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Robinson drew inspiration from the Herzog documentary as well as the discovery of the Ӧtzi iceman in 1991, the 5000 year old frozen corpse of an ancient man, perfectly preserved in an Alpine glacier on the Swiss/Italian border.
“All of his gear was frozen with him and never went away,” Robinson explained during the talk. “And while he is only 5000 years old, all of his gear made sense. There was no reason it couldn’t be 50,000 years old. Once you live with those materials and our brains in that environment, you will have coats, shoes, a backpack and even the fanny pack in which he carried all of his essentials, the equivalent of aspirin and a cigarette lighter.”
As a backpacker himself, Robinson marveled at the similarity of Ӧtzi’s gear to the modern kit he used himself on his excursions into the Sierra Nevadas.
“Mine is made of titanium and nylon, while his was made from animal hides and wood, but the design and purpose were the same,” he said.
And from these two discoveries came Shaman, an exploration not of the exotic life of an ice age caveman, but a meditation on how alike we are to our ancestors.
“In terms of our genetic inheritance, there was no difference. We are exactly the same now as they were 100,000 years ago,” he said.
And therefore they should also have a developed language and the ability to express themselves through art, the ability to manipulate their surroundings and craft tools to enable their survival. And he wrote the book to reflect that humanity – that the people who left their art on the walls of Chauvet weren’t primitive creatures speaking in grunts and gestures. The characters in Shaman express intricate thought and communication, as well as express and appreciate the beauty of the artwork they created.
And Robinson’s amazing prose brings the artwork to life. He read one section from Shaman describing the creation of one of the main pieces in Chauvet:
“When he pressed the charcoal end of the stick over the blank wall, he sang,—Ahhhh. The wall sang back,—Arrrr. Thorn’s head tilted to the left as he drew, and his whole body tensed like a cat on the hunt, then relaxed, then bunched up again as he drew some more. He moved smoothly, made each line in a single continous motion. The round bulge in the wall became the shoulder of a lion. Then a head, as in a three-liner. Ears were blacked on their insides, rounded and pointed forward: the big cat was listening. Both eyes were visible at the front of his face, gaze very intent to the left. Then another head in front and beneath that one, long and scowling, ears flattened back on the head, a foreleg reaching ahead. Then a foreleg almost horizontal ahead of that, detached and by itself; clearly the same foreleg in the next instant. The lion was making her dash for the kill.”
Robinson also worked in a fascinating examination of the Basques – drawing inspiration from their language for Shaman and noting that the Basque people have a larger portion of Neanderthal DNA than anyone else in the worls, and that their language is the oldest in Europe and dates to the time period (and to the setting actually) of his novel.
He concluded his talk with an exhortation to draw inspiration from the simple lives of early man. “Paleolithic with dental care” he calls it. Not in the fad diet sense, mind you, rather he looked at the way the early man satisfied their needs and met the needs of others – rather than respond to the latest fad or advertising campaign. Living simply and communally in harmony with nature.
A little new-agey, but those ideas have informed Robinson’s utopian and environmental sci-fi.
So maybe this wasn’t too much of a stretch for him after all.
As an added bonus, Robinson did spill the beans a little on his next novel, Aurora, which comes out next year. The novel details a colonization attempt at the distant star system. During the speech, however, he explained how that would be impractical.
“You could get a rocket ship up to 10% of the speed of light and then it would only take a couple hundred years,” he said. “But no matter how big a ship we send, 200 years is too long to live inside a tin can. You put this many people in a room this size, and send them off and you expect them to be sane?”
So it looks like we can expect a story about a crew of mutated madmen attempting to colonize a distant planet. But knowing Robinson, it should still be an interesting, and ultimately optimistic view of the process.
For more on Kim Stanley Robinson, read my friend Kerry Lengel’s excellent interview with him for the Arizona Republic.