Orbit, h/b, 464pp, £18.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Writing about the far past where there are no written records is akin to writing fantasy. The advantage is that there are geological and fossil records that can give indications of the climate and types of plants and animals around at the time. Missing is any real knowledge of human activities, motivations and philosophies. Admittedly, there are a few clues such as fragments of tools and butcher marks on carcasses. The rest is speculation. The temptation is to think our distant ancestors thought and behaved like us. In a fantasy novel, everything is open. The author can create climate, landscape and social values that may be totally at odds with what we might consider appropriate today. All is invention.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer who likes a challenge. This time he had travelled back thirty thousand years into our past to imagine the trials our ancestors had to face in a period where ice covered most of Northern Europe, when summers were short and winters hard.
Loon is a youth on the verge of adulthood, about to undergo the trial that will elevate him from boy to man. He is turned out naked and with no possessions into the wilderness to survive for fourteen days – the period between new and full moon. This is his wander. He knows how to make fire and to hunt but the storm that accompanies his first night renders everything wet. As we follow him in the test of his skills, we are introduced to his world and the dangers it contains. It is populated by animals we wouldn’t expect to see in the same habitat. Lions, ibex, elk and horses are features of his world as well as the hairy, old ones who we would probably recognise as Neanderthals. It is fleeing from the latter that he damages his ankle, an injury that will plague him through much of the novel.
It is always difficult to write about one person on their own and make it interesting. Robinson does, just. There is enough to keep the story flowing even though this episode of Loon’s life seems full of discomfort rather than actual danger. On his return to the settlement he takes on the role of shaman’s apprentice by circumstance rather than by choice. The tribe’s shaman, Thorn, has acted as a surrogate father after his parents died. Loon finds learning the ritual stories difficult, but enjoys the painting. One of the roles of the shaman is to decorate the walls of cliffs and caverns with images, mostly of animals. There has been much speculation about the purposes of cave painting, whether it is either a propitiation of the spirits of the hunted animals or to draw the animals towards the hunters, or whether, as now, art was an expression of creativity or an activity to occupy times when going outside would be difficult. Robinson doesn’t form conclusions. It could be any or all of these things. He is more interested in the techniques Loon was taught in order to produce them.
Although Loon’s tribe has a settled winter camp, they are hunter-gatherers, storing food to last them the winter. In spring and summer they travel to a tribal gathering but on the way there and back they are aiming for the places where they can find caribou in large numbers and be by the river for the salmon run. The gathering is a gigantic party and it is there that he meets Elga, a woman from another tribe. Loon and Elga marry and before the next gathering, they have a son.
To this point, most of the novel is about the day to day problems of survival. It is only Robinson’s skill as a story teller that keeps the reader following narrative. Then at the next summer festival, the story takes off. Elga is stolen by a Northern tribe and Loon sets off after them to get her back. This allows Robinson to explore another aspect of life in this period. Loon’s people are dark skinned but the northerners have paler skins. They choose to live in a more inhospitable place but don’t face starvation at the end of winter. Their life-style is more reminiscent of Inuit culture, relying as they do on the bounty from the sea.
One of the painting skills, Robinson talks about is the three line drawing, a rendering of an animal in a minimalist form. There is enough in the image to give the impression of life and movement. At other times, Loon or Thorn spend hours mixing the paint and executing the drawing. The writing in this book has the same qualities. In some places, just a few words convey insight into the lives of these people, at others, detailed descriptions flesh out the mind picture much more fully. This is a literary book both in style and content and at times it is difficult to accept the level of philosophical thought and the complexity of language ascribed to Loon and his tribe. Readers looking for fast-paced historical fantasy will be disappointed. This is for the thoughtful reader, one who wishes to wallow in good writing. The only complaints are putting the story in context with our own distant history. An afterward suggesting the genesis of the work would probably have sufficed.