Monday, July 11, 2016

More Shamanism

I'm not sure how I wound up with shamanism as a minor theme here. A shamanistic convergence, I guess.

I read "Shaman", by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013). This book came out after the most excellent "2312". It is 530 pages. I'm not sure how I missed it. It is not science fiction or fantasy. It is the coming-of-age story of a (Cro-Magnon) human named Loon in southern Europe 40,000 years ago. The dating is pretty precise, because: a) he was an early cave painter; and b) there were still Neanderthal around.

Looking this up, it's amazing that humans and Neanderthals overlapped in southern Europe for only 5,000 years - from 45,000 years ago, when humans entered Europe, to 40,000 years ago, at which point the Neanderthals had all disappeared. The implication is, it only took us 5,000 years to wipe them out.

Robinson goes into great detail on hunter-gatherer life. In the very beginning there are several pages on how to light a fire in a storm.

Part of the shaman's training consists of being the keeper of the pack's oral tradition: he must memorize the 5 great tales and the 10 minor tales. We get excerpts of some of these tales as blank verse, nice.

1 small detail I liked - Loon is taught to name his injuries. Somehow, as an aging person, this seems like a reasonable thing to do.

Another thing I liked was a discussion of trail finding. I have always enjoyed following trails, and felt that it was one of our innate skills, developed by evolution over the last million years or so. I've often thought that the mathematics of trail-finding - minimizing the gradient function, I think - should be the basis of many search algorithms where you are trying to find a local minimum. Here are 2 passages that describe following trails:

I'm a straightwalker, Pippi said when Look asked about the trails. - I mean, I run a nice clean route. I don't go straight at the land if it doesn't make sense, but I don't like extravagance. Ups and downs are usually not bad enough to justify a divagation. Anyway I look for the best way. I'm always looking to see if there's a better way than the one I've used before, if I'm where I've gone before. And if I'm in new land, well, it's the best thing there is, finding a good way.


He put his mind to seeing the best way downcanyon. He could to this as well as any of them. In all canyons there was a ramp of easiest travel, inlaid into the jumble of rocks and trees in ways that could be hard to find. The best way might zigzag from sidewall to sidewall, or run as straight as a crack. Sometimes it was overgrown by trees or brush, especially if it was an alder canyon; still it would reveal itself to the eye if one took the trouble to look for it.

There is not a lot of conflict in the story. There is 1 long conflict that occupies maybe 1/3-1/2 of the book but generates a totally minimal body count. This vision of prehistoric times is somewhat at odds with that I would have expected, based on, say, Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature", where Pinker noted that, "Most of the "icemen" found preserved from 10s of 1000s of years ago have some kind of injury likely inflicted by another human." (paraphrased in my blog post).

Regardless, Robinson is truly one of our finest modern writers, and this is a great read.

Next I read "The Supreme Shaman", by Mark Heinz. Mark is my (3 years) younger brother. He has written 6 novels, this is his latest. it is 235 pages. I would classify it as urban fantasy. The protagonist is 1/2 Native American, and was pronounced the Supreme Shaman by the shaman (his grandfather) who trained him. The shamanistic powers are neat - they made me think of Dr. Strange. His strongest power is healing, which makes him the natural adversary for our oh-so-bad guy, who is a psychic assassin. The action moves from Big Sky country in the US to Brunei - the locales seem well researched.

The pacing of the book is excellent. The battle of good shaman vs very evil sorcerer is well done. Some of the background material is very good as well:

  • a discussion of how primitive peoples did not believe in natural death except in the very old, but rather felt that unnatural non-accidental deaths were caused by sorcery, which has been noted in this blog before;
  • a discussion of how after WW2, the US military was able to use operant conditioning to make soldiers much more effective killers.
This was a quick (2 sittings) and fun read, I recommend it.

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