One time January 10, 2011Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: books, childhood, fantasy novels, fire dancer, victor kelleher, victor kelleher week
Well, Victor Kelleher Week turned into something more like Victor Kelleher Fortnight, unfortunately. I spent all of last week suffering the double effects of rather horrendous jet-lag and a dreadful cold, and I felt too weak to be able to blog adequately, so I apologise for stretching this on longer than I should have. I turn now to my final review of Victor Kelleher’s work (for now), of <em>Fire Dancer</em>. Spoilers follow.
<em>Fire Dancer</em> was my favourite book in this trilogy, and is the one that I reread the most as a teenager. I’m not entirely sure what appealed to me about it, and, after this most recent reread, I’m not convinced that it is the strongest in the trilogy (that honour goes to <em>Parkland</em>, in my opinion), but it’s certainly got its fair share of interesting themes and philosophical quandaries.
In the not-too-distant future, time travel moves from being a theoretical possibility to a reality. Inevitably, time-travel tourism springs up as an industry, with wealthy people paying large sums of money for the privilege of journeying to the darker corners of prehistory and observing man’s distant ancestors. It is on one such trip that bored rich kid Josie and shy outsider Ivan (who is not rich, but won a free trip to the past after writing an essay on the Neanderthals for a competition) find themselves stranded in the past with only a clan of Neanderthals for company.
The pair are quickly discovered and adopted by the Neanderthals, and they slowly adapt to the harsher environment and lifestyle of these mysterious cousins of our own ancestors, finding companionship and kindred spirits among the clan.
That’s not to say that their journey is an easy one. Josie, a 21st-century, strong-willed young woman, chafes at the restrictions placed on women in the clan. She wants to hunt, but only men are permitted to hunt, and has a combative relationship with Lheppo, an aggressive young warrior of the clan. Eventually she manages to get her own way, and becomes an acclaimed hunter, saving Lheppo’s life and gaining the name Utha (‘Leopard Slayer’) in the process. For Ivan, the adaptation is even more difficult. A gentle, studious outsider in the 21st century, the violence of hunting is utterly abhorrent to him. This makes him a non-person in the eyes of the Neanderthal clan. But, like Josie, he slowly finds a place for himself in the Stone Age world, breaking the rules of the clan by becoming accepted as its first male shaman.
Josie and Ivan both felt somewhat out of place in the 21st century, and, once they give up on ever being rescued, they both realise that they have more purpose and fulfillment in their Stone Age lives. And they both make stronger connections than just friendship, Josie and Lheppo becoming what is surely the earliest ever quarreling couple and Ivan finding love with Aghri, the daughter of the clan’s leader Kharno and its shaman Lhien. This being the Stone Age, there is no contraception, and both Aghri and Josie fall pregnant. In this way, Ivan and Josie realise with horror, they have contributed to the end of the Neanderthals as a species and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens. They are, in fact, creating their own ancestors. Time, they realise, is not a continuous stream moving inexorably forwards, but rather exists in loops, where past and future affect one another in incredibly complex ways. They have mixed feelings about this, but ultimately accept their roles as seed-carriers of the future with stoicism.
Just when both have become completely resigned to life among the Neanderthals, however, the future intrudes again: the time-travel ship arrives, a year after Josie and Ivan were abandoned, to bring them back to the future. After much soul-searching, Josie chooses to go back, but Ivan elects to stay, explaining that he feels much more alive – indeed, much more human – in the past.
Humanity Kelleher is obviously playing around here with notions of true humanity. We’ve seen already that he views humanity as something akin to conscious thought, but I would argue that in Fire Dancer, he’s got other things on his mind. Humanity, for him, is equated with humaneness, with living lightly on the earth, living with purpose, as if your whole existence depends on it.
‘You’re a hunter now,’ he [Ivan] explained, ‘and if you’re right, I’m on my way to becoming a shaman. Well, those aren’t just jobs or professions, like they would be in the future. Here a hunter or shaman is what we are, and once we accept those identities, we’re as bound by the rules as everyone else. […] We’ve become Neanderthals. There’s no going back.’
Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 249.
The Neanderthals obviously offer Kelleher a wonderful mechanism to explore these ideas, as they are so full of potential for a writer – so familiar, and yet so distant, elusive and mysterious (how closely related were they to our own Homo sapiens ancestors? why did they suddenly die out?). Of course, such themes run the risk of venturing into noble savage territory, but Kelleher is careful not to romanticise the Neanderthals or their lifestyle. He does this mostly through Ivan, whose struggle to accept the brutality of life among the clan shows this life for the harsh, bloody existence that it is.
This was not the world he had visualised, aeons ago now, when in his other life he had written about Neanderthal people. Not this world of conflict and gore. He had had in mind a less testing place. Of wildness and adventure, yes, but nothing as basic and barbarous as this. Where life was to death as the hand is to the glove, the two fitting together intimately. Where endless and bloody conflict – or so he mistakenly believed at that instant – defined the whole of existence.
Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 211.
That being said, Kelleher is clearly using the Neanderthals – and Josie and Ivan’s experience with them – to make some pertinent comments about the twentieth century (the time in which he was writing). There is much to be learned, he argues, from a people who live with thrift, whose existence is little different from that of the animals upon which they prey, where the idea of owning more than the essentials necessary to sustain life is ridiculous. Humanity is not about things, it is a state of mind.
Responsibility Once Josie and Ivan accept the role that their accidental abandonment on the shores of the past has given them, they do not shrink from it. By their very presence, they are proof of the existence of time-loops, and, rather than cursing the cruel position in which fate has placed them – carriers of the seeds which will destroy the people among whom they feel most welcome and usher in the ancestors of the people with whom they feel no kinship – they embrace it stoically. This also allows Kelleher to get in a few remarks about the lucky, bizarre and complicated accidents responsible for the entire sweep of human history. As Josie notes:
‘We didn’t choose for an animal to crash into the ship; or for the ship to take off before we could scramble back on board. It all just happened.’
‘Okay, so it was an accident. That’s still a hello of a lot different from saying it was meant to be. Listening to you, anyone would think there’s a purpose in our being here.’
[…] ‘Maybe there’s a purpose behind it all,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Who knows? Maybe we’re … the seeds of the future.’
Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 250-1.
Freedom This is probably where Kelleher gets most into the whole noble savage thing. In Fire Dancer, he argues that true freedom exists when people embrace a lifestyle free of choices, free of security, where life is harsh, possessions are few and where most energy is focused on the struggle to stay alive. Ivan and Josie find purpose and kinship among the Neanderthals, and acceptance which they never possessed in the 21st century. And if the past and the future are one codependent loop, we are lost in the stream of time, always at the mercy of where it takes us. We might as well sit back and revel in the freedom this gives us.
This is the final review of the trilogy. I will probably follow it up with a post about the most significant themes and concepts explored by Kelleher in this series of books.