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Shadow Valley by Steven Barnes

Well, for the second time this year, I have given up on a book without finishing it. When I was younger, I had a house rule. Out of respect for authors, I would always finish books. They had, after all, laboured to write these works of literature (in the widest sense of the word) to the end. The least I could do was to finish them myself. This left me skimming many books which I found unreadable.

As a child, well-meaning adults naturally gave me books designed to be read by children. I therefore ploughed through print acreages of jolly stories about clever little things who contrived to save the day when useless and incompetent adults messed up. As mechanisms for trying to make children feel good about themselves, they were unbeatable. We could solve mysteries that were opaque to the best local detectives or escape kidnapping attempts with the aplomb of young James Bonds (sadly, without the sex scenes). Yet, even to my inexperienced eye, these were trivial works of fiction. I was surrounded by adults who were more competent than almost everyone in these books. While I could not verbalise why I found them so superficial, I soon graduated to Sapper, Dornford Yates and others who wrote adventure stories with a better developed, i.e. adult, sense of the world.

Ah ha! Now to make my point. The key problem was in Weltanschauung. Those of you with some experience of philosophy will immediately understand. The usage of the German word first appears in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He talks of it as being the mundus sensibilis — he spoke and wrote Latin but felt the need to explain Weltanschauung in a second language. This says something quite profound. A German philosopher knew he could explain a German concept in Latin and be understood. Thereafter, all philosophers, regardless of language heritage, have used Weltanschauung to talk about the notion of word-view. At this point, you could rightly complain that, not being engaged in writing about philosophy, I should have avoided all these problems and just used the English translation from the outset. Except that to do so is to devalue the concept as a word. Kant and the philosophers who followed in his footsteps and discussed the ideas, have produced a volume of work now conveniently labelled as Weltanschauung. The use of the word incorporates the centuries of thought and several million written words of analysis. But only if you have studied philosophy. If you have not, the use of the word excludes you from the discussion.

In Shadow Valley, the normally reliable Steven Barnes has taken his adult sensibilities and buried himself in the mindset of a primitive African tribe. Thus, as readers, we are expected to forget ourselves as supposedly rational thinking beings, and to see the world through the eyes of hunter-gatherers surviving the dangers of the plains. This produces a paradox. If we were literate hunter-gatherers, the book could just assume all our life experiences and get on with telling the story. But in the oughties we have supposedly passed into the age of technology. Thus, to make the world of hunter-gathering more comprehensible to us, it has to explain everything from that point of view. Except that, by explaining things, the things lose their value because they come without all the cultural baggage that would have been associated with them in the tribe’s natural environment. It is translating Weltanschauung without making you read the philosophy texts to understand it.

I usually enjoy books written by adults for adults. The best books are richly imagined, taking a scene and investing it with words of description to bring it alive, taking complex interpersonal, economic or political issues, humanising them and exploring them in delicately defined situations. I have never been to Africa, except that, having read The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee and A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, I feel that I have. After a hundred or so pages of Shadow Valley, I found myself deeply frustrated because it is true to itself. It is a historical fantasy that never shifts its point of view to take account of modern sensibilities. It was not telling me anything I was interested in knowing about the human condition. Quite how or why the tribes should be wandering around on the plains of Africa only becomes interesting if we can empathise. But to empathise we have to have matching experiences. Simply having cultural stuff explained to us does not create empathy. Barnes is not using their Weltanschauung to illuminate our world in any way. He simply explains their lives and beliefs, and leaves it at that.

So this book will only be of interest to those of you who wish to wear the cultural blinkers of an African tribe at some indeterminate time in the past as the people wander around on the plains in search of somewhere better to live after their home was destroyed by a volcanic eruption.

For a review of a collection by Steven Barnes, see Assassin and other stories.

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