When I was 15 I went on a trip to Europe with my dad, part of which was spent on a coach tour through Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, and Austria. That sounds like a lot of fun, and it was, except there were many hours on the coach that were spent on non-interesting freeways rather than the scenic mountain passes you imagine. Consequently I was desperate for something to read, and at one of the hotels we were staying at I found a copy of Clan of the Cave Bear in the library. So I started reading one evening, and the next morning when we left … well, I stole it. Yikes! Now, in my defense, it probably wasn’t a major crime because it was in a B&B library, and I think those tend to be fluid — have one, leave one; need one, take one — at least I hope. If I could remember when and where it happened I would send them a replacement copy!
Anyway, the whole upshot of my criminal act was an introduction to Jean M. Auel, who wrote the Clan of the Cave Bear and several other books in the Earth’s Children series. Now, I know it’s not exactly high-literature … but overall I really like these books! I don’t necessarily read them for the brilliant turn of phrase, but rather as a lively ethnographic exploration. They take place during the last Ice Age, when Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man both existed across Europe. I find the anthropological implications really interesting, even if the main character is a bit of super-woman who can do no wrong. (There are also a lot of sexy bits, which is always fun.)
Last night Alex and I went to see Jean M. Auel speak at the Natural History Museum here in London. She was in conversation with Museum palaeoanthropologist, Professor Chris Stringer. They have a long history (going back to 1984) of exchanging ideas and information about paleolithic peoples, and I was really fascinated to hear about the research that Auel foes while writing. She takes great pride in making sure her science is accurate, and as such she enjoys a certain sense of respect from the scientific community. I think so many writers, particularly in science fiction, just bend the rules of science and fact whenever it suits them. But I respect the fact that Auel tries her best to get it right, without sacrificing any artistic freedoms. I also really enjoyed listing to Chris Stinger. In my next life I want to be a palaeoanthropologist!
I did ask a question at the end of the evening. I wondered whether there were any great scientific advancements since her first book was published (many years ago) that she wishes she had been able to incorporate into her texts. For example, they recently discovered a skull in the Cheddar Gorge region here in England that was obviously carved out and shaped as a drinking vessel. They suspect it was used for ceremonial purposes, but they don’t know the truth. Unfortunately the author took the safe life and said that her books were perfect as-is, and she wouldn’t change a thing.
After the event, the audience had the opportunity to pre-purchase her new (and final) book in the series, The Land of Painted Caves. Since it’s not actually on the shelves until the end of March, Auel was signing a book plate that you could then stick in your copy once it’s available. I decided not to go for it, since I don’t actually own any of her other books. But the whole series is definitely on my list for “someday I’d like to own all of them, in a really nice collector edition”.