Above Instinct (novel)
Above Instinct is a 2022 novel by James Walker, and Walker’s first published novel. Above Instinct is literary fiction set in the Upper Paleolithic period in Europe. The book was inspired by Walker’s military experience during periods of isolation in the wilderness.
The story follows a lone hunter-gatherer and protagonist, Follows, using a third-person narration, which reflects the psychology, beliefs, and perspectives of a prehistoric human, as he navigates and survives the early world. The setting is during the Upper Paleolithic period, where Follows’ principal companion is nature, and the gods which he believes steer and maintain existence. The world is indifferently murderous, requiring extreme competence and physicality to endure and survive. The story is about Follows’ search for the safety and security he lacks, and the conflict between man’s fundamental nature and wants, and the desires and survival of others.
Above Instinct begins with the end of winter. Follows, emerges from his winter refuge, deciding it safe to resume his journey. After departing, he unknowingly wanders into the territory of a group of people. After being noticed by a father and son, Follows accepts that violence is inevitable, and commits to killing the men, and then seeking a partner among the unprotected women. But after killing the men and sustaining heavy injuries, he discovers many more male footprints belonging to the group, forcing him to flee the area for his safety.
While escaping, Follows meditates on his underlying beliefs about gods, nature, animals, and man. He gives an account of when he was younger, while most of his family were alive, and how he discovered the edge of the world, and discovered the strength of the Wind God, whom he grows close with over the succeeding years.
After several days of escape following the conflict, Follows is caught in a sudden snowstorm. He manages to find shelter inside a rocky enclosure caused by a mountainous landslide, where he encounters a female Neanderthal. He decides to kill the female, knowing he cannot risk falling asleep in her company. He is also spurred on to kill her by memories of an encounter with a male Neanderthal when he was younger, and the awesome strength of the Neanderthal. He also remembers his mother telling him stories of how the gods cursed the Neanderthal, and its species’ crimes against his own species. After several days interred within the rocky enclosure, he eats the female to survive, which sustains him until the snowstorm dissipates and he is freed to continue his journey.
As Follows journeys, it is revealed that he is heading for a place called the Settlement, a seemingly impossible group of over five-hundred people, led by a god chief, who all have adequate food and shelter throughout every season, where most children reach adulthood, and most men find a partner. Follows was told of this group after his brother, Quiet, died. Follows is given directions to the Settlement by an old hunter whose parents had lived at the Settlement. The promise of a new life allows Follows to occupy and distract himself from his brother’s death.
Much time after the snowstorm, while Follows is watching the nighttime gods, he notices a family within a wood. Follows approaches, hidden in the shadows and underbrush, to inspect the family and immediately falls for the girl, Mane, within the group. Follows abducts the girl during the night and forces her to escape with him. The couple continue fleeing until their hunger forces him to stop and hunt. Follows kills a deer, but then sees the girl’s uncle, and realizes they have been tracked. He ambushes the uncle and kills him but is immediately speared through the leg by the girl’s father, whom he had not noticed. Despite almost being killed, Follows manages to rally and kill the father. He returns to the girl with the venison but is severely injured. He decides against telling the girl about her father and uncle. After eating and sleeping, the two recommence their travel towards the Settlement.
As Follows slowly recovers from his injuries over the remaining summer and autumn, Mane learns Follows’ language, and they begin to develop a close partnership, and she falls pregnant. They journey until the growing cold forces them to shelter for winter. During winter, Follows tells Mane how foreign men killed his father and uncle, and stole his mother and sister, leaving him and his brother alone to survive. The couple survive winter, but Mane dies in childbirth during spring. Follows emotionally collapses, and flees the area, trying to distance himself from the memory of Mane, their time together, and his dead child. His escape is impulsive and careless, leading him into an avoidable and brutal confrontation with a wolf pack. Follows manages to kill most of the wolves after suffering severe wounds, and the fight revives his spirit to keep living and avoid collapse.
After tending to his wounds, Follows resumes his travel alone, towards the Settlement. Slowly his spirit revives itself and he resumes his friendship with the Wind God. He eventually finds the Settlement and approaches a group of men, hoping to be welcomed into their group. The men accept him, despite being disconcerted by his heavily scarred body, and provide him a guide to take him to the Settlement.
Once at the Settlement, Follows is shown around, intimidated by the organization and scale of the habitat. He is awed by the boats fishing at sea and resolves to learn how to sail one day. Follows meets an old man called Salt, who speaks one of his languages, who agrees to teach him about the Settlement and its language. Follows begins living with Salt, and hunting with the men of the group. By summer, he has grasped the language, seen the God Chief, and developed respect amongst the Settlement’s men for his hunting ability.
Follows is beginning to feel settled, when his hunting party encounter a separate group, called the Others. There is obvious hostility between the groups, although they keep peaceful distance from each other. The encounter destroys Follows’ faith in the Settlement’s future since war seems inevitable. He immediately desires the elimination of the Others, but his desires have no traction among the Settlement, and he grows increasingly despondent and anxious. Salt notices Follows’ struggle and tries to reassure him that worry is an inextricable part of life that he must accept. Salt tells Follows of a new world across the sea which he saw as a young man, but never ventured towards, because the same problems exist everywhere, and there is no escape from life’s difficulties. Follows is captivated by the idea of a world over the sea, but cannot contain his frustrations, causing him to impulsively leave the Settlement. He runs until exhausted, and while resting, he concocts a plan to provoke conflict within the Settlement and evict the Others. Then he returns to the Settlement.
Over the next season, Follows’ hunting prowess earns him leadership over many of the Settlement’s hunts. He uses this as an opportunity to steer his hunting party into a group of Others, with whom he agrees to divide a killed auroch. After sharing the meat, he accompanies two Others back to the Settlement. Follows kills the two Others while they are climbing a cliff, pushing a boulder onto them. The idea was inspired by a past incident, when his brother killed several men that were hunting the brothers, using boulders atop a cliff.
The murder appears accidental to the larger Settlement, but deliberate to the Others, especially as Follows had previously voiced disapproval of their residency to the Others’ chief, Bear. Follows feigns offence over the accusation and challenges Bear to fight. Without hope of winning against the much larger man, Follows pre-emptively places a jagged rock underneath snow at the site of their fight. Follows manages to slam Bear’s head into the rock during the fight, killing him. Bear’s death further divides the Settlement and emerges Follows as a figure of heroism and authority, which he uses to advocate for separating the Settlement’s two groups. Follows meets with the God Chief, pressuring him to separate the two groups and prevent any future conflict threatening people’s future security. The Chief is immediately suspicious of Follows’ innocence and motivations, leading to heated argument, and the Chief promising to marginalize Follows and ignore all his advice. Follows loses his patience, threatens the Chief, and decides to leave the Settlement forever, tired of people and their naivety.
Follows leaves the Settlement as a snowstorm descends. Some time later he takes shelter in an outpost to sleep and recuperate. Follows is woken up by the ground shaking, discovering a huge herd of mammoths outside. Follows immediately believes that the herd was sent by his brother, as both a gesture of forgiveness, and as an instrument to destroy the Settlement and take power. It is revealed that Follows impulsively killed his brother following an earthquake, which Follows believed was stampeding spirits.
Follows chases after the herd, and begin spearing the hindmost mammoths, causing a stampede, which he drives into the Settlement. The ensuing panic amongst the herd kills almost everyone in the Settlement, after which Follows murders the Chief, and dumps his body among the stampede’s devastation, so the death can be blamed on the mammoths. The next day, Follows takes command of the broken survivors, who are unaware of the argument between Follows and the Chief the previous night.
Over the following season Follows builds a new Settlement, and gradually people begin to move on from the tragedy. Follows partners with one of the Chief’s women, Summer, and she falls pregnant. Follows has obtained the family and position he has always desired, but is unable to contain his natural restlessness, leading him to sail for Salt’s new world across the sea.
Walker wrote Above Instinct after undergoing Special Forces Selection with the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF). The Selection took place predominantly in the Brecon Beacons, with time also spent in Elan Valley, and Otterburn. During the Aptitude Phase of Selection, soldiers operate independently, navigating over large areas and distances, carrying increasing weight. Walker was involved in both the winter and summer Selections. Walker also travelled to Canada, where he canoed into the uninhabited areas of the Northwest Territories, to live in the wilderness for several weeks. The harsh weather and terrain during Selection, combined with the carried weight, provoked Walker to think about early man living in such conditions, and the resulting psychology, outlook, and attitude, of such a people. The book was written to try and revive the psychology which had evolved around nature and its harshness, without losing man’s humanity and spirit.
Follows reflects nature, his psychology a mirror of its violence, beauty, wildness, unruliness, and unpredictability. Follows is written as a base male psychology, without social conditioning, socialization, or moderation from civilization. The book purports that life is an outgrowth of nature, its behaviours, and desires built from the underlying character of the universe.
A major character in the book is nature itself, and its description prominent to reflect the forefront position it occupies in the minds of paleolithic people. Nature is both wonderous and malicious in the book, often killing people and imposing significant dangers, while also providing life with beauty, which ceaselessly invigorates Follows’ spirit and kinship with his world and the gods.
Follows is pure instinct, which ruthlessly protects him from threats, especially against those with tempered instincts. The Settlement’s people are less instinctive and more socialized, which helps facilitate living together and peace, but which leaves them unprotected against Follows and his wildness. Their destruction is nature punishing people for straying too far from the nature of existence.
The book examines natural morality, where killing is justified to survive. One example in the book, details how Follows and his brother were spared by a male Neanderthal when they were children. Later in the book, it is strongly suggested that Follows encounters that same Neanderthal’s daughter, whom he prudently kills for his own protection. The implication is that the male Neanderthal’s mercy was responsible for the death of his daughter. Contrastingly, Follows kills the female Neanderthal, knowing that her death prevents any chance of her offspring posing any threat to his descendants. Similarly, Follows is shown mercy by the Settlement’s God Chief, even after he is suspected of intentionally causing instability. The God Chief’s mercy results in his own death and the death of his people, while Follows is rewarded with life and greater prospects.
The book also examines how human nature does not fundamentally change, and that the cost of straying too far from natural behaviors leads human into danger and vulnerability. Follows repeats the same patterns of behavior in both the earlier and later chapters, reacting instinctively each time, unable to recognize he is encountering similar situations. Follows kills the Senior Man in his original group, and kills Bear in his new group, repeating the same pattern. Likewise, Follows’ sudden overpowering feeling when encountering a desirable female is the same for both Mane and Summer, because his underlying drive is family and the extension of himself. Follows cannot change his underlying impulses despite his experiences. At the end of the book, the same restlessness witnessed throughout the book propels him to leave behind his home, despite possessing everything he purported to desire, to explore the unknown across the sea. He is incapable of being satisfied, because he is more inspired by the unknown and ambitions than by what he possesses. It is this instinct which keeps his spirit from ever being fully domesticated. The inference is that these instincts are the drive which were responsible for humans settling every semi-habitable territory around the world.
The writing in Above Instinct is deliberately romantic and archaic to reflect Follows psyche. The emotions behind Follows’ thoughts are poignant and spirited, infused with grandeur and passion for life despite all its harshness and his suffering. It is Follows’ thoughts, dreams, and love of his world, which invigorate and fuel him onwards; the writing is designed to reflect the hope and beauty Follows finds in those thoughts and the natural world.
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