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The novel Vacuum Flowers, by Michael Swanwick, features this description of primitive hunting parties:

"Don’t you know where the tetrad comes from? Eucrasia patterned us after the ancient Aboriginal hunting party. They went out in groups of four, and no matter what individuals they picked, during the hunt they took on four distinct roles—the leader, the warrior, the mystic, the clown. It made for a remarkably stable and efficient group."

When I read this long ago, I found this amazing (and do still). I've looked more than once for descriptions of aboriginal hunting parties, but found nothing similar.

Is this idea original to Michael Swanwick or was he inspired by something else?

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    It seems like a possible takeoff of Dungeons and Dragons. The warrior, mystic and clown sound like a fighter, wizard, and bard (all present in AD&D before the publication of Vacuum Flowers), and the second edition of the Dungeons and Dragons basic set was known for having four human classes (cleric, fighter, magic user, and thief), so four-character parties were already a bit of a stereotype. Since this is a futuristic story, "Aboriginal" can easily mean people from Earth in the distant past, and be misremembered.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 17:28
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    It even talks about "taking on roles," like a "role-playing game" of some sort, perhaps? I doubt it is based on anything in real life, primarily because "clown" seems an unlikely role for hunting, but also because "warrior" makes no sense for hunting animals for food (that's not war) and because mysticism does not seem like the sort of thing that one could just do on a whim without some sort of training or divine gift.
    – Adamant
    Commented Jul 2, 2023 at 17:31
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    @Adamant The names don’t have to be literal at all though. A group consisting of a leader, a skilled tracker (mystic), someone responsible for flushing out the prey (clown), and someone who specializes in actually subduing the prey (warrior) would make perfect sense. That said, I do also think that the term ‘aboriginal’ here is being used in the ‘indigenous peoples’ sense, not as a clip of ‘Australian Aboriginal‘, which throws a further wrench into things. Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 1:14
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    I think this answer feels right: Swanwick half-remembering something he read in Silverberg (possibly I am biased, being all too aware of how I seem to half-remember everything ...). "Since this is a futuristic story, "Aboriginal" can easily mean people from Earth in the distant past". I thought Adamant's comment was brilliant--it has made me happy all day. However I disagreed with "primarily because "clown" seems an unlikely role for hunting". I think every crew I've known either had a clown ... or needed one. Tensions arise, and the clown defuses them.
    – Barnaby
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 1:05

1 Answer 1

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Strangely, this has a clear antecedent in The Book of Skulls (1972) by Robert Silverberg, which definitely seems like the kind of thing Swanwick would have read. (The Book of Skulls is, especially compared with a lot of other science fiction, very much set in the world of early 1970s college students, and Swanwick is exactly the same age as the four main characters in the story.) Moreover, in Silverberg's story, the division of a group into four roles is fairly easy to remember, since (unlike in Vacuum Flowers) it plays a central part in the book's plot.

Here is the description of the hunting party, with the four the roles that Ned envisions for himself and the other three protagonists, as the components of their "receptacle":

A book I was reading not long ago drew a structural metaphor of society from an ethnographical film about some African bushmen out hunting a giraffe. They had wounded one of the big beasts with their poisoned arrows, but now they had to follow their prey across the bleak Kalahari, chasing him until he dropped. There were four of them, bound in tight alliance. The Headman, the leader of the hunting unit. The Shama, the craftsman and magician, who invoked supernatural aid when needed and otherwise served as the conduit between the divine charisma and the realities of the desert. The Hunter of Beautiful One, famous for his grace, speed, and physical strength, who bore the hardest burdens of the hunt. Lastly, the Clown, small and freaky, who mocked the mysteries of the Shaman, the beauty and strength of the Hunter, the self-importance of the Headman. These four constituted a single organism, each essential to the whole of the chase.

As noted by Adamant in a comment, this might be a case of one author (Silverberg) inventing something and a later author (Swanwick) mistaking it for a real historical phenomenon. In any case, I think there is a pretty good chance that this is where Swanwick got the idea. However, if the characters in this four-member hunting party were not actually originated by Silverberg for The Book of Skulls, Ned's description quoted above may provide some useful clues as to where the concept had previously appeared.

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