A Novel Ian likes: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Snake is a healer in a post-apocalyptic landscape. She travels with a small amount of vital equipment but most of her healing is done with the aid of three genetically-engineered snakes; two – a cobra and a rattlesnake – are of earthly origin but the third, Grass, is an alien creature about which little is known but which is prized for the hallucinogenic anaesthetic he can inject into humans. Grass is killed by ignorant people who believed he was going to attack one of their children, and Snake is forced into seeking a replacement…

Vonda McIntyre (1948 – 2019) led a varied and interesting life. She was competent at horse-riding and Aikido; she received an Honours degree in biology and genetics; she taught writing; and was also a fierce advocate for the many causes that she cared deeply about.

She is most famous, though, for her Science Fiction novels. Dreamsnake (1978) was her second novel, following The Exile Waiting (1975). She had a distinguished career as a writer, winning three Nebula Awards and a Hugo Award (one of those Nebulas was for the short story “Of Mist, And Grass, And Sand” which she expanded to novel form as Dreamsnake, which won another Nebula). She also penned five Star Trek novels and a host of other books and stories.

But it’s Dreamsnake that concerns us today. The plot is pretty simple: Snake must find a replacement for Grass because she can’t perform a lot of her medical work without him. So she journeys across this alien land of the future, showing us just how the world has changed after a nuclear holocaust. The story allows us to find out with Snake just how much change has been enacted and just how different it has become.

Of course, we know these days that any life continuing after a nuclear war is likely to be very lucky indeed. However, the 1970s existed before the concept of a Nuclear Winter was widely known or discussed. And if you came to the idea of a society that existed after such a conflict, chances are that your thinking may have been influenced by the Mad Max films, or Robert Adams’ Horseclans novels, or any number of futures that depicted a devolved society eking out a meagre existence in search of basic resources and plundering those too weak to defend what is theirs.

Dreamsnake paints a pleasanter picture than that. There are hardships and injustices, as well as the weak being overpowered by the strong but overall, Snake’s world is a more pastoral, gentler place to live than what we might imagine. Snake travels through a landscape that threatens her as a human being rather than as a woman. She is respected for her earned status and achievements rather than the accident of her birth. The sexuality of the other characters is also treated as a simple fact of life. It’s a world that bears a lot of similarities to our own but it’s also one in which there is a lot more equality and respect between the sexes than in a lot of other contemporary writings. It’s an idea that a lot of other writers have also tried to get across but rarely as effectively or as matter-of-factly as here. It’s wonderful, frankly, to see a world in which a measure of equality and harmony has been achieved despite massive setbacks: it’s a vision of the future that makes her an author uniquely suited to writing within the Star Trek universe well.

When I came to this book, it was as an adolescent who was seeking out new worlds of my own. For some years prior to me reading this I had been a shopper at that wonderful mercantile venue known as the remainder store. A lot of “serious” readers sneer at the remainder store but for people like me at various times in my life – ie, with a limited income – they’re a godsend. There are many still about, but they are more frequently found online, although most booksellers still have a table or two full of “bargains” in stores. Remainder stores are where would-be bestsellers went to die and where midlist authors frequently found a lot of their readership. I bought a lot of books from the remainder stores in Hobart while I was growing up, but I have the fondest memories of Book City, a vast emporium of not-quite-used books that was based in Bathurst Street, almost just outside Hobart’s CBD. Although they sold a small range of new books and a terrific range of stationery and craft gear, they mostly sold books that were just out of their season but could still possibly garner a market. However, up the back of the store they had a long aisle filled with paperbacks that had never achieved the dreams of their publishers. If you were keen and had time, you could find all sorts of treasures there. Many of them were duds but there were also a lot of books that were just there because the author was falling out of vogue, or the publisher was going bust, or the market had just been misjudged. I discovered a lot of gold in amongst that dross.

Dreamsnake was one such treasure. I’d heard of McIntyre through my scrapings of knowledge about SF history and the cover was emblazoned with a “Nebula Award Winner” banner which meant that quite a few people had liked it. It was a 1979 printing, when that banner would have still been current news, but 1979 was eight years in the past by then: this was clearly a case of over-estimating the public’s needs or desires by the publisher. However, I still bought it and took it home.

At the time, my reading habits were fairly lackadaisical: I read a lot of stuff, with a preference towards genre, but I did really like adventures with big characters and events in them. Dreamsnake featured a quest through dangerous lands, but I wouldn’t call it an adventure. Snake is brave and determined, but I would hardly call her “larger-than-life”. I was gripped nonetheless, both by her adventures and by McIntyre’s slow-burning prose. I knew that it was a book that I would return to, and I have frequently, and have been able to dig out new truths and readings every time: it’s that kind of a book.

I’ll briefly go through the way that my perspective changed between the times I read it. I first read it when I was 17. At that age I was just starting to appreciate that an author’s style was more important to me than the story they were telling. Story has never really been that important to me; I mean, as I said, I love a great yarn but, really, as The Rolling Stones put it, “It’s the singer, not the song.” Anyway, I loved this story that appeared to be quite slow but was full of incidents that explained the world a little further. The equality of the world being shown to me went largely over my head; I was more interested in how people were creating all these different societies and how they worked: the deeper meaning behind all that eluded me. The climax and conclusion, in which Snake manages to overcome the villain of the piece (a man named North who has been driven insane by his untreated gigantism), was effective because I could believe in her outrage at what he was using the snakes for (spoiler alert: Snake discovers that North has amassed a large number of dreamsnakes in order to keep his followers in a blissed-out state of allegiance to him).

When I reread it a few years later, I was able to go a little deeper into what McIntyre was trying to achieve: her worldbuilding showed a splintered society that was on its way to building something better. Snake’s brief foray into a technologically advanced culture (The Center, a city sealed into a dome protecting them from the outside world) showed that people who try to keep the dangerous world away from themselves often run the risk of isolating and stunting their own culture. Snake is frustrated in her efforts to solve her problems, but she doesn’t resort to the same behaviour: she presses on, continuing to help the people she encounters on her travels. As I was also a bit older by then I recognised it as an example of “Feminist SF”, a branch of the genre that had become enormously popular in the 1970s, thanks to the work of authors like Ursula LeGuin, Alice Sheldon (writing as James Tiptree Jr) and Joanna Russ back in the 60s.  

Further readings of the novel revealed the implications of the world in which Snake lived: there were still issues with criminals and aberrant behaviour but people living in this post-nuclear world were much more open to expressing themselves and accepting differences between them. Even when Snake runs into conflict with authority, solutions are able to be negotiated and resolved to an extent without resort to overly dramatic conflict. This isn’t a utopia by any means, but it’s a world in which people are trying to create something better than what had gone before.

It’s a book that is cleverly put together, as well. The use of snakes as medical aids goes back at least to Greek mythology, while the Caduceus, the symbol of medical knowledge, is a staff with two snakes wound around it. And the idea of a woman being responsible for the behaviour of serpents is also a little dig at some established religious thought as well. Snake’s travels and the people she meets also hint at how McIntyre believed we could become whole or fulfilled. I mean, the only people that reject her outright are a place called “Center” and a man named “North.” Even though she is keeping to the fringes of societies and isn’t following a set course, Snake still finds fulfillment and purpose in what she does.

It would be easy to poke fun at this book by calling it an “empowerment fantasy.” Where it differs from that is in the intelligence and depth it offers the reader about to enter that world. It’s a novel that asks you to think a little more kindly about the world you live in and the people you meet in it, treating their problems and issues with just a little more thought and consideration. Which isn’t a bad message on its own. It’s also a book about searching out meaning in your life in those corners away from the normal and expected… a little like the shop where I found my copy of it… because if it hadn’t been for a shop like Book City, that dealt with books that hadn’t found a proper place in the world, I probably wouldn’t have read this at all.

You can find out more about Vonda McIntyre at https://vondanmcintyre.net/

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