Book Review: Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Won the 1979 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Award for Best Novel.

I’ve now tackled the only pre-1990 Hugo Award-winning novel I had yet to read. And I was not disappointed. Fresh off Vonda N. McIntyre’s ingenious generation ship short story “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974) with its winged-alien voyagers, I savored Dreamsnake‘s original blend of feminist science fiction and post-apocalyptic quest tale.

Before the review proper, a brief publication note: Dreamsnake (1978) is a fix-up of three novelettes–“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973) (won the 1974 Nebula for Best Novelette and nominated for the 1974 Hugo), “The Serpent’s Death” (1978), and “The Broken Dome” (1978). I am unsure how much was added, subtracted, or rewritten.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Snake journeys across the post-apocalyptic wastes of a future Earth with three serpents healing the sick and caring for the dying. She is a member of the healers, who adopt orphans and rescue the oppressed and train them how to use the serpents. Mist and Sand are genetically modified vipers of terrestrial origin. But Grass comes from another alien world. Snake uses Mist and Sand’s venom to create vaccines, treat diseases, and cure tumors. Grass, the rare dreamsnake, with its alien DNA is the most important of them all–it provides therapeutic pleasure and dreams that facilitate healing in the ill and overcoming fear (24).

In Snake’s voyages, she encounters the superstitious and fearful who resist assistance. Her skills are varied depending on the situation. In one instance she must convince trash gatherers to take a vaccine. The novel’s impetus revolves around the death of Grass, her dreamsnake, at the hands of tribe who experienced death at the hands of wild snakes. She knows that the healers have a small supply and that here’s cannot be replaced. Instead of returning to the healer’s valley, she sets off to find another way to help her people. Along the way she meets Arevin who gives her his name; Jesse, Merideth, and Alex, who teach her about love and death; and the child Melissa, trapped by her abuser. Despite her loss, Snake resolves to grow as a person and care for whose who need it most.

Final Thoughts

McIntyre’s most ingenious–and radical–conceit is that the post-apocalyptical world does not inevitably revert to earlier pseudo-medieval social structures. There are no lord or ladies. Oppressive forms of labor like bondservants emerge but are stamped out by those who care. The destruction of the previous world–“almost forgotten, for it had destroyed everyone who knew or cared about the reasons it had happened” (56)–either allows new social structures to emerge or central values of love and care are reaffirmed by the catastrophe. Tribal groups, like Arevin’s, appreciate men taking care of children. In other instances, women take charge overseeing camps to assist travelers. And of course, the healers adopt children as their own and train them to provide medical care and overcome the superstitions (vaccination, etc.) of their fellow humans.

A positive vision of sexual freedom permeates the proceedings. Snake encounters, and avoids judgement, polyamorous relationships (Jesse, Meredith, and Alex) and an openness to lesbian, bisexual, and gay relationships. Snake’s own sexual needs–including scenes of implied masturbation in which “the pleasure of cool water, relaxation, and touch reminded her with an almost physical shock how long it was since anyone had touched her, since she had acted on desire”–signal that fantasy and desire are healthy (85). While I will not focus on it here, McIntyre facilitates her feminist aims by subverting the expectations of the 1970s reader by means of both gender-neutral names and the careful avoidance of pronouns when characters are first encountered. We expect certain characters to act a certain way based on their gender. McIntyre tosses those assumptions on their heads.

Snake reminded me of Joanna Russ’ Alyx in Picnic on Paradise (1968). She’s physically scarred by her own serpents and mentally by the vicissitudes of the past yet possesses an incredible drive to survive and help others along the way. Despite the loss of Grass, she realizes that “no matter what, with all her serpents or none of them, she would always be a healer” (85). As with Alyx, Snake is the antithesis of the clichéd pulp woman in distress. Other characters might assist at points in the narrative but agency always lies with Snake. She is not a passive observer.

I want to emphasize that McIntyre does not believe that all evil will be eradicated from the heart of humankind. North, the novel’s primary villain, impacted by his own traumatic upbringing turns to messianic delusions in a battered alien dome rather than charitable organizations designed to help others. And then there’s Ras… Snake must liberate Melissa from Ras’ deeply disturbing abuse.

Another element that I appreciated was the physical landscape of McIntyre’s post-apocalyptic Earth. One gets the sense that only a handful of humans survive in tribal groups and small settlements across the wastes. The Healers provide connection and care through their wanderings. And the remnants of old beliefs remain holed up (physically and metaphorically) in the City (illustration below). Their adherents still maintain contact with what I assume are humanity’s colonies across the solar system. But this is an Earth transformed. Nuclear craters scar its surface (56) and broken domes with alien plants (and animals) divulge their contents across the loam and sands. There’s a profound sense of distance and of humanity’s slow attempt to rechart and redocument the strange new land.

Highly recommended for fans of 70s SF, feminist fiction, and post-apocalyptic fiction.


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33 thoughts on “Book Review: Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)

  1. Well, I remember this from way back when it first appeared, when I was researching my master’s degree in SF… must look and see if I still have it. You’ve convinced me it’s worth a re-read. Enjoyed the post!

    • I thoroughly enjoyed it. And the short fiction of hers I’ve read so far…

      If you choose to reread it, let me know what you think! (I will also await whatever you end up writing about it with with bated breath. What was your master’s thesis on specifically?

      • The title was ‘Feminism and Science Fiction’ and I researched at the Science Fiction Foundation, which was based in East London at the time, though now it lives at the University of Liverpool…

        • Sounds interesting! What other novels did you include?

          I recently read a fantastic monograph on Joanna Russ by Gwyneth Jones. She lays out all the fascinating debates that happened within the feminist SF movement of her day (including the frustration so many authors like Russ had with Le Guin as she seemed to write novels, which touched on feminist issues, but used male characters to achieve her aims).

          • Sorry about the delayed reply – life very complicated by a house move! But among others, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, Zoe Fairbairns, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, along with male writers like John Varley, Tom Disch, Samule Delany, Theodore Sturgeon… if I had got around to scanning the thesis I’d offer to send you a copy, but that’s a task for sometime hence… I’m aware of the frustration/ criticisms of Le Guin, but I think the broader qualities of her writing outweigh them, and she herself acknowledged them in her later years.

            • Re-Le Guin — absolutely. I adore her work. My comment was more a historical one in nature vs. my personal assessment of her work — I did not know there were was a rift between Russ and Le Guin on those issues until I read the monograph I mentioned (which was spectacular!).

  2. One of my all time favorites; leagues ahead of most science fiction of its time where gender is concerned. A worthy Hugo/Nebula winner, and certainly an influence on the excellent novels of the last decade that explore questions of gender and “the other,” such as Ancillary Justice and the Murderbot books.

    I also really like McIntyre’s writing style — I enjoyed her Starfarers series, too. They still read so nicely.

    • Hestia, I’m glad you’re back! I’ve missed your comments.

      Unfortunately, I get the sense that Dreamsnake is among of the least read of the Hugo-winning novels. I agree that elements of her treatment of “gender and ‘The Other'” did become more prevalent and popular in SF. As I mentioned in the review, I do see Russ’ Alyx as an important late 60s precursor to Snake.

      Recently I read John Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin’ (1980) and it too, although to a far lesser degree, had the general open-hearted feel that (as Expendable Mudge said) love is love. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2020/06/28/book-review-city-come-a-walkin-john-shirley-1980/

      • The John Shirley sounds good — I’ll have to look out for it. I tried to comment a couple of times recently, but I had technical issues (mine, not your site) that I’ve figured out. I also enjoyed your review of Butler’s Dawn. I’m going to try to read the Butlers I haven’t gotten to yet — especially Kindred. I enjoyed Dawn and the sequels so much, and Parable of the Sower. She was uncommonly perceptive.

        • I’ve only read Kindred (1979) and Dawn (1987). At this point, I’m most interested in exploring more of her early short fiction and novels in the Patternist sequence.

          As you can probably tell, I’ve mostly been in a short story mood as of late and the vast majority of my reads have focused on shorter works.

  3. Definitely one of my favorite novels. I had never seen that interior art–is there more? I love the sense of foreboding it gives.

    One thing I loved about the book is how many things there are that aren’t really revealed. There are clearly aliens or at least some kind of super-advanced humans out there somewhere. We don’t even get a glimpse of them. I expected some of the novel to take place in the city or at least access it. Nope. It makes the world that much more believable.

    I hope you won’t mind a plug of my own, but I was on the Hugos There podcast discussing this book and I thought we had quite the good talk about it. (I forgot how to HTML a link, so here is just a link)- https://hugospodcast.com/podcast/hugos-there-podcast-51-dreamsnake-by-vonda-mcintyre-feat-j-w-wartick/

    • Yes, there’s more. The art is from the original magazine publications before she turned it into a novel. You can find links to online copies of the magazines and browse to your heart’s content on isfdb.org!

      http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pe.cgi?25689

      Click the individual novelette that later became the novel — “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973) , “The Serpent’s Death” (1978), and “The Broken Dome” (1978)

      Then click the first magazine appearance and then “webpages” under the cover information: You’ll be led to a digitized copy of the magazine.

      For example, here’s the magazine where “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973) first appeared and under the cover information you’ll see a link. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?57204

    • But yes, I was relieved that the offworlders never directly entered the stories. Snake is all about finding her own solutions to the problems of her own world. Their presence, in my view, would diminish the thematic core of the novel.

      No worries about the link. I can’t promise I’ll be able to listen to a podcast — I struggle with them. I’m a reader at heart (give me reviews! haha).

  4. Two things in this book that stuck with me: 1) the stubborn mayor character is a villain to his son and unlikable, but doesn’t tolerate Ras’s actions and shows concern for his community, 2) the landscape, like you mentioned, when they fail to enter the City and all seems like there’s that rain shower in the desert and how that put Snake’s mission in relief against something in the bleak landscape that should be celebrated. It diffused the tension in a nicely unexpected way.

    • 1) I didn’t know exactly what to make of the mayor. I think, by the point Melissa entered the narrative, he was so much in the power of Snake as she had rescued him that he went along with her wishes — and wanted to look like he wasn’t allowing bad practices in the city.

      2) Yeah, I loved the landscape. And how she wandered the caverns near the holed up city with carvings (if I’m remembering correctly) — the city that never expanded. The city that got smaller and smaller…. and turned in on itself.

      I assume you’re a fan of the novel as a whole?

      • I am. It’s smart adventure fiction that doesn’t have easy villains. I know I read the other book too, the set in the City, but I didn’t like it as much.

        • Which book? Is it the same city? Do you mean The Exile Waiting (1975), her first novel? She told me on twitter before she passed away that it had a special place in her heart as her first novel.

          • That was it. I read it back in 2015. I liked it fine, but enjoyed Dreamsnake more. I think The Exile Waiting had more moustache twirling.

  5. The Swedish translation was published 1980. Translator was Inger Edelfeldt; writer and artist. She has published many literary works so far and got much attention.
    Of course she made the coverartwork for Dreamsnake. From 1975 and ca ten years on, she made many SF bookcovers; The first was The Left Hand of Darkness (1975). One of my favorites are The Long Loud Silence (anti space opera!). I talked with her at the SF convent in Sthlm 1975 ; she was nineteen, I was seventeen; (poor me!).

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