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.
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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