4.25/5 (Collated Rating: Very Good)
After Vonda N. McIntyre’s passing in 2019, I made a promise to finally tackle her spectacular array of 70s fictions, including her Hugo and Nebula-winning Dreamsnake (1978). Her stories appeal to so many of my sensibilities. Her perceptive eye resides in interior spaces, the moody psychological landscapes of society’s pariahs and traumatized. Her work reflects the best of the New Wave. The prose rarely flashes with excessive experimental exuberance but relies on the poetic moment hinting at internal sadness, decay, and the inability to truly escape.
Despite her often depressed narrators, the stories are not all without hope. In “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973), horrific misunderstanding reinforces a healer’s calling. In “Wings” (1973) and “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” (1974), the transformed find meaning in interpersonal connection as the unknown spins closer.
There’s a running theme in the collection of technology prematurely and cruelly unleashed. In “Spectra” (1972), a girl is enslaved to a machine that causes others pleasure. In “Aztecs” (1977), the choice–the physical reworking of the body–to become a Pilot servers all possibilities of love. And in “The Genius Freaks” (1973), the mental workings of genetically modified are harvested by cruel overlords unable to confront the lives they have ruined.
Brief Plot Discussion and Analysis
“Fireflood” (1979), 4.5/5 (Very Good): First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, ed. Edward L. Ferman (November 1979). You can read it online here. Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
Charles Shields’ memorable cover (above) illustrates the strange post-human landscape of “Fireflood” (1979). Possibly within the same chronology as “Wings” (1973) and “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” (1974), “Fireflood” follows the flight of the genetically modified human Dark to the preserve of winged Flyers. Replete with armor and belly scales (1) and the ability to detect magnetic fields (3), Dark’s people were designed to survive under the harsh surface (liquid or earth) of an alien world. But the humans never sent the exploration vessels and her people wait “for assignments that would never come and pretending they had not been abandoned” (3). She’s unable to delude herself with empty promises: “She was an explorer. […] She had nowhere to explore” (2). Instead, Dark sets off for the land of the Flyers, genetically modified humans for planets needing air travel. The humans track her underground flight with helicopters a cruel lack of care about at her plight. She arrives in the nick of time at the Flyers preserve — but they must agree to her asylum plea.
This is a delicate and powerful story of outcasts trying to find their place in an uncaring world. If connected to the other two stories mentioned above, McIntyre constructs a highly original linked series of stories that would be classified as a masterwork if published in novel form like Dreamsnake (1978).
“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973), 5/5 (Masterpiece): First appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, ed. Ben Nova (October 1973). Won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette and was nominated for the Hugo. You can read it online here. Formed Part I of Dreamsnake (1979). I’ve adapted the relevant portions of the review.
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.
In Snake’s voyages, she encounters the superstitious and fearful who resist assistance. Her skills are varied depending on the situation. The story’s impetus revolves around the death of Grass, her dreamsnake, at the hands of tribe who experienced death at the hands of wild snakes.
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. 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.
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.
Highly recommended. You might as well read the entire Hugo-winning fix-up novel!
“Spectra” (1972), 4.5/5 (Very Good): First appeared in Orbit 11, ed. Damon Knight. A profoundly disquieting story of future horror–downright hellish. A young girl with metal sockets instead of eyes and “glowing symbols on [her] back” (49), narrates her torture at the hands of distant uncaring forces. Everyday “cannulae withdraw from the valve implanted in [her] ankle” releasing her into a crowd of “formless gray shapes” of other youth (47). Ensconced in a console, probes enter the metal sockets of her eyes and she watches patterns flicker before her: “they say that direct us calm and gratify and excite them” (47). And humans are better than machines (47). She dreams of seeing the day again (48), she remembers her mother hiding her in a corner of her home when they came to take her away (49), she fights against the all-encompassing loneliness of her existence (50). Her attempt to recreate her childhood memories of the colors that can be induced by touching closed eyelids becomes a small act of resistance. If resistance is even possible.
Meticulously written in the best (but most nightmarishly vivid) way possible, “Spectra” is a beautiful yet brutal exercise in unease and sadness. As with so many in this collection, McIntyre refuses to provide easy answers or an clear explanation for the darkness. The story isn’t about the world outside, it’s about being trapped and lost with no way of learning why. The limited narration, through the mind of a terrified child, immerses us in a world only bearable because we can escape at the end.
For whatever reason I was reminded of James Tiptree, Jr.’s similarly gut-wrenching story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973). Both explore–in what some might describe as “proto-cyberpunk” trappings–cybernetics in a world that consumes with apocalyptic vastation those caught by the forces that beat the drum.
“Wings” (1973), 4.75/5 (Very Good): First appeared in The Alien Condition, ed. Stephen Goldin. Nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Short Story. I reviewed the entire anthology. I’ve reproduced the review with minor edits.
“Wings” takes place in the same world as McIntyre’s generation ship story “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” (1974) that also appears later in the collection. Her unique take on the generation ship story followed meat-eating winged aliens setting off for the stars. “Wings” tells the story of those left behind on their dying planet. Clearly set in the same timeline with the same aliens (androgenous youth become a particular gender after ritualized intergenerational “eldermating”), “Wings” follows the arrival of a injured youth at a temple overseen by an aged keeper. The keeper remembers his own traumatic past and cannot help but become attached to the youth. The youth, filled with despair at the abandonment of the planet, cannot escape the cycles of devastation that transfix them: “if we continued our people, the world would kill our children, or the children would kill the world again” (66).
A tender, powerful, and gorgeously wrought vision.
“The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” (1974), 4/5 (Good): first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February 1974), ed. Edward L. Ferman. You can read it online here. I originally reviewed it here for my generation ship series.
“The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn” adeptly transposes the common tropes of generation ship stories–strife between those born on the ship and those who remember an earlier world and societal crises at arrival–into a profoundly alien milieu. Instead of humans trekking to a new world, McIntyre imagines winged denizens of the skies leaving their planet. On the ship, the bird-like predators experience societal evolution and some no longer even fly. The story follows the old one, the only survivor of the first generation, and her interactions with a young member of the third generation who feels drawn to her. The old one is “tired of sailing” and “want[s] to fly again” (59). She yearns to hunt and share her kill with a mate. The ship arrives at one of what I assume are a series of possible planets.
This alien species practice “eldermating”–ritualized intergenerational sex that somehow trigger a biological and psychological shift from “youth to adult” (71). The young one, who on the original planet would have been killed for physical abnormality, yearns to eldermate with the old one. Their discussions lay out the differences between generations. The old one argues that her people “came onto this ship to test ourselves” and leaving the ship for a new world is part of the test (59). She cannot understand the young people’s “implicit trust in the ship” (61). At odds with the rest of the crew, the old one journeys down to the planet. The young one follows.
Two elements elevate this story above others of its ilk. By imaging aliens–whose wings represent ultimate freedom to soar from place to place–giving up that physical freedom for their offspring to arrive on new world somehow more starkly defines the immensity of the undertaking. McIntyre’s calculated use of small details–a bridge across the flying zone of the ship as so many choose not to fly, the old one’s quarters close to the spinning vessel’s gravity well, the careful words spoken between her and the young one–accentuate the profound changes within the old one’s people. This is a deeply emotional story and a unique twist on the generation ship formula.
“The End’s Beginning” (1976), 4/5 (Good): First appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, ed. Ben Bova (September 1976). You can read it online here. As with “Spectra” (1972), this story examines the immorality of technology unleashed. “The End’s Beginning” follows a dolphin transformed into an agent of destruction by humanity. As the dolphin swims towards its target, it ruminates on the nature of humanity and its propensity for destruction: The human control center pipes instructions into the dolphin’s mind: “the humans have a terribly need to put things inside things, to overcome the inevitable randomness of life” (86). On the dolphin’s journey towards cataclysm, it observes the polluted seas, the effects of atomic tests, and solitary whales unable to communicate with their kin across far distances due to noises of humanity’s machines… “The End’s Beginning” proves an effective anti-War parable and ecological commentary.
While I’m unsure what the public knew or what was published in popular science magazines of the day, I suspect McIntyre was inspired by the use of dolphins by the US Navy in Vietnam. Apparently rumors circulated at the time of Navy plans to train dolphins to attack and kill enemy swimmers.
“Screwtop” (1976), 4.25/5 (Very Good): First appeared in The Crystal Ship, ed. Robert Silverberg (1976). I previously reviewed the anthology. I’ve reproduced the review with minor edits.
Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, i.e. a designed super intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.
There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships–for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s backstory. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heartrending.
“Only at Night” (1971), 4/5 (Good): First appeared in Clarion, ed. Robin Scott Wilson (1971). A nameless nurse, takes care of a ward of physically and intellectually disabled (and abandoned newborns) at night. The parents, if they visit at all, only visit during the daytime. Are these the mutated children of a radiation-saturated future? She imagines they think of her as an “automaton, wound up and set to take care of them” (147). She gives a child a name “because his parent didn’t” (148) She sings to them, and confesses it is “more for myself” (148). But there’s something afoot in the night. Movement in the ward. And the one she named, Peter, seems to be at the center of it.
McIntyre’s second published short story contains incubatory manifestations of many of her hallmarks–a depressed female narrator who tries to mind moments of happiness in a cruel world, a surreal darkness, attempts to make meaningful contact. Highly effective!
“Recourse, Inc. (1974), 4/5 (Good): First appeared in Alternities, ed. David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin (1974). I reviewed the entire anthology. I’ve reproduced the review with minor edits.
An epistolary short (via letters and other documents) that imagines a future where credit card companies exert immense power over a fragmented United States with weak to non-existent regulatory powers. Recourse, Inc., “funded by a private foundation” (97), assists individuals harassed by the credit card companies. Hedley Satsop, a man with psychological baggage, appeals to Recourse, Inc. And in the letter exchange that follows, Recourse, Inc.’s agents must appeal to yet another power to correct the bureaucratic nightmare that unfolds. Like Blake’s “The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split,” something akin to a science fictional legend emerges from the mundane material ephemera of a nightmarish future.
“The Genius Freaks” (1973), 4/5 (Very Good): First appeared in Orbit 12, ed. Damon Knight.
Lais was born in an artificial womb. She remembers the “gentle transition from warm liquid to warm air, an abrupt rise in the pitch of sounds, the careful touch of hands, shock of the first breath” (169). The indelible sense that something was lacking from her birth eats at her, sets her apart from other humans. The administrators at the Institute do not understand the artificially-birthed children, perhaps thinking of the “fishlike little creatures peering out, watching, learning, was too much even for them to bear” (1969). But they desire the fruit of her mind, and will suck her dry extricating its juices (174).
Like Dark in “Fireflood” (1979), Lais escapes into the world, a world of humans with scrubbed genes that promise far longer lives than she will experience. Possessed by a self-loathing, Lais cannot reveal her nature has her people are hunted due to a violent uprising attempted by earlier vat grown. She feels the same pull of violent action: “she could see a thousand ways to cause disruption for mere annoyance […], to turn a community of a million people into the ruined inhabitants of a chaotic war sone” (181). The discovery of a devastating malignancy waiting to be released on the innocent spurs her to action despite the “vengeful animals of memories trying to hold her back” (184). But her own end awaits.
Like so many in this spectacular collection, “The Genius Freaks” adeptly creates a scenario to explore the forces of exclusion and transformation. The sense is interior. The parts carefully designed to reveal the psychological impact of future technologies.
“Aztecs” (1977), 5/5 (Masterpiece): First appeared in 2076: The American Tricentennial, ed. Edward Bryant and Jo Ann Harper (1977). Nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Award for Best Novella.
“She gave up her heart quite willingly” (186)–and so begins “Aztecs” (1973), a deeply affective rumination on sacrifice and initiation and the rituals that bind it all together and set everyone apart. Laenea Trevelyan aspires to be a Pilot so she can experience the unspoken, the trip between the stars. The Crew are drugged for the trip. Recovering in the hospital after the operations, she practices controlling the flow of blood into the artificial mechasm. Yearning to rejoin the community of spacers who reside at the port, “a huge, floating, artificial island, anchored far from shore” (196), she sneaks out before her rehabilitation is complete. But her friends in the Crew now see her as someone else. Set apart by her choice. She chaffs as the new lines of delineation, of interaction, of values. She meets Radu, Crew, whom she falls for. He’s deeply connected to his home planet: “It must be a comfor to love a place so much” (211). He dreams home. He’s tethered in other ways. Can their love survive her choice?
“Aztecs” spins its power with gorgeous lines: “Can I have the ashes of my heart?” (191). It’s deeply emotional and speaks to far greater things than the sum of its parts. Laenea cannot escape the implications of her sacrifice. The boundaries made by her choice cannot be broken. This is McIntyre at the height of her power. This story later became part of her novel Superluminal (1983).
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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N. McIntyre (1979)”
Many thanks for this review! This book looks fascinating. I’ll see if I can find it.
Thank you for stopping by. I can’t remember if we’ve discussed her fiction or not. Have you read any of her work?
Not yet–she’s one of my writers from various eras I’d like to catch up on.
I hope your exploration was as enjoyable as mine.
I’m sure it will be–in any case, I appreciate your letting us know about this book.
“Aztecs” is the one I remember the liking the best back in the day. I recall reading “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” in a back issue of Analog that my library had! Oh for the days when that was not rare.
I recently reread The Exile Waiting, which it turns out is apparently set on the same future Earth as Dreamsnake. It was my favorite of her novels back then, and I liked it a lot on reread as well. It seemed to set up the possibility of further stories in that future — in the interstellar colonies, even. But none eventuated.
“Aztecs” is great. She definitely seems to have created groups of connected stories. I think “Aztecs” became her later Superluminal (1983). As I mentioned above, it really feels like “Wings,” “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn,” and “Fireflood” are all connected and could have been the parts for a spectacular tapestry novel of the fate of the genetically modified abandoned by Earth.
In one of our brief discussions, before she passed away, she mentioned to me that The Exile Waiting had a special place in her heart. Considering the number of stories in this collection about pariahs and exiles, etc. I’m reinspired to give it a read!
Oops …. I meant to say, “One of many writers….”
I read this collection about 8 or 9 years ago and mostly enjoyed it. The presence of two longish stories that I already knew as part of novels was disappointing but I don’t think she had published much other short fiction at the time, so I understand why.
Just checked the dates and in fact Superluminal came later so ‘Aztecs’ was new in 1979.
Hello Kev, it’s been a long while since I’ve heard from you. I hope you are well.
I suspect both stories were included as they were her best-known works at that point in her career –“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” (1973) won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo. And “Aztecs” (1977) picked up Hugo and Nebula nods. And yes, the latter appeared before the novel version (which I acquired last year and might read soonish, maybe).
What are your favorite McIntyre works?
Dreamsnake is great, but I also like her Starfarers sequence so far. I’ve only read the first two of four though. And The Moon & The Sun which is historical fantasy is really interesting.
Did you review them anywhere? They are outside of my somewhat loose 1985 cutoff point but I love reading about SF regardless of the publication date.
I’ve just read “Fireflood”. It’s the first time that I’ve read anything by Vonda McIntyre. It wasn’t bad, but I thought that the first half of it wasted a lot of time in describing the background and plot, rather than focusing on the themes and characters. The characters’ internal or existential angst, that’s supposed to be significant in this piece, doesn’t seem to emerge until later, and I found it a little dull. This is a subjective view however.
And mine is as well…
That said, I found a lot of my enjoyment of the story connected to the two others I see as linked — “The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Darkness” and “Wings.” The latter ruminates on the lives of those left behind by explorers. And “The Mountains” the transformed lives of the Flyers who leave the planet. And in each, McIntyre explores the sense of lost purpose and connection. In “Wings,” they feel abandoned on an Earth that will soon die; in “Mountains” the lost connection to the home planet and the transformed youth who live in space; and in “Fireflood,” the sense that you cannot achieve what you have been created to do. There’s something so brittle and sad about “Fireflood” — the main character’s desperation to make connections to herself and others (the Flyer she meets) but also the cruel distance of the creators who have abandoned their creations. Together they feel like stages in a life — stretched across the generations. The moments where we attempt to reflect on our purpose and future… There’s a ton in the tryptic that I enjoyed.
Some of the other stories in the collection are much more punchy in far fewer pages — “Spectra” (1972) for example.
“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is much better written than “Fireflood”, with more vivid characters and more centralised themes and plot. It flowed smoothly for almost it’s entire length. There’s different viewpoint that make you sympathise with all the characters.
It’s the best part of Dreamsnake (1978) — that said, the other two parts are also worth reading so I recommend tracking down the full novel.