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Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre, Bantam Spectra, 1994, 312 pp. (originally published in 1978)

Dreamsnake is an accomplished, compelling work that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel. McIntyre's recent book, The Moon and the Sun (another Nebula Award winner), has the same complete confidence in its own style and plot events. Dreamsnake also has strong world-building; McIntyre takes the tired idea of a post-collapse civilization and manages to create something fresh and intriguing. The characters are interesting, the plot, while rambly, has a satisfying resolution, and a phobia of snakes (even as intense as mine) never gets in the way of enjoying the book.

Snake is a healer, trained in genetics and immunization. Her practice is more art than science, however, and the people of her planet have manipulated the genes of snakes to give them the ability to create vaccines and other medicines. Snake has three snakes, one a dreamsnake which can provide a painless death to those who wish for it, and two others that do the main work of producing vaccines. In the opening chapter of the book, Snake is healing a young boy of a suspicious (and superstitious) desert tribe, and members of the tribe kill her dreamsnake. The rest of the book becomes the story of her quest to get a new dreamsnake, which is not as easy as it might seem. Despite the best efforts of her teachers, the dreamsnakes do not breed. Offworlders might be able to help in the situation, but they (or those who control access to them) are biding rather strictly by a policy of non-interference.

At first, Snake thinks she has to return back to the healer's station empty-handed, but several events intervene. First, she runs across two travellers who are trying to care for the third member of their party; this woman does not have long to live but Snake's dreamsnake is dead so she can offer no easy solace. Snake later arrives at the camp of a friendly tribe who have been guarding her belongings; they shamefacedly admit that her items were vandalized by a crazy person. Snake is plagued by this madman, who attacks her several times in the course of the book. The madman turns out to be the key to the ending of the novel. In the meantime, Arevin, a member of the desert tribe, follows Snake in order to tell her he loves her. An extensive interlude in the middle of the book involves Snake's rescue of an abused girl named Melissa. Dreamsnake is oddly plotted, which mostly works in the book's favour; Snake is clearly at wit's end due to her lack of a dreamsnake and seems unable to form a coherent plan. Unfortunately McIntyre is defensive about the ramshackle narrative: near the end, the main character takes the time to explain the sequence of events that fortuitously led to resolution of the story (311). This proved a bit tiresome.

Dreamsnake has superb characterization. Snake is one of those heroines who makes me cheer for the possibilities of science fiction. She is definitively her own person, tough and compassionate, not afraid to do good and yet aware of her power over the life of others. She is also ultra-competent, but she still admits to her vulnerabilities. In another refreshing bit of writing, McIntyre treats the sexuality of her characters with sensitivity and nuance. Dreamsnake tells a love story between Snake and Arevin, but this love story inverts all of the disturbing elements of convention. There is palpable chemistry between Snake and Arevin, but the resolution of the story does not involve Snake giving up her autonomy or essential traits to become an "ideal" lover. They end up helping each other, and maintaining the integrity of their own persons.

Part of the charm of McIntyre's treatment of the post-collapse civilization is the sheer brevity. The first hint that this planet had a nuclear war comes nearly fifty pages in:

The craters were so large, spread over such a distance, that they could have only one source. Nuclear explosions had blasted them. The war itself was long over, almost forgotten, for it had destroyed everyone who knew or cared about the reasons it had happened. (51)

The war is hardly mentioned again. A few pre-collapse bits of technology have survived and figure in the story, but again these are mainly breezed over.

I was wary of reading this book due to my phobia of snakes. I realize well enough that snakes in my area of North America are harmless to humans and crucial to their ecological niche. The habitat of snakes is continually being destroyed, and snakes suffer from one of those horror movie reputations that, as with sharks, has been detrimental to their survival. McIntyre knows all this, of course, and plays with it in interesting ways. She makes us feel the terror of the people who don't understand Snake's use of the healing snakes (something that came through very well to me), but due to Snake's calm attitude, it's easy to follow the flow of the story. McIntyre uses the snake as the Other or the alien, which might save the work of inventing a truly alien lifeform (were such a thing possible) but has the advantage of taking the typical visceral reaction and converting it into something richer and stranger, something more open-eyed and intelligent. Such is the effect of the best science fiction.

First posted: June 18, 2000; Last modified: January 31, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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