Back when it won the Hugo in 1979, Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake was one woman's radical ride through a post-apocalyptic world. Too bad it's been out of print for over a decade.
I'll be honest, I wasn't exactly sure what I was gonna say about Dreamsnake. The book had me a bit baffled and, though it also won the Nebula and Locus awards, people don't talk about it much anymore.
The benefit to me was twofold: One, of course, I got some backstory and context from her that helped me understand why Dreamsnake made the impression it did when it was released. Two, and more important, the fact of my impending conversation with her forced me to think real hard about the book — and though, as devotees of this column are aware, I try to avoid that sort of strenuous activity at all costs (it makes my angina flare up), in this case I will admit it deepened my appreciation for what I'd read.
Dreamsnake started as a short story called "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," for which McIntyre won the Nebula. I knew this because I am a consummate researcher of the history of science-fiction literature, and because it said so on the back cover of the book. You can find the story for free on the author's website, but I opted not to read it until after I'd finished the novel proper. My rationale was that I would try to guess, as I read, what parts of the book came from the original short story and which parts were added in the process of expansion.
I finished the first chapter and immediately concluded that it, for sure, had been written on the fly, presumably to appease some publishing muckety-muck who didn't think readers were smart enough to infer obvious conclusions on their own. The chapter introduces us to a healer named Snake, who has traveled across a desert of black sand to help a sick child who belongs to a clan of nomads. To do her work, Snake uses medicine made from the venom of three serpents she carries with her. There's Mist, an albino cobra; Sand, a rattler; and Grass. Grass looks like a regular tiny green reptile, but is a dreamsnake — an alien animal whose bite isn't poisonous but peacefully hallucinogenic.
Snake cures the little boy, but the nomads — who fear snakes, because of the deadly vipers that inhabit the region — end up killing Grass.
This is a pretty big problem for Snake. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare, and nearly impossible to breed. They're not given to just anyone, and definitely not the sort of thing you let get hacked in half on your watch, especially if you've just graduated from healer school and are out on a journey to prove yourself worthy of your vocation, as Snake is. She can't even really blame the nomads for it: they're pretty nice folks, just a little on the ophidiophobic side — and she knew that and still, with youthful nerve, left Grass unattended with them, assuming they'd accept her judgment without explanation and leave the poor psychotropic critter alone.
One nomad, a young man named Arevin who has stayed up all night helping Snake heal the kid, feels terrible about his people's mistake and wants to make up for it. (The two of them also have sort of a love-at-first-sight connection brewing.) But Snake is all, "Nope, I gotta get back to civilization and fix this myself," and so, following a poignant good-bye, she rides away. End scene.
The next chapter begins with Snake back at her camp, stewing. If you just started the story here, you'd still ascertain pretty quickly that (1) her dreamsnake was killed by otherwise well-meaning desert folk, and (2) this death has instigated a professional and personal crisis. And so I, with my unrivaled powers of literary perception, assumed that this must be where the original short story started — in medias res, baby, right in the middle of the action. Good Lord, I thought. Vonda McIntyre must've been so irritated to have had to write that first chapter and lay it all out so annoyingly explicitly.
Well, of course I finished the book and discovered shortly thereafter that in fact, that annoyingly explicit first chapter was actually the award-winning "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" in its entirety. I still think it's one of the weaker parts of the novel, and I still think you could cut it from the manuscript in toto and, with a few very minor edits further on, be left with a perfectly comprehensible narrative. Thankfully, though they likely regarded it with more affection than I do, Snake and Arevin thought they deserved treatment beyond what the first chapter offered them, too, and so they hung around in McIntyre's head, insisting that she write more about them.
(Update, 4:15pm: I mention this in the comments below, but probably it belongs in the post as well, and in fact I included it in an earlier draft. I think the impact of "Of Mist..." is diminished when it's read as the first chapter of Dreamsnake rather than as a freestanding short story, simply because you know Grass is going to die — it's indicated in the jacket copy as the inciting incident that puts the plot in motion. As a short, the story is certainly not "annoyingly explicit." As a first chapter, because it spells things out so clearly, treats its world and characters with a bit less nuance than the rest of the novel, it feels notably less strong to me.)
Most of Dreamsnake deals with Snake's adventures over what we discover is Earth, ravaged long ago by nuclear war, starting when a rider named Merideth shows up in her camp seeking aid for a seriously injured partner. Though she's worried about how much she can do without Grass's anesthetic, Snake grabs her case containing the other two serpents and heads off to help.
As it turns out, her ability to help Merideth's companion Jesse is severely hampered without the dreamsnake, and the whole experience leaves her even more convinced that she needs to replace Grass to practice her art. The one bright note is that Jesse — a wild child from a wealthy family who ran off into the wilderness — gives her an idea: to go to the stone-enclosed city of Center, where offworlders sometimes come to trade, and see if she can obtain a dreamsnake there. For years, Center hasn't opened its gates to healers, but Jesse's connections might get Snake in.
McIntyre unveils her world very gradually. There are no infodumps from an omniscient narrator; instead, we learn about things as Snake encounters them. And because in some cases, she's not all that sure of what to expect in this part of the world (the healers haven't crossed the mountains to the region in many years), and in others, things that would be odd to us are simply facts of her life, there's minimal foreshadowing and little idea of what's going to happen. (Contrast it with previous Hugo winner Gateway, where from the start you know Bob Broadhead will eventually end up on a trip in a Heechee ship, or The Gods Themselves, where it's clear some solution will be found to the problem of the Electron Pump, or even Stranger in a Strange Land, where though you don't know exactly how it'll play out, there's an almost tangible sense of the conflict building between Valentine Michael Smith and the earthly authorities.) This organic manner gives many revelations in the book a matter-of-fact feel — sort of like in a dream. And because Snake isn't driven by an external goal (she does want a new dreamsnake, but the stakes aren't death if she doesn't find one; really, her quest is motivated by an internal sense of responsibility and professional pride), the plot moves along a bit languidly, but not unpleasantly — sort of like watching a snake meander along.
On the way to Center, Snake stays for a while in a town called Mountainside, where she treats its surly mayor for a leg wound; helps the mayor's son, Gabriel, with a more intimate affliction; and adopts a fire-scarred twelve-year-old named Melissa, who has a troubled past. The writing is so straightforward that it would be easy, I think, to disregard much of what happens in this section as rather humdrum. I think that's what I did on my first read. Reflecting on them now, though, while they're not wrought with earthshakingly effulgent language, the Mountainside scenes demonstrate a real steady hand on McIntyre's part, and a keener insight into human psychology — particularly the psychology of sex — than we've seen in most of the Hugo books so far.
It's this stuff that made Dreamsnake controversial. For one thing, there's the sex. Though it's not graphic (and certainly not pornographic), the book deals with intercourse more openly and thoughtfully than any of its Hugo precedents. One of its SF conceits is the idea of "biocontrol" — birth control exercised through psychosomatic manipulation of the reproductive system. Because this ability is possessed by the humans in Snake's world, their liaisons are far less constrained by concerns about offspring and the social structures that arise from such concerns.
And then, even more important, there's the sex — that is to say, the role of gender in Dreamsnake. I have to confess that although I knew full well it was only the third Hugo-winning book to feature a woman protagonist (The Big Time was the first, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang the second), it wasn't until I spoke to Vonda that I had any real sense of how much that meant.
Snake is certainly more expressly "female" than either of the other books' leads. I put that in quotes because I mean it in a somewhat traditional sense, and want to acknowledge that there are certainly countless other valid definitions of the word. You can be female in a lot of ways. In the case of Dreamsnake, though, I think it's worth applying a broad, mainstream interpretation of "female" to its main character, simply because she stands as such a marked contrast to the traditionally masculine characters that pervaded (and still pervade, although not quite as much) the male-dominated field of SF.
First, of course, Snake is a healer, as opposed to a warrior. She not only doesn't try to cause harm, even to her enemies, but is actively opposed to hurting anyone unless she's left with no other option. And then there are her sci-fi super-powers, so to speak: Rather than a suit of battle armor or some similar offensive capability, she's served by an immunity to snakebites and an increased capacity for healing.
There's also Arevin. When his clan breaks camp to move for the season, he sets off to find Snake, so that he can vouch for her to the other healers, and take responsibility for his people's killing of Grass. As he's never been out into the great wide world, it's a supremely courageous undertaking. But it's an act of conscience, not physical strength; and though he and Snake are eventually reunited, his role isn't to be her knight in shining armor. Hard as it might be to believe in 2010, back when the book was released, that rubbed some folks the wrong way.
Dreamsnake's careful but not mawkish treatment of child sexual abuse got under some skin, too, and oh, what else have I neglected to mention? Snake does make it to Center eventually, and beyond; she's pursued by a crazy derelict whose identity comes as a surprise; and though Vonda assured me quite sincerely that she never tripped on any of that funny stuff even though it was the '70s, the glimpse we get of what it's like to be under the influence of dreamsnake venom is one of the better depictions of being on drugs that I've read. Ah, and there's a neat little trick in the book that I'd wager most people miss (I did) — a character whose sex is never specified.
Anyway, more on that coming up! Yup, this weekend you're getting double your money's worth out of Blogging the Hugos, because we're gonna follow up this post tomorrow with an anaconda-size interview with Vonda McIntyre. See you then!
Dreamsnake is available as an ebook at Book View Cafe.
Read our interview with Dreamsnake author Vonda McIntyre here.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke, from 1980. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.