I acquired Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake based on strong desire. Prior to purchasing the 1979 novel, I had spent a long weekend hiking in the sun. Arriving home and picking up Ben Bova’s The Best of Analog thinking to read a few pages before falling asleep, all too quickly I was caught up in McIntyre’s novelette “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand”. And when I did read the last word—after midnight, it was with frustration. The story of Snake so effectively balancing empathy and plot, I wanted desperately to know what happened after the healing in the village. Where did her journey take her? Did she ever return from wandering the radiation scarred land? And ultimately, was she able to replace the one item an ignorant couple had all too easily deprived her of? Despite its fairy tale elements and big-button morals, Dreamsnake (1978) extends the story to novel length and answers these questions in quality fashion.
“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” forms the opening chapters of Dreamsnake. Attending to a boy with a tumor lodged in his stomach, it tells of a night in the life of a healer named Snake. The tools of her trade non-standard to say the least, the three snakes she keeps in a basket each perform a role in the curative process. The boy frightened—but not nearly as much as his parents, he submits himself to Snake’s peculiar requests, and endures the pain she asks of him in preparation for the cure. Preparing this cure an esoteric process, the sacrifices made test everyone involved—perhaps Snake the most. But when catastrophe strikes while effecting the prepared drug, Snake is left to pick up the pieces and wonder what her future holds.
For anyone interested in Dreamsnake, I highly recommend reading the story “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” first. If you like it, you will probably like the novel. Though intensity and purpose sway a little in the middle section, McIntyre finishes the novel in relatively consistent fashion. Written in the same brooding style, readers do indeed learn of what happens to Snake in her wanderings, and whether or not she is able to recover the invaluable item which has been lost to her—Snake herself developing in the process.
Few bothered with J.K. Rowling, Vernor Vinge, or Robert J. Sawyer winning the Hugo, it is thus for obvious reasons some take issue with McIntyre’s book. Dreamsnake cited by some as the worst Hugo winner of all time, it would seem the brooding prose, the flawed protagonist, and the book’s moral objectives, as opposed to simple entertainment written in transparent text of the aforementioned authors, are too much for some readers to handle. McIntyre spoon-feeding only the middle of the narrative, the novel requires some engagement and introspection at the beginning and end for its value to be uncovered. Not the greatest ever written, the book nevertheless is a more deserving winner than many who claim the award, and is thus strongly undeserving of the negative criticism.
And there is value. Dreamsnake a personal story, it is at heart Snake’s finding her place in life. A healer, locating this place naturally brings her to not only some of the most gruesome injuries and illnesses—all which test her fortitude and training to varying degrees. Likewise, it brings her to situations which require patience, wisdom, and the development of her social skills. Though partially a Mary Sue, McIntyre presents the associated doubts, misgivings, and perceived failures from inside Snake’s head clearly. Life not always fair, she does her best with what she can. Hurt by what is lost, she is strong enough to continue. Another aspect of Snake that McIntyre capitalizes on is her status as female healer. Not as overtly a feminist text as some of Tiptree Jr. or Le Guin’s works, the author nevertheless gives her female lead agency through healing. Not a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of girl, readers will find Snake’s manner of problem solving to possess more integrity than the average sci-fi hero.
It wouldn’t be a review of Dreamsnake if one were not to get into the ethics under discussion. One of the largest sub-texts of the book, the middle section in particular becomes more episodic than linear. Super emo girl, Snake comes upon a variety of scenarios and situations with Big Moral Buttons. Child abuse, euthanasia, tyranny, thievery, kidnapping, and a few other rather obvious immoralities appear for examination. Using her self-confidence and powers as healer, Snake sets to doing her best to make all these situations better. Some readers will be engaged by the ensuing melodrama, while others will wish McIntyre had narrowed down the list of Buttons, and perhaps chosen one that integrated with Snake’s own development in order to progress her own story. This middle section an ignorable bridge, I will leave anything further for the reader to discover.
What makes “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” and Aztecs good writing is the openness of their denouements. Eschewing this, in Dreamsnake McIntyre hints at a fairy tale ending in the early going, and indeed, that’s is the result. This is not to say happy endings are bad, rather that in this case it undermines the burning moral scenarios, rendering them cheaper than they should be. That everything turns out ‘ok’ sweeps away much of the gravity associated with, for example, Melissa’s traumatic past, Gabriel’s shame, and to some degree, the coming-of-age Snake herself underwent in the opening chapters. (For an example of a more subtle way in which to blend morals and story see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun.)
In the end, Dreamsnake is a book of strong personal and moral proportion. McIntyre sets a harsh post-apocalyptic scene in the background and lets her snake wielding healer-heroine traipse it, righting injustices encountered, and finding herself in the process. The only real flaw to the novel is its overt morals and the backing narrative. Ultimately unchallenging, they are later subverted by the essence of fairy tale clouding certain elements. Whether intentionally or not, Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu has several important elements in common, and comes recommended to readers who enjoyed her book, and vice versa.