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by Vonda N. McIntyre

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This was my first time reading Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake, which won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards in 1979. I liked it, but not as much as I had hoped. Its cumulative rating on Goodreads is just a bit lower than four stars (out of five), but I gave it just three. It would have been higher if based only on the evocative prose and interesting characters, maybe a bit lower if based on the plot, which sort of meanders around various set pieces but never really jells. The first chapter had originally appeared in Analog in 1973 under the title "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," which won a Nebula for best novelette. I'm sure I read it around that time since I have it in Terry Carr's Best of the Year #3, as well as in another anthology, although I didn't remember it. Mist is a cobra and Sand a rattlesnake. Grass is a dreamsnake, apparently introduced to an apocalyptic Earth by alien visitors (or returning off-world explorers), yet we never get any further information about that. All three are used by a healer called Snake (not her real name) in ritualistic ceremonies that don't make much sense. She can immunize her patients with various vaccines or drugs, but she also feeds her snakes with drugs, or introduces the drug into an animal which she then feeds to the snake, allowing the snake to strike her patient to introduce the drug in that way. Dreamsnakes are used for patients beyond help, as they induce peaceful dreams to ease the pain of dying.

We never learn how these rituals began, or why, and even Snake's knowledge of the dreamsnakes is limited. Was the nuclear war that devastated the landscape solely the result of war between human nations, or was an alien invasion involved? How much time had passed since the war(s)? Where are these events taking place? I can't answer any of those questions, not that it really matters, but the majority of post-war SF I've read usually has some reference to old landmarks, ruined cities, etc. I think it might be in the Western US, perhaps in the deserts of central California, since there are mountains east and west of the desert depicted in the first chapter. It is the first time a healer has come to that area, at least based on the memories of the desert tribe. They are skeptical of Snake's abilities and fearful of the snakes, due to their experiences with sand vipers in the area. She is unable to convince them Grass will not harm the young boy she is there to treat, and while she is occupied preparing her medicines, Grass is killed. A healer without a dreamsnake will not be able to fully practice their art, and Snake does not want to return to her home without acquiring another. She sets off for Center, a city within a mountain which has access to dreamsnakes and technologies from the off-worlders. They refuse her entrance, so she travels south based on a rumor of a dome where she might find dreamsnakes. In between the desert and these adventures she resided for a short while in Mountainside, where she plied her trade as best she could, and also acquired an adopted daughter. Melissa is a young girl who had been horribly scarred in a fire, and she had also been abused by her guardian. They both implore the mayor of the town to allow Snake to adopt her and take her away.

The descriptions of the landscapes they travel through are well-written, and the characters are interesting although not fully developed. There is a semi-romance between Snake and Arevin, a young man from the desert tribe, but it's hard to care since we get such little background on either of them. Normally I'd say I miss good stand-alone novels, but this one left me wanting more exposition and explanation, it should have been either longer or part of a series. It is possible it is tied to McIntyre's first novel, 1975's The Exile Waiting, which I have and I'm pretty sure I've read, but it's been decades. A synopsis says it takes place in Center. We get mere hints of technologies available in Center. Some might be holdovers from the doomed civilization, some may have been brought by the aliens. Snake's people have at least a rudimentary knowledge of genetics and cloning, but there's no indication how they obtained that information. They have not been successful in breeding the dreamsnakes although they have produced some by other means, but Snake later learns the secret under a shattered dome to the south. Perhaps it should have been obvious based on an anatomical feature of the dreamsnakes, but I won't reveal that. Other domes had been mentioned, but I'm not sure if they were built before or after the war, or whether built by man or alien. Yet another element that gets next to no explanation. It does give me incentive to go back to that first novel and see if there is a connection, and I may even re-read this one day, but that will have to wait. Not all award winners are to my taste, but obviously others enjoyed this more. I've only read one other Hugo or Nebula finalist from that year, which I recall liking, not sure what I would think of it now. I don't want to dissuade anyone else from reading this, but can't give it a totally positive recommendation either.


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Vonda N. McIntyre


Winner of:

Finalist for:
Tiptree Retrospective

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