RogerBW's Blog

Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre 08 September 2017

1978 Hugo-, Nebula- and Locus-award-winning science fiction. On a post-apocalyptic earth, various small groups of people scratch out a living; Snake is a healer, using bioengineered venomous serpents to produce drugs that cure ills and relieve pain.

It's picaresque in form: for reasons which don't hold up too well in retrospect, Snake travels to various parts of the blasted world in order for the author to show the reader what's there. There's some overarching plot, but it's fairly minimal.

The book is highly enjoyable but often heavy-handed: apparently nobody except Snake is able to work out that there's a problem in whichever place she's visiting, and the idea of drug addiction comes as a surprise even to her. She comes over as a bit of a Mary Sue at times, fixing everything more by being herself than by being smart or strong… and riding a tiger-striped pony of her own genetic design.

The world is more interesting than the people. Although nobody outside the City (there's only one) seems to be using electricity, they – or some of them – remember what radiation poisoning is, and somewhere really civilised has methane-fed gas lamps. There are aliens, or at least offworlders, and dealing with them is tricky, All this is kept to the background, but I'd love to know more about it.

The writing is very fine, with excellent descriptions of landscapes and fairly good ones of emotional states. There are non-binary relationships and child abuse and other "soft" subjects; the science is plausible for the time but very clearly invented. This was only the third Hugo novel winner to feature a female protagonist (the others being Lieber's The Big Time and Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang).

I finished this book and wondered why I haven't read more McIntyre. This is a clear ancestor to Rosemary Kirstein's excellent The Steerswoman series, and I think it stands well now even though it's very obviously a book of the late 1970s. All the same, it doesn't "feel" as though it has the quality of bigness and impressiveness that I associate (perhaps incorrectly) with the idea of a Hugo winner. Other nominees were McCaffrey's The White Dragon, Cherryh's The Faded Sun: Kesrith and Tom Reamy's Blind Voices (posthumous publication), so I don't think it's unfair to call it a weakish year.

Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 10:29am on 08 September 2017

    There was another novel of McIntrye's set in the City mentioned in Dreamsnake - possibly The Exile Waiting - so you could find out more in that one.

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