Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Read December, 2021
Recommended for people who really like classic sci-fi
★   ★     1/2

I abandoned this at about page 183. Why? I fully admit much of it is me, in this particular mood in my life at this moment. But some of the responsibility needs to go to McIntyre for writing what 100% seems like Women’s Sci-Fi, 1970s-Style. Call it the Female version of Dune. Not to mention the novel-length ‘plot’ feels a great deal a series of short stories strung together into a novel. It turns out that my feeling was not inaccurate; the book sprung out of an award-winning novellete.

What’s Women’s Sci-Fi, you ask? Oh, it’s simple stuff; it’s the stuff that’s about being a female and owning (female) power. In the 1970s, it also includes sexual inequity, possibly insta-love with a man who struggles with women’s equity, and quite probably about rape. It’s always about being a biological and gendered girl in a structure that resembles the Quest of the (Male) Hero. If I sound dismissive, it’s only because I grew up in heavily genderized sci-fi and it appears that I can’t even revisit it for long. It reminded me a bit of Carol Nelson Douglas’ Six of Swords series.

So the premise is that this woman, nicknamed ‘Snake,’ is a healer, who uses her specially bred snakes and healer training to basically create individually tailored vaccines and cures. It’s pretty fucking brilliant for 1978, I have to say. Here we are, 2021 and CAR-T engineered cells are all the rage for curing cancer, which is essentially the same idea. At any rate, best I can guess, these ‘dreamsnakes’ actually come from alien/foreigners to the world who are holed up in a city that is controlled by a wealthy, hierarchical system. Shocking, I know.

This newly-minted healer is out, far past anywhere known to her, the post-apocalyptic wastelands, bringing vaccines and healing to the people trying to make a living on the edges of the world. Unfortunately, something not unsurprising happens to her dreamsnake, at almost the exact moment she forges a deep and lasting insta-love, and she’s left somewhat bereft.

Traveling happens, followed by an interlude with a trio of traders, where we can see how a three-way relationship may work. Then travel and an interlude at a village where the headman has been bold enough to ban indentured servitude but is blind to its inequities in his own enclave. We probably learn something about how awful and unequitable male relationships can be in this section. Back at the farm, the insta-love has decided to set off in pursuit of his object. The best thing I can say about this is that he’s portrayed in a very typically ‘feminine’ way, being very family-minded, relatively powerless and a caretaker spirit. Yay.

Then we set up the encounter with a ‘madman.’ I’ve no doubt I would learn some other thing about how generally male-female dynamics are abusive and sucky at this point, as the ‘madman’ uses the girl she rescued as an emotional lever.

What I’ve learned in my old age is that the most insidious chains are the ones we apply ourselves. I appreciate the consciousness-raising, of a sorts, and the idea that Snake is the hero in her own story. But the actual story-telling is too weak, and the plot points are too tired and familiar for me to want to stay in the world any longer, because it’s not going anywhere I haven’t already been.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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7 Responses to Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

  1. Andreas says:

    It’s really an extension of a novelette. You may have liked that one better. Here’s my take: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/dreamsnake-2015-sf-novel-by-vonda-n-mcintyre/

  2. Maybe at another time… I used to teach the Nebula-winning novelette “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” this was built from, which was widely anthologized (I found it in Sargent’s Women of Wonder). I love this novel. It is one reason I learned to love SF. Foundation didn’t do it. Dune didn’t do it. I found in Dreamsnake a world where gender was not the point. That meant a lot to me. Keep in mind what most SF/F was like in those days: weapons and spaceships and presumptive homophobia and racism and sexism and ablism. I trolled shelves looking for books that included women as actual characters rather than objects. Books written by women, or with a woman on the cover where she was not being carried. McIntyre was not focused on weapons or war but on fiddling our preconceptions about biology and society. Hers was a world that did not keep saying to me as a person that biology is destiny when what they meant was that only white males mattered,

    Yes, that was what this book does for me. [And I will mention here my experience with Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior—the first time quit in frustration on page 143, the second time I did not even recognize I was rereading till I got to that same page and realized how much I was loving it the second reading. I’m not saying you would ever love Dreamsnake. I hear you. Books are deeply personal and deeply connected to our experiences and preferences, where we are in life as we dive into fiction, and what we need at that moment to find in our fictional plunge.]

    • thebookgator says:

      I’m glad that this was there for you at a time when you were both entertained and able to appreciate its message. I’m not saying it’s a ‘bad’ book as much as it was very reflective of its time period, and as you note, a counter-point to many of the dominant books of the time (also not read by me when I was young: Dune and Foundation).

      I understand your point about ‘biology is destiny,’ and but wonder–is that what McIntyre conveyed? Mostly the ‘biology is destiny’ relates to the realm of disease, not social roles. The healer, Snake, is apparently from a more egalitarian group, as are some of the desert nomads. I guess what she shows are ‘alternate’ socio-cultural groups and ways of living. Which is cool. I appreciate discovering that at that time in my life, but as a reader, I feel past Anthro 101 at this point and look for something a little more insightful.

      • Hmm… I was trying to be polite. Perhaps you misunderstand me. Or perhaps I was unclear. Or perhaps it is something else? Books flare to life for different people for highly subjective reasons.

        You seem determined to dismiss this novel as stuck in an era and therefore out of date.

        I respectfully disagree.

  3. Ola G says:

    I’ve read only one book of Vonda McIntyre and didn’t like it enough not to try anything else by her 😉 Although admittedly it was a Star Wars franchise novel, it was just shockingly bad.

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