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Dreamsnake
by Vonda N. McIntyre
HMH, 277pp
Published: May 1978

Well, here's something special! Reading 'Dreamsnake' for the first time in 2021, I realise that this was something groundbreaking in 1978. Some of what made it so has faded somewhat because it helped to trigger a change in how science fiction was written and the last forty years have demonstrated clearly that the seed it planted has grown fruit. However it remains unusual and it feels all the more so in my journey through the winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

For instance, I enjoyed the previous winner a great deal, but 'Gateway' feels like it was written twenty years before 'Dreamsnake'. Even recent winners by female authors, like the pair of Ursula K. Le Guins or Kate Wilhelm's 'Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang', which won only two years earlier, sometimes feel dated, while this one doesn't. It feels like it could have been written last week, which speaks volumes about how influential it really was. And, while it's notably feminist in its outlook, that doesn't affect our ability to enjoy it; it's no polemic, though it achieves more than polemics aim to achieve.

Initially, it feels like a fantasy novel. We're following a young healer named Snake, as she travels into the desert to vaccinate the nomads and treat anyone who needs. She does so using traditional means, such as medicines, but also a trio of snakes: a rattlesnake, a cobra and a dreamsnake. The first two are used to diagnose and to deliver treatment, while the third is crucial in taking away pain. And, as she's formulating medicine needed to healing a boy's tumour, she leaves her dreamsnake, Grass, to aid him in sleep only to return and find that the family have killed it, fearing that it would hurt the boy.

There's a lot going on here that we don't quite realise at the time. For one, we have a female lead, not unprecedented but still unusual in 1978 in a science fiction novel. That the book becomes a quest tale with a female hero makes it even more unusual, but McIntyre never draws attention to that. Snake is a hero because it's who she is and it's all the more powerful when we realise it because it wasn't slapped in our faces. What's more, she achieves her goals through helping people, not only through healing. I don't believe anyone wields a sword or a gun here. Heroic fantasy doesn't have to involve violence.

For another, she's tested quickly and often and how she reacts is notable. In another novel, the healer who discovers her dreamsnake killed would stomp off in a huff or lash out in revenge, but Snake does her job, helping the boy even as her heart must have been breaking. After leaving the tribe, she finds a woman who has fallen off her horse and crushed her spine. She knows she can't heal or save her, but helps her anyway, in a traumatic set of scenes. And, returning to her camp, she finds that her property has been rifled through, destroyed and stolen. Her journal is gone, as are her records and maps. For a while, this is not a happy story at all, but nevertheless, Snake persists and endures.

And, she does so without any confidence that things will end well. After Grass is killed, she's initially driven towards home. She feels she should return there, explain her loss and hope that there will be a replacement dreamsnake waiting for her and that it'll be given to her. She isn't confident though. As a new healer who has lost her dreamsnake so quickly, she fears that she'll lose her other snakes, Sand and Mist, and so be unable to continue her work. Circumstances change her plans, of course, but she's never able to lose that fear, until scenes late in the book change everything.

I liked this immediately and substantially. I may be male and straight but I've always enjoyed reading strong female characters, especially ones with depth that aren't just male characters given lady parts. Snake is a fantastic lead and we gradually come to realise that the other characters most in control of their own destinies are also female: Jesse, the lady with a broken spine, may die pretty quickly but on her own terms, as her companions, and presumably lovers, struggle; Grum, an arthritis-ridden old lady, rules her caravan firmly and effectively; and even Melissa, an abused burn victim of a child, has found many ways to live on her own terms. The male characters aren't all weak and useless, but they tend to be constrained in some way, whether by themselves, others or the rules of their societies.

As if McIntyre was planning all along for this to break all the rules of the genre apparent at the time, we gradually realise that this is a science fiction novel all along. Sure, it's mostly told in the language of fantasy, our healer roaming a pre-industrial landscape on her horse and embarking on a quest, but science fiction continues to creep in. This young healer talks about vaccinations and haploid cells and aneurisms, not to ignore a case of pituitary gigantism. This is a post-apocalyptic society, merely adrift far enough that little remains and what does isn't understood, except by certain groups, like healers. Jesse doesn't die because of her spinal injuries but because of radation poisoning, having fallen by a crater from a long forgotten but still potent nuclear war.

I appreciated how so little was explained, even as it frustrated me. We're never told that this is Earth, though anyone who had read McIntyre's debut and previous novel, 'The Exile Waiting', would know it as the setting is the same. I haven't read that book, so saw the one city in 'Dreamsnake' as an enigma. It's called Center and it's maintained a level of technology far beyond anything outside—Arevin, one of the nomads, has never seen a book, while Center has videoscreens in its walls for communication—but it isolates itself, locking its gates for seasons and not allowing outsiders in. It also serves as a hub for contact with offworlders, none of whom appear in this novel.

For all that it starts out with such a parade of loss, torment and heartbreak, I left this novel feeling a little refreshed. Snake is no saint—she enjoys sex for its own sake, which must have felt revolutionary in 1978—and she's no all-knowing, all-powerful saviour—she makes mistakes and trusts far too easily—but she brings a real generosity of spirit to a genre sadly lacking in it. She's simply a good person, one who cares widely and well and makes a difference to the lives of others, but crucially without any of them defining her.

There's a lot more here that I didn't grasp at the time and only realised when reading up afterwards. For instance, Jesse's partners—perhaps in business and in bed—are Merideth and Alex, and, while we know that Jesse is female and Alex is male, McIntyre carefully avoids using pronouns for Merideth, so we could read him as male or her as female, depending on our own perception. Interestingly, given I felt so strongly that Martha Wells's Murderbot is female, even though she's never given a gender, I'd taken Merideth as male.

I'd grasped many of the feminist underpinnings of the book, even if not always quickly, but was drawn so deeply into the story that I hadn't thought about the symbology of snakes. I'd even felt that these names were a little too basic, but Snake isn't the first healer to be given that name and she's meant to be an archetypal character, epitomising all the aspects of the healer. The primary symbol of the healer is the caduceus, two snakes wound around a staff. We can even go back to the book of Genesis to show how McIntyre subverted norms here, but I didn't see all of that while reading.

I've found that I've appreciated the Hugo winners from the seventies far more than I've enjoyed them. I enjoyed the ideas in 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' but wanted more from it than Philip José Farmer was willing to give. 'The Gods Themselves' has a magnificent midsection but otherwise felt like weaker Asimov. 'Rendezvous with Rama' was fantastic with ideas and awful with characters. 'The Dispossessed' and 'The Forever War' were great novels that I doubt I'll go back to, even though I tell myself I should with the latter. 'Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang' often felt dated in ways that earlier winners didn't. While 'Gateway' was the most enjoyable winner since 'Ringworld', I still found it awkward at points.

'Dreamsnake' I just plain enjoyed, while gradually realising how much I also appreciated it. I wasn't as expectant going in, but this is up there with 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' and 'Way Station' for me. And I'll definitely come back to it, after I read some more Vonda N. McIntyre, starting with 'The Exile Waiting'. I want to know a lot more about Center. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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