Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dreamsnake - Vonda N. McIntyre

Dreamsnake (1978) by Vonda N. McIntyre is another novel that won the Nebula and Hugo double, something that happened more often than not in the 1970s. Although slightly less common since the mid-1980s it is still surprising to see how many of these novels are joint winners, especially since the nominees don't overlap that much. Apparently SF-writers are fans of the genre at heart. Dreamsnake is one of the few novels I actually bought as an e-book after reading an article by Ursula K. Le Guin about it. Most of the e-books I own are review copies or stuff I picked up for free. It ended up on the still formidable to read stack but this month I finally managed to read it. Like Le Guin, I'm a bit surprised this work isn't better known. It's a very nice piece of writing and it has aged a lot better than some of its contemporaries. I do think it has some flaws as well though.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Dreamsnake follows the travels of the healer Snake. With the help of three genetically modified snakes, a small group of healers tries to see to the healthcare of as many people as possible. In many places, society has fallen from a high-tech one to very basic patterns of existence. With the re-emergence of these ways of life, a lot of superstitions about things like inoculations have returned and Snake's tools of the trade are viewed with a mixture of fear and distaste. When Snake looses the most precious of her three snakes, the Dreamsnake, the one who can comfort those with no hope of survival, she is severely handicapped. Returning to healer's main settlement is not an option, Dreamsnakes don't breed well, there is simply no replacement. A long hard search for a new source of these valuable animals begins.

What struck me most about Snake is that she is a very compassionate person. Her need to help people goes beyond healing the sick and wounded. She meets a number of characters who face personal problems caused by of cruelty, cultural peculiarities and the fact that a lot of people live in small, isolated communities. She often considers helping these people at her own expense and some of these decisions have drastic consequences. One of the secondary characters thinks she is naive and too trusting and there is more than a bit of truth in that. She is in a perfect position to show us the workings of the various cultures she encounters though. To some of them Snake is a frightening figure, able to control animals most people have an innate fear of. The original story this novel is based on, a short piece that is now the first chapter and was published in Analog in October 1973 under the title Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, very effectively shows what kind of suspicion and fear she is up against.

Snake may be compassionate, there are some things that anger her greatly and a few characters get a taste of her anger. The abuse of the abilities of the supremely valuable Dreamsnake venom is probably angers her most. I though Snake had a mild personality when we first encounter her, but as the novel progresses she shows the fierce side of it, as well as the determination to achieve the goals she thinks are essential. Snake is not the kick-ass herione in the Urban Fantasy kind of way that is so popular at the moment, but the slightly understated way in which McIntyre chooses to portray her makes her formidable in my eyes.

The setting of this novel is almost Fantasy-like. Although remnants of a more advanced civilization show up, and the alien origin of Dreamsnakes is mentioned, a lot of the story is set in very low-tech environments. Some references are made to genetics but other than that, there isn't a lot of hard science in the novel. I think this is one book that would go down well with people who prefer Fantasy over Science Fiction. What actually caused the downfall of civilization remains unknown, but to the story that doesn't matter all that much. Snake is trying make things better in a small way, not trying to reinvent the ancients civilization.

One thing most of these cultures share is a different view on sexuality and reproduction. People are able to regulate their own fertility and that changes the way they think about sex a lot. Long term relationships are formed of course, something akin to marriage exists. Sexual desires are considered a normal human need and relief of sexual tension in more casual relationships, both homo- and heterosexual, is not frowned upon. The gender of one character is left for the reader to decide on for intance, I thought that was a nice touch.

Control over their fertility is one way in which the advanced biological knowledge that lingers in this destroyed world becomes apparent. For the real hard science fiction fan, the absence of a reason why so much knowledge in this particular field remains may be a bit frustrating. There are some vague references to communities with even more advanced technology and a few to people or at least sentient beings living off planet, but Snakes view of the world and therefore the reader's, is far from complete.

I liked Dreamsnake a lot, the writing, characterization and setting are all very well done. I can't quite shake the feeling that the premise of the novel a bit flawed, that value of the Dreamsnake is way overrated. It neither cures nor kills. In effect, it eases the suffering of those for which no treatment is possible any more. That is important of course, nobody likes to see their loved ones suffering, but curing people is Snake's trade. She feels much more handicapped by the loss of the Dreamsnake than one would expect. In fact, at one point in the novel, she does find a way around the loss, although not as humane as she would have liked. The novel gets a lot of things right but the foundation seems shaky. That being said, less deserving novels have won the Nebula or Hugo. It is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Dreamsnake
Author: Vonda N. McIntyre
Publisher: Book View Cafe
Pages: 244
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: unknown
First published: 1978

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