The 1970s were a great decade for science fiction. There many great books ranging from hard SF stories about ringed planets and self-contained ecosystems in space craft to soft SF stories of cloning and individuality and genderless societies to stranger tales of resurrected people living on the banks of an endless river and three gendered aliens. It was the first decade a woman, Ursula Le Guinn, won the Hugo Award. In fact, four out of the ten 1970s winner were written by women including 1979’s Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. In a decade of great highs, Dreamsnake holds its own but does not reach the heights of such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Forever War, and Gateway.
Dreamsnake takes place far in the future after a nuclear war has rendered vast swaths of the landscape radioactive. Yet it is not a desolate world with small groups struggling to survive. Society has reformed and the old world is mentioned only in passing. I love how McIntyre implies years of history to the world without giving too much detail. Like the Hechee in Gateway, the reader is only able to guess and infer what has happened. For example, title creature is from another planet but the reader is never told what planet, why they came to Earth or how brought them there. Further on that point, the main character goes to a city that still trades with aliens but she is unable to get in and we the readers never learn anything about the aliens and very little about the closed city that trades with them. It’s a nice mystery that enhances rather than detracts from the story.
The story itself is about a healer named Snake who uses three snakes; a rattlesnake, a cobra, and the eponymous dreamsnake, and her trails to replace the dreamsnake after a misunderstanding with some tribespeople led to its death. Snake’s journey is not straight path since she does not know quite how to replace the rare dreamsnake and is loath to return to the healers and admit her failure. She travels through the land, helping people as she can with her two remaining snakes, picks up a companion, and ultimately succeeds in her goal. While that may seem like a spoiler but how Snake accomplishes it a bit surprising but felt completely organic and not contrived.
It might sound strange how snakes are used for healing but McIntyre explanation is original. The snakes are specially bred to metabolize medicines within their systems. Snake feeds the rattlesnake or the cobra a compound that turns their venom into whatever medicine she needs and the repurposed venom attacks the illness with the same ferocity that it would have as a poison. She uses the snakes to transmit vaccines to nomads and kill a nasty infection in a wounded leg. The dreamsnake’s purpose is different, however. The dreamsnake takes away the pain and calms people. It can be used to calm a person who is undergoing surgery or suffering from an illness or ease the passing of a dying individual. Without, Snake feels she cannot do her job sufficiently. It is an interesting and well realized idea that helps to show this future world as both similar to our current world but alien as well. While much of the world is less advanced that our world, for example people use horses instead of motor vehicles and some live nomadic lives, in some ways it is more advanced. The snakes are shown to be more effective that modern medicine and people are able to control their own biological functions to such a degree that unwanted pregnancy is virtually unknown. It is a great world and I do wish that McIntyre had created more stories within it.
There is really not much else to say. Dreamsnake is a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction tale that entertained me but did not leave the lasting impression that some of the greatest works did. I am find with this. When I started this strange project a few years back, I did not expect every work to be great but I did hope that every work would be good. What is important is that Dreamsnake was good and I am glad this little project brought it to my attention.
My next blog will be summary of my impressions of the 1970s as I did with the 1950s and the 1960s. After that it is one of the three “Greats” of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke and his 1980 novel, The Foundations of Paradise. Happy reading until then!