Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre   Leave a comment

Winner of the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel

I’ve read Hugo Award-winning novels that I greatly enjoyed, and in a few cases, changed the way I see the genre. I’ve read others that left me frowning, wondering how the book could have risen to such prominence. (Very few of these, I’m happy to report.) Until now, there’s never been anything in the flatland known as “Meh.” If asked before now, I’d have maintained that such a reaction was highly unlikely. So imagine my surprise to find that the winner of the 1979 Hugo for best novel – Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre – left me without a strong reaction one way of the other.

The story takes place on a future Earth that, at an unspecified time in the past, was ravaged by a nuclear holocaust. The event is recent enough that spending time in a still radioactive crater can have lethal consequences. The descendants of the war’s survivors have adapted to a changed world, splintering into well-defined groups: desert nomads in the arid lowlands, clannish scavengers, scattered communities of town folk in the hills and mountain valleys, and a single city of high-tech xenophobes who have maintained a tenuous connection with an off-world civilization. (Whether or not these “off-worlders” are human was never clear to me.) One splinter of the human population is made up of Healers, who travel the region providing health care. Each of them is a sort of medical knight-errant. In addition to mundane healing skills, these Healers carry with them genetically engineered venomous snakes – an albino cobra, a diamondback rattlesnake, and the eponymous dreamsnake in this case – that are living pharmaceutical factories. These altered snakes can be used to provide anything from vaccines to cures for cancer. The dreamsnakes, one of which is assigned to each Healer, have a more specific purpose. They are alien creatures with a venom that has mind-altering properties, used to ease the ending of a life when death cannot be averted. The dreamsnakes came to Earth from that off-world civilization. They are difficult to breed and are therefore scarce and greatly valued. Without one, a Healer isn’t really a Healer.

While tending to a cancer-stricken child of desert nomads, a Healer named Snake – a name that is rarely bestowed upon one of her calling – badly misjudges the people she is helping. This results in the death of her dreamsnake, a gentle creature named Grass. The loss of her dreamsnake is devastating, leaving Snake unable to perform one of her most important functions. Snake’s quiet confidence runs headlong into her overwhelming guilt over the death of Grass, leading to a complicated combination of self-doubts and determination. What follows is a quest for redemption and understanding, as Snake seeks to replace Grass. Along the way she must endure a stalking lunatic, and comes to the rescue of an abused child.

Meanwhile, a young desert nomad, guilt-stricken over the crime his people committed in killing the dreamsnake, follows Snake with the intention of defending her reputation when the Healer community learns of the loss of Grass. The handling of this character weakened the story for me. He appears too seldom to make for an effective subplot, and the relationship between the two characters is rather sketchy, based essentially on a single scene at the beginning of the book. As he follows Snake, she goes on a quest to seek aid from the high-tech City, where she and her adopted daughter – the child she rescues – are coldly rebuffed. By pure chance, that event, and an encounter with the “crazy” who is following her, leads Snake to a very dangerous solution for her problem. The young nomad never really figures into any of her darker adventures, so until the very end I was never quite sure why he was in the story at all. How he does fit in at the end, I’ll leave readers to discover and judge for themselves.

All of this takes place in a landscape that came across to me as little more than stage dressing. Much of the setting is described only in broad strokes, with a sprinkling of details. As a result, for me the setting never really develops a life of its own. It’s just there, decorated with such exotica as tiger-striped horses, otherworldly seasonal storms in the desert, and – of course – dreamsnakes. The story seems to drift through this imagined landscape without the two really coming together as parts of the whole.

Fiction that works best for me balances world building with character development and plot. When this doesn’t happen, I find the story overall just sort of slips by me. I never fully engage. And that’s what happened when I read Dreamsnake. There were moments of interest and a lot of intriguing concepts – such as the ability of people, through training, to control their own fertility – but the balance of character, plot (the young nomad was a sporadic distraction that never quite gelled as a subplot), and world building wasn’t there for me. I don’t regret reading the story – it was an unusual tale and otherwise well-written – but I’m afraid that Dreamsnake goes on that list of books for which a single reading was quite enough. As for winning the award, this is a novel that would have stood out in the late 1970s on the strength of its unusual concepts, and the main character Snake. I’m not too surprised that it won. And so my recommendation is to read it for yourself, and see what you think.

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