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Dreamsnake by Vonda N McIntyre

9/10 Journey before destination

Vonda N McIntyre’s 1973 short story, the evocatively titled Of Mist and Grass and Sand, was truly beautiful, tragic and compelling, so, when I needed a break from high tension fantasy and wanted something a bit more poetic, I decided to read the novel based on that short story, a story which; since it features a rather unique take on the medical profession, seems quite appropriate for the times we’re living in.

Snake is a healer. During the final year of her qualification, Snake must travel alone through the deserts and mountains of a world which has endured nuclear apocalypse and alien visitation, healing any who are ill without fear or favour. Her chief tools are her three genetically modified serpents, the white cobra, Mist, the rattler, Sand, and most precious of all, Grass, her dreamsnake, an alien serpent whose venom causes good dreams, kills pain and eases passing. When Snake’s cultural misunderstanding causes a tragic death however, Snake’s status as a healer seems in doubt. Beginning her long journey home to ask for advice, Snake must contend with difficult patients, desert storms, her own loneliness, unexpected love and even the uncertain future of the Healers themselves. She will also learn that even those dedicated to doing no harm can still have enemies, and even dreamsnakes, the gentlest of serpents, may be turned to evil purposes.

Sometimes, when an author expands a short story to novel length, they keep the essential shape of the story the same, and just insert a lot of extra material, explore certain themes a little more, or expand the characters, as Daniel Keyes did with Flowers for Algernon. With Dreamsnake however, McIntyre simply makes the initial short story the first chapter, and expands the novel from there. It’s not hard to see why she chose this method. Of Mist and Grass and Sand is an exquisite and complete story in and of itself, but one major reason it is so compelling, is because of everything we don’t know. Like C. J. Cherryh, and her mentor Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre always gives information relative only to the situation of her characters, rarely if ever offering digressions, history or explanations about the world at large. Combine this with the fact that the short story ends on an initial gut punch moment and a major reversal of fortune for Snake, and I was definitely left wanting more.

To an extent of course, I got it, but only in the sense of being able to follow Snake on her travels and see more of the world, since McIntyre’s style remains absolutely immediate and completely grounded in Snake’s experience. This meant that I always had the sense that Snake’s world was far larger and more complex than what we saw, particularly since McIntyre could toss off intriguing concepts in a sentence, such as when one criminal is sent to “the Menders”, or when we hear rumours of “Offworlders”.

Nevertheless, for all of this mystery, since Snake is engaged in the very real, gritty and believable task of healing; albeit with a slightly different medical arsenal than we’re used to, the book never felt so alien that I lost my connection to its central character.

Also much like Le Guin at her best, McIntyre was able to combine Snake’s pragmatism with a distinct sense of poetry and landscape, meaning that while I still do not know the history of Snake’s world, I do know how it looks, feels and smells, understanding the temper and pattern of each of Snake’s beloved serpents, as much as I understand the very real and unromantic struggle needed to employ their talents to heal patience. Indeed, the messy, occasionally tragic, always laborious and never certain depiction of Snake’s healing duties definitely felt very real to me as the son of two medical parents, for all that McIntyre’s poetic touches of detail often saved things from becoming too gloomy.

Unfortunately, while McIntyre being so far on the “show”, end of the show-don’t-tell spectrum creates a gorgeous sense of reality, it does present occasional problems with consistency. For example, most people we meet have a generally lower level of technology than your average 21st (or at time of writing 20th), century humans, (albeit most people are also rather a lot nicer). However, often this technology is less than consistent, for example describing a society who use gas rather than electricity for heating and lighting, and yet having this gas generated by biologically engineered, gas producing bacteria. The most serious consistency problem was with the Healers and their dreamsnakes. Despite the Healers’ own genetic engineering of their snakes to produce helpful venoms or narcotics, indeed with Healers even having to create a genetically engineered plant or animal as a graduation piece, Snake explains that dreamsnakes are difficult to clone because the healers’ do not have access to electron microscopes, which is why there are so few to go around, yet how the Healers have such astounding abilities of genetic manipulation without such technology is rather odd.

For the most part however, McIntyre’s poetry is more than able to sketch over these inconsistencies, and I was quite happy to take things as is. A more serious problem however is that of the plot’s progression.

There is no denying, the course of the plot here is less than straight forward. Even though Snake does set out with an initial goal, her journey is not so much bent towards fulfilling that goal, as a set of incidents, taking into account occasional side trips, stays over at different societies, and various medical and social issues she must deal with along the way. Some reviewers have condemned the book rather badly because of this lack of focus. For myself, as I love journey stories and was always interested to see what Snake would need to deal with next, the lack of focus only really became an issue for me when McIntyre started needing to employ coincidental meetings in the middle of the desert to get Snake to where she needed to be. Especially since said coincidence follows Snake’s journey hitting a very real dead end. Indeed, while I was rather sorry the initial drive of the short story dissipated fairly quickly, the gentle exploration of the world that followed wasn’t in itself dull, just unfocused, making Dreamsnake perhaps not a book that I was itching to get back to once I put it down, but one that definitely held my attention when I picked it up.

One minor issue in the book was with its discussion of sex. McIntyre obviously wanted to explore very different sexual attitudes to those we know, so Dreamsnake features one society who practice polygamous marriage, and another where biological control of conception is so absolute, sex has become something completely casual, with people (of both genders), offering to share their beds the way people in Britain might offer a cup of tea, albeit there are still permanent partnerships as well. The fact that McIntyre simply presents these attitudes to us, not judging, not condemning, just exploring, is simply masterful, especially since (rather like Becky Chambers), even though these attitudes are more progressive than we’re used to, nothing is portrayed as simply an ideal or praised by the book’s narration. My problem however, was more the way Snake’s own sexuality was discussed in the book. Even though McIntyre is capable of great poetry and detail, her discussions of Snake’s feelings are very much at the hard, pragmatic end of her writing. We know Snake finds someone attractive because she simply tells us she finds someone attractive, we know Snake feels desire because we’re just told that Snake feels desire. Of course, apparently discussing a woman’s sexual desires in 1978 in science fiction was still something of a taboo subject, so I can’t blame McIntyre for being a bit bald here, however reading this book now, the very practical rather than poetic discussions of Snake’s feelings did make several scenes fall flat. In particular, one scene in which Snake gently assists a man with a phobic reaction to sex caused by an unpleasant incident, which should by rights have been a deeply beautiful scene, felt simply like another medical exam. Of course, having suffered, and recovered from genuphobia myself, it is entirely possible that I’m simply looking for things here that McIntyre didn’t intend, since undoubtedly pragmatic is far better than crude, and her non judgemental, very adult honesty about sex, even when discussing such potentially emotive matters as uncovering child abuse definitely has it’s attraction, even if I wish there had been a little more artistry.

Sex isn’t the only matter that McIntyre treats here with wonderful subtlety. Though Snake is an inherently simple character, basically a dedicated decent person bent on doing the right thing, the ways she must tackle the problems she comes across, her reactions to the situations she finds and above all, the wonderfully mysterious world and societies she explores make her a very pleasant protagonist to be around. I also liked the fact that many of the other people Snake  meets have their nuances. For example, one pompous mayor who proves a difficult patient showing some surprising character incite when it comes to uncovering a crime, or the fact that, even though people are generally slightly nicer than we’re used to, different cultures still have their blind spots and prejudices. There is unfortunately far less nuance with Dreamsnake’s two villains, who remain uncomplicatedly, and uninterestingly bad,. Though as the books’ structure presents these villains more as short term obstacles in Snake’s path to be overcome than as long standing threats, this isn’t perhaps as much an issue as it might have been if they’d had more focus.

Another minor issue was with Aravin, who shares an instant connection with Snake at the start of the book, and then spends most of his time following her in an attempt to redress a cultural misunderstanding. The problem is simply that we don’t really see enough of him to make him a main character, and yet we see a little too much to make his presence incidental.

There are a couple of incidents where the viewpoint switches to Aravin’s perspective, including one rather unfortunately ironic mistake in identity, however other than telling us he’s there, and explaining his general motivations, these do not really show us much that is new. This would be fine if Aravin’s part in Snake’s story was larger once they met up, however he only arrives literally after the climax five minutes before the end of the novel. While I definitely see the point of having Aravin not required to play the standard (and rather dull), white knight roll, swooping in during the climax to pull the fair damsel out of trouble, at the same time, a few minutes with Aravin and Snake together, exploring their connection, perhaps with Aravin having to look after Snake for once would have been welcome, particularly given that Aravin is just such a plain nice guy, that seeing them explore what they have together might have been good.

The final major character, twelve year old Melissa again might have had more of a part to play if the book had been structured differently, indeed given Melissa’s own history, I would have rather liked her to get a moment of awesome just so that she wasn’t always the rescued and recovering victim. Again, an epilogue featuring Melissa and Aravin’s interactions with Snake post climax might have rounded Melissa’s story off well.

For all the slightly unfinished character issues however, the climax itself undoubtedly worked. We get to explore a very alien environment, described with a wonderfully vivid sense of strangeness, and finally have a neat answer to the book’s one major question, and a satisfying end to Snake’s journey. Indeed, even though you could almost go straight from the end of chapter 1 to the start of the climax in terms of basic narrative and even characterisation, this is one where following the serpentine curls of the journey is almost more important than where the trail leads.

Both because it has been nominated for so many awards, and because it is billed as a “feminist”, novel, Dreamsnake has had a lot of words thrown at it over the years. Some of what make it a feminist novel, being a journey story with an independent female protagonist, noting that women have a libido, depicting men crying, or depicting societies where women hold leadership positions are matters which; though ground-breaking in 1978, seem pretty unremarkable today.

On the other end of the spectrum, a large number of reviewers have mined the text looking for “feminist” themes. These go from comparatively mundane observations, like the honestly straight forward depiction of multi partner marriages, or the fact that gender plays little part in responsibility or social expectations, to some extremely outlandish observations. For example, sighting Snake’s identity as a “healer”, as an expression of her femininity (something I find very odd as the son of a male nurse, especially given the male healer we do encounter in the book), or even the rather bonkers idea that Snake is a reverse of the garden of Eden, with a woman controlling the snakes rather than being tempted by them.

At rock bottom however, Dreamsnake is just a fundamentally good, deeply poetic and mysterious story set in a far future world, and while it definitely has things to say, those things are said gently, subtly and without anger, condemnation or prejudice. Despite it’s rather meandering course therefore, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Dreamsnake, whether you’re a fan of exploring future worlds, spending some time with likable, dedicated characters or playing around with different social ideas in a relaxed way, this is one snake that bights and won’t let go.

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