Dreamsnake. Book Review

DREAMSNAKE by Vonda N. McIntyre
Jo Fletcher Books, p/b, 282 pp, £9.99
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith

‘Dreamsnake’ is a re-issue (thanks to Jo Fletcher) from what some of us consider to be a golden age for both SF and music: the Sixties and Seventies. The book was a multiple award-winner in its day (as a novelette, as long ago as 1973) and it is lauded on the jacket by Frank Herbert, Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. It’s interesting to see how this book stands up today, given the degree of controversy on publication, and its origin as shorter works.

Snake is McIntyre’s credible, attractive heroine, serious-minded and caring in the exact way of many Le Guin characters. She is a healer in an arid, post-cataclysm world, and uses three snakes to cure: a cobra, a rattlesnake, and a small and very rare creature called a ‘dreamsnake’. Snake herself is determined and brave, though self-questioning, and resolutely non-macho. She encounters many people, and (I’m pleased to say) her first reaction is not paranoid worry and instant plans of violence. (This is very far from splatterpunk or much of today’s fantasy). No, her fear is not of other people, and not for herself, but ‘of being asked to aid someone (and) being unable to help’. Her compulsion is not to prevail, but to assist.

When her mysterious ‘dreamsnake’ is killed, Snake has the choice of returning to her healers’ base or continuing on in her quest to learn and help. She does go on, and does learn and does give help – to a scarred orphan girl in particular. Even the ‘madman’ pursuing her is someone she wants to heal. This muscular compassion is touching.

So, how good a book does this seem overall, almost half a century after it was written?

The episodic quality – the novel is assembled from novelettes – is not a strength. The somewhat low-key story may not excite everyone. However, the world and the characters convince. Snake herself is utterly admirable, and McIntyre’s prose has great directness and clarity.

Apparently all those years ago some of the elements here were controversial. Snake has sex as and when she wants, and she fights men (convincingly). In this world women can lead and be strong, and men sometimes cry. Would anyone argue with that now? This book was ahead of its time. However, there is a little that remains disturbing, as it should. McIntyre shows us a child of 12 being abused – and her self-justifying abuser. This is handled without melodrama, but it is still shocking.

Though there is a chance for happiness for almost everyone in this book, it is no fairy-story and is quietly adult: ‘Who ever said anything was fair?’ I won’t say much more about the plot, since I hope some of you will want to read this book for yourselves. Suffice it to say that Snake’s quest succeeds – in a surprising way – and there is moral uplift (again in the manner of Le Guin): ‘Go out in the world,’ Snake said. ‘Take your life in your hands and make it what you want.’

That sentiment, and this book, is admirable.