This novel won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF Awards for its year, and it's easy to understand why.
Snake is from a tribe of healers who grow up learning how to alter the chemistry of venom in live snakes to heal different illnesses and injuries. Healers are solitary and nomadic souls who spend their lives in altruistic service to others, travelling through damaged and dangerous terrain on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
As the story opens, Snake has been asked by a highly superstitious and fearful people to heal a young child who is terribly ill. Perhaps due to innocence and inexperience, she is too trusting that they will adhere to her instructions. She leaves with the child overnight her precious dreamsnake, the venom and presence of which provides pain relief and the ease of sleep to ill patients, while she is off preparing the venom of another of her serpents for the healing session to come, with the assistance of one of the young men of the village. Her trust is ill-founded; she returns to find that the child's adult relatives have mortally-wounded her dreamsnake out of their fear it would harm the child, and she is forced to euthanise the rare dreamsnake which is required to practice her vocation.
Despite this and her personal grief over the loss of her reptile assistant, she manages to pull the child out of danger. But bereft of one of her treasured reptile companions, she is torn between returning to the tribe of healers and admitting what will surely be perceived as the criminal loss of one of the vitally-important dreamsnakes which are almost impossible to breed or clone -- and therefore irreplaceable -- or putting off the inevitable disgrace by travelling further to offer healing assistance elsewhere.
She chooses the delay, and so continues her journeys, offering help to the sick and injured. Along the way, she encounters an emotionally-damaged young man who has become incapable of forming personal relationships, and a young girl who has not only been grievously disfigured in a fire -- but worse yet, has spent her short life enduring continual physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her supposed "guardian". And so the reader comes to understand that the types of healing to be offered by the tough-but-kindhearted Snake reach far beyond the application of snake venom.
According to the author, at the time of its publication (1978), the story was more than a little contentious because of several factors: rather than the usual male hero, the protagonist is a strong, independent woman; she manages to extricate herself from dangerous situations on her own, instead of requiring rescue by a man; and the subject of child sexual abuse is dealt with rather frankly -- something which was quite unusual for that time.
This novel is what I call "Firm Sci-Fi": while it does not delve exhaustively into the science behind the apocalypse or the world's remaining technology as would Hard Sci-Fi, it does explore those -- especially the biotechnology of the venom -- in enough depth to avoid the "handwavery" of Soft Sci-Fi. But the excellent worldbuilding here is still surpassed by the beautifully-fleshed-out depth of the characters.
The novel was an expansion of an earlier novelette, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand", which won the Nebula in 1973. Although the novel's resolution is satisfying to readers, I would really have loved to see further exploration in additional volumes of the world the author has created; sadly, that has never occurred to date.
There's an excellent interview with the author over at io9 entitled "Feminism, Astronauts, and Riding Sidesaddle"; I encourage the reader to seek it out (after first reading the book).
on April 24, 2011
I adore this book and have ever since I read it the first time, probably in 1978. It's smart and thoughtful, and has a fascinating world with a heroine who thinks. Yes, it doesn't have a million things going on, and there aren't any explosions. But it's definitely worth the award and the reading.
Of course, anything I've looked at by Connie Willis bores me silly (more plot by the numbers, with added action). So perhaps it's all about what you're looking for.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2004
Vonda N. McIntyre fans will recognize many themes in her new novel, Dreamsnake. A boy named Stavin is ill from radiation poisoning as a result of nuclear fallout and needs to be healed. Believe me on this. It's a great theme, and McIntyre uses great detail to describe the situation. This story has more adventure in it than a trip around the world.
As the story opens, Stavin is being tended to by Snake and Grass, two snakes who have healing abilities, but only when they're together. Snake must wrap herself around Stavin's waist and Grass has to lay very still on Stavin's head in order for them to heal him. The operation seems to be going well until Stavin's father, Arevin accidentally drops a rock on Grass and kills her.
Spin ahead two days later to Snake's plan of finding another dreamsnake so Stavin could be healed. Stavin agrees to her plan, but is told that a dangerous road lies ahead. Snake tells him that they'll have to travel through rough terrain to find a dreamsnake because of their extreme rarity. They gather up needed supplies and head off into parts unknown.
One week later Snake and Stavin pass through the forest and encounter a bear. It charges them, but Snake is able to bite it and the bear passes out. The same day, they reach a small mountain range, and encounter a mountain lion. It catches Snake by surprise and slashes her in the stomach. Stavin attempts to save her, but gets bitten badly on the chest. All hope seems lost until two snakes named Jesse and Gabriel bite the lion and kill it. Snake says they need a dreamsnake so she can heal Stavin. Gabriel says that she is one herself and heals both Snake and Stavin from their slash wounds.
As the story whirls ahead, we learn that Gabriel was the victim of a bear many years ago at the same forest where Snake and Stavin passed through. As they were talking about the encounter, a bear lunged from the brush and tackled Stavin. Jesse jumped on the bear and bit it hard, killing it instantly. He told the gang that they needed to seek refuge, so they headed back to Stavin's village.
I don't know if I agree with the story resolution. There is a huge load of twists involved. But I'll say this for Dreamsnake, there was no way in the world that I was putting off reading the rest of this book until I found out everything. Vonda N. McIntyre does a superb job at keeping you hooked to her books. The moment you start reading her works, you become addicted.
English Student of Excellence, Chemical Engineer
on April 30, 2003
I give this book 3.5 stars. It's got a nicely developed protagonist, even though I wish she was more flawed, and setting, with a smooth narrative to bring it along. I adore snakes, and I love the idea of the healing snakes, so kudos for that touch. The minor characters ranged from being OK to not-so-spiffy from the critic's perspective.
The plot has a leisurely pace, so while this is technically an adventure story, don't expect the "action" which normally typifies an adventure. The climax didn't work for me, but otherwise the plot is sound.
Overall, there is not much in the way of fresh insights or amazing writing. This is just a book which is a modest pleasant read once you're involved in the story.
on November 14, 2002
This is my all time favorite book ever!
I am actually an avid murder mystery buff and dabble in fantasy, sci-fi, and other fiction. But I became totally immersed in this story.
I was first given this book to read when I was in high school, by my mother who had always feared snakes (as the people at the beginning of the book). So unlike others, I thought the beginning did work. Snake knew nothing about the people and the people knew nothing about her. The reader was just as "clueless" about the significance of the snake and the fear of the people as the characters were.
As Snake's plans are constantly diverted by events as she initially attempts to return home defeated, we come to know Snake a little more and a little more. Like real life, you don't know everything about her upfront. You don't understand her but you are intrigued and keep reading.
Things turned out very different than Snake ever imagined. Sometimes life is like that.
I re-read this book in my early 20's and now at 34 just listened to the unabridged audiotape (since a working mom has no free time except the work commute!) This is the book I turn to when I feel like what I am doing has little meaning or worth. I use it to go on a mental journey and refocus.
I have now addicted my husband who listened to Dreamsnake on a 24 hour drive to Arkansas and is listening again, looking for excuses to keep driving the car, just to listen a little longer.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2001
I don't think I'm an unusually exacting reader. My wants are few and simple: a plot, a handful of realistic characters, prose that, if not up to the standards of Dickens, is at least superior to what I produced in my junior high creative writing assignments. Sadly, and surprisingly for a novel held in such high repute, "Dreamsnake" lacked all of these qualities.
So as not to spoil what little entertainment the reader might wring from this dry husk of a book, I won't provide many plot details to support my assertions. It would be difficult to do so since after reading ~2/3 of the book I was hard pressed to identify a plot. The main character, Snake the healer, wanders across a post-apocalyptic earth populated by such cardboard cutouts as Grum, the ancient, wise matriarch (if you've seen Stephen King's "The Stand", think Mother Abigail), and Ras, the bullying and deceitful child-rapist. A few themes appear and resurface occasionally during her interactions with these "characters", but the action serves primarily as a vehicle for the author's sophomoric Utopian philosophy. The prose possesses the awkward, stilted rhythm of a failed Hemingway imitation and fails to evoke the "sense of wonder" present in the best SF.
I was puzzled when I learned that this novel won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I found it far inferior to other multiple award winners such as "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis and "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman. Perhaps 1979 was a barren year for the SF genre.
on September 4, 2001
This would have to be my all-time SF/PAF novel of all time. It blew me away 20 years ago when I first read it, and I despaired of ever owning another copy. Go Amazon, you fantastic resource for us antipodean bibliophiles!
This book is truly an inspirational tale of feminine courage, resourcefulness and intelligence. It embraces both the feminine and masculine and celebrates them equally, but for their own uniqueness.
A highly trained woman with a gift in healing, not only physical damage, but psychological as well, she shares her gifts with all who cross her path. Her special relationship with her serpents as healing tools is magical, and the death of the most unusual of these is the impetus of her journey of discovery and self-discovery.
I urge you to take the journey yourself!
on August 11, 2001
First, I will have to admit that I have not liked other Vonda McIntyre books I've read - the only reason I picked this one up was because it won the Hugo AND the Nebula, so it seemed like I should read it. After a bit of a rocky start (VM seems too rushed in trying to set up the initial crisis that you haven't developed any empathy for the heroine yet), you get engrossed in the story of a healer in a post-apocolyptic world that uses snakes as a type of hypodermic needle. When suitably drugged, her rattlesnake and cobra produce antitoxins and medicines instead of venom. The titular dreamsnake is an alien species of snake whose venom produces an analgesic/anesthetic effect, which the healers use instead of traditional drugs for the very ill. When the heroine's dreamsnake is killed by a superstitious tribesman, she blames herself and sets off on a quest to atone for the loss (i.e., finding more dreamsnakes).
As mentioned, the initial crisis, the death of the dreamsnake, occurs before you know (or care) much about the world and the heroine. Perhaps it was written this way on purpose, but it doesn't work. It isn't really until half-way through the book that you start to get into the story, but the wait is worth it. By that point, you're drawn into the world and begin to understand it. The same can be said of the healer, you've finally got to know her and like her.
The other characters are not as well written, and you care little for them. This is not a major drawback, because most of the other characters are of minor importance, existing primarily to further the plot. The story itself is engrossing, and contains a number of loose ends where sequels could be possible, but oddly, McIntyre has not written one. These "jagged edges" seem realistic to real life, if a little frustrating.
Overall, it's a good book, and enjoyable to read. You'll have to trust me on that, because after the first 30 pages, you'll be thinking otherwise, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded.
on September 19, 2000
Dreamsnake is one of only 15 books to win both the Hugo and the Nebula. As such, I had high hopes for it, and I was not disappointed. True, it doesn't have ground-breaking vision of books like Gateway or Ringworld, but what it lacks there, it more than makes up in conventional world-building and, even more importantly, characterization.
The story takes place in a post-holocause Earth, where a limited amount of bio-technology is all that is keeping humanity to shrinking back to a hunter-gatherer society. The most obvious example of this is the dreamsnake, whose venom enables healers to ease the pain of the wounded, and comfort the dying. Snake, the main character, is such a healer. However, her dreamsnake is killed, and she must seek out another, or cease to be a healer. The story carries the reader from the Great Dessert, to the healer station where they breed dreamsnakes (with little luck), to Center, the sole spaceport where humans from off-world still come, and finally to the mysterious domes. And as we explore this compelling world, we also get to explore the inner workings of Snake, and see what makes her tick.
However, while the story is a very pleasing one most of the way through, one gets to the end and can't shake the feeling that the author left some important questions unanswered. This story is definitely ripe for a sequel, but McIntyre doesn't look to be very interested. Pity.
on May 25, 2000
I picked this book up ten years ago for the silliest reason (it was next to Anne McCaffrey) and I haven't put it down since. This is one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, science fiction book for many reasons. The first, and most trivial, is that I love snakes, and their starring role made this an appealing book. I especially like that they are a crucial plot element, and that McIntyre gets FAR away from the traditional views of snakes as evil. Moving on, I have found myself thinking of the characters many times in other contexts and find them to be well-drawn. Whenever I read it, I wish that Arevin had a larger part, but it is Snake's book, not his. I read this when I was 13 and the sexuality in it was a revalation. Looking back on it, I realize that it was age appropriate for me then (a mature 13) and it still is now. I agree that North is a fairly thin villian, but that is more than made up for me by the intriging bad guys in the dome. I have also always wanted to know what their story was. I own two copies--my paperback, and a hardcover that I was elated to find at a used book store for $2.50! I also like the scientific emphasis of it, though it is set in such an uncivilized world.