Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Kate Macdonald
Dreamsnake (which won the Nebula, the Hugo and the Locus awards) is an eco-healthcare feminist novel, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world, in which communities have developed astounding gender-equal and sexual orientation-equal communities, but have lost much of the art of modern medicine. It’s a curiously divided setting: the villages in the mountains are medieval and pre-industrial; the towering guarded city called Center is intergalactic, since they host alien visitors and trade with them; and the nomadic communities wandering around the deserts are Bronze Age, only using knives. In The Exile Waiting, McIntyre’s 1975 first novel, which is set in Center, the space-ageness of the society is a total contrast to the outside world, without the midway points of a redeveloping civilisation that Dreamsnake presents.
Dreamsnake is about a healer, a travelling doctor called Snake, who arrives at a nomad community to heal a small boy of a stomach tumour. Her medicines are manufactured for her by her snakes, for this is how these healers make their medicine. She has three: a cobra called Mist and a rattlesnake called Sand, who make drugs from catalysts fed to them by Snake, according to the disease to be cured; and a dreamsnake called Grass, who is the anaesthetist. The dreamsnake can take away pain and give dreams, but it can also kill when it’s needed, giving a painless and easy death when there is no other way. There are no other heavy-duty painkilling drugs other than alcohol in this world (though they do have aspirin), so the dreamsnake is crucial. And this nomad group have never seen snakes used in medicine before, and are scared. The dreamsnake is killed when one of the boy’s fathers sees it snuggling up his son’s chest, as a comforting companion while he sleeps.
I said ‘fathers’ because this is a triploid society. Almost all the family groups and partnered parents are in threes, either two men and a woman, or the other way around. Children are born to the woman (some things don’t change), but all the extended family take care of the child. We get the impression that children don’t come along often, because this is a post-nuclear holocaust world. Mutations are feared and cast out by the people of Center, even though they inbreed among themselves without understanding the consequences. The knowledge owned by these different social groups consists of patches of very advanced science surrounded by swathes of ignorance, coupled with fear of the unknown, and a refusal by many to learn.
Outside the city, there are craters in the badlands where something large and nuclear exploded centuries earlier. Snake’s next patient, Jesse, fell off her horse there, and lay for a day in the radiation-soaked sand before being found. Without the dreamsnake, Snake cannot ease Jesse out of life while her body collapses in agony.
Without her dreamsnake, Snake is crippled: she cannot give relief, and she cannot ease death. She’s also distraught because the dreamsnakes are exceedingly rare. She cloned hers as part of her training, and no-one knows where they come from. Some people think the aliens brought them, and no-one knows where the aliens are. Center won’t let the healers into the city to talk to them. With Grass gone, Snake has no chance of getting another. And so she heads for her home in the mountains to work out what to do.
The novel tackles all sorts of social issues, but the principles for maintaining a strong and socially-responsible community are the most often invoked. This is an idealistic novel, an example of how a society ought to evolve, where equality is already a fixed part of social relations. The women are social leaders along with men: leading tribes, training doctors, running businesses, trading and running matriarchal family groups. Men are just as important, but the women have an equal share of the power. It’s a utopia struggling to emerge in a dystopia, though you’d need to read The Exile Waiting to realise quite how dystopic it is in that huge walled city, to understand better what the outside world communities are getting away from.
Social manners and conduct are extremely important. Snake is constantly coming across new social conventions because she has never travelled outside her mountain home before. Healers didn’t use to leave the mountains, so when Snake decided to explore, and look for new ways to help patients, she was an emissary into the unknown. We and her both; it’s a good narrative technique. The conduct rules in these small societies are designed to prevent conflict, and to maintain acceptable, safe living conditions. Some we can recognise from our own society; anyone fouling the water at a desert oasis will be asked to leave. No-one steals from someone else unless they’re crazy. This also impacts on personal relationships. The mayor of Mountainside spends half his time mediating and arbitrating to prevent conflict. The tribal leaders’ word is law, but they also work with a council and elders. Everyone has rights, and anyone violating those rights in a psychologically disturbed way (like in abusing children) has to go to something rather chilling called ‘the menders’, voluntarily or publicly. Mature teenagers are trained how to have sex, how to maintain control over their fertility. Girls can even bring on their own abortions, after a lot of training, presumably because of the frequent birth deformations that kill the babies beforehand: this is not a novel about Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, it’s too early for that. In some ways, this emphasis on behaving perfectly in a perfectly idealised society gets a bit too perfect, the people seem more like parables than characters. But there is enough erratic behaviour to add scratchy interest for development.
On her miserable way back to her teachers, Snake cures more patients, and meets people who show us more of this society, and wonders about the mystery of why her camp was attacked and shredded by a crazy desert wanderer. There’s a lengthy subplot about the mayor’s son in Mountainside, an outcast among his people, because he was unable to control himself, got his friend pregnant when they decided to have sex, and then she nearly died from the self-induced abortion she hadn’t been trained enough to control. He became an instant pariah: see how well women’s rights are regarded here? Trouble is, his rights, of being given the right training, were neglected, since Snake realises he was taught in an out of date way by a very old, revered and arrogant man whom no-one questions, and so he knows nothing of modern techniques. The scrotum needs heat, not cold, to reduce fertility. (I have no idea how correct this is, but frankly it doesn’t matter; it works perfectly in the plot.) But the point is, again, perfect knowledge is not always correct knowledge, and we all need to update our understanding, talk to other people, see what else is being discovered. As a metaphor for how society advances its knowledge in shut-off communities, it’s pretty effective.
Snake also rescues Melissa, another victim in Mountainside – my, this town certainly has some nasty secrets behind its perfect façade – a little girl who works invisibly in the stables, hiding because of her burns after the stables caught fire. The stablemaster takes all the credit for her work, and rapes her at will. Snake rescues her by adopting her as payment for curing the mayor of gangrene. Melissa will be Snake’s daughter and partner, using her street sense to offset Snake’s idealisation of her mission, and helps her to survive their travels.
The crazy person attacks Snake again because he wants the dreamsnake that he assumes Snake is still carrying in her snake bag, because that’s what all healers do. She realises that he’s been using dreamsnakes for drugs: he has bite scars all over his body. So this is interesting, that addiction exists in this perfectly idealised society. It feels like an infection from the decadent corruption of the city. Second, there must be hundreds of dreamsnakes somewhere if he’s been using them to bite him. Snake heads straight for the mountain where the crazy person leads her, and finds a crashlanded alien spaceship, some really extraordinary alien plantlife that is not so much invading the Earth, but adapting to it, enfolding itself into the earth and colonising it: we hardly notice this part of the narrative because by now we’re all keyed up looking for dreamsnakes and hardly have the attention to spare for McIntyre’s ideas about what is alien and what is natural. There is a great pit in the floor of the valley, and Snake and Melissa are forced into it to receive an indoctrinating overdose of dreamsnake venom, that will tie them both to the owner of the pit, and the dreamsnakes, forever, and make them his slaves. But in the pit, Snake works out the reason why the healers never been able to get dreamsnakes to breed, and how she has to save Melissa from an overdose of biting. It’s very tense. And there’s a muted love story in there too between Snake and a nomad that I haven’t even begun to tell you about.
Dreamsnake is a great novel: stuffed with ideas, and beautifully told, very satisfying, making you want more of this world. For that you’ll need to read The Exile Waiting. Go to McIntyre’s website for details of her short stories and uncollected writing, there’s a lot there to rootle around in.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.