Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Debbie Moorhouse
Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there’s very little harking back to the past. The “ancients” are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake‘s characters live in the present. As do we.
Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer’s work – they bring comfort and ease to the dying.
When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass’s death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers’ hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.
The writing is spare and overall doesn’t try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake’s eyes and so imperfectly understood.
The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she’s immune to their venom, she’s not impervious to being bitten. It’s these small details that make the snakes realistic.
Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.