Over the past few years I’ve been attempting to read some of the ‘classic’ SF books, those that won multiple awards or are always included in ‘Best Of’ or ‘Must Read’ lists. Vonda N. McIntyre’s ‘Dreamsnake’ was first published in 1978 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, so fits into this category nicely. This new edition from Jo Fletcher Books features a cover with almost mystical serpent imagery, artwork that seems to reflect the title perfectly. Even when it becomes apparent that the setting is a far future, post-apocalyptic Earth with minimalist SFnal trappings, the front cover is still beautifully apt.
Snake is a healer, who travels the barren landscape from village to village and, among the nomadic groups of the desert, accompanied by her genetically-modified serpents that can produce anti-toxins and inoculations. She is viewed with respect and even awe among those she meets, people who have lost many of the frills of civilisation and have adopted new superstitions and customs. These co-exist alongside solar panels, gene-splicing and rumours of off-planet visitors. It’s a society that Vonda N. McIntyre has crafted with care and imagination that drew me in with its plausibility and evocative descriptions.
Mankind has fractured into various groups that seem to have been drawn from different parts of mankind’s history: nomadic tribes, medieval villages with solar panels, an enclosed city that harbours advanced technology. Tying them all together as Snake travels among them is the Dreamsnake, a serpent of alien origin that is vital to the Healers’ arts.
As well as the settings and technology, the social set-up has been given equal thought. There is little background explication given, so there is some conjecture as to the reasons for the way societies have developed, but this adds to the sense of history and long-ago cataclysm. Some tribes appear to be bigamous or maybe polygamous. Is this due to a shortage of men or due to infertility? Much of the land is still poisoned by radioactivity. Healers only adopt children and don’t bear their own due to the nature of their work. Some view Snake and her serpents with awe, others are terrified. The patchwork of humanity painted across the novel is vivid and wonderful.
The central character, Snake, is particularly well-written. She has her fears and hopes, misconceptions and flaws tied together with her sense of duty as a healer and her sense of purpose as she tries to make up for her perceived mistakes. She is not a two-dimensional character over-ridden by moral duty nor an angst-driven character, but her past and each stage of the novel combine in layers to inform her choices and her interactions with others. The customs she encounters and the problems she tries to solve give her real depth and believability.
This was a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and was engrossed in from start to finish. It’s a gentle and yet powerful story, full of emotion and compelling adventure in a marvellously-crafted world.
Gareth D. Jones
(pub: Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus. 282 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85705-426-5)