The Hugo Project: 1979 – Dreamsnake

12 May

Previously on the Hugo ProjectI hate you but the science is cool.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we get back on track with our third lady author. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!


Vonda McIntyre
published in 1978


Snake is a healer, one of the few that has knowledge of genetics and medicine in a world that has slowly rebuilt itself after nuclear devastation. They work with a trio of serpents, a cobra, a rattlesnake, and a precious dreamsnake, to cure the ill and give comfort to the dying. But the number of healers grows fewer every year as they struggle to clone or mate enough dreamsnakes. When Snake’s own dreamsnake is killed by a fearful patient, she undertakes a journey to find another, and finds much more than she seeks…


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

Thank the gods for women writers. After wrestling with Pohl for the past month, Dreamsnake was exactly what I needed.

This won’t be a long review, because I can’t hope to do the book justice. Suffice to say it is beautiful and honest and heartbreaking and healing and every wonderful and painful thing you didn’t realize you needed. It’s absorbing, too, as evidenced by the fact that I read this mostly in rooms full of yelling teenagers and still nearly cried more than once. McIntyre’s prose is simple and subtle, and perhaps because of this it really packs a punch. I felt physical pain at the death of the dreamsnake Grass, despite it happening on page 18 of the novel.

I just…look, go read the book. It will break your heart and put it back together about fifteen times, but you’ll be better for it in the end.

Race: Skin color is not mentioned for most of the characters, other than ‘tanned by the sun’ since a lot of the story takes place in the desert. A few characters are specifically identified as having very dark (i.e. Black) skin. Probably most of the characters are supposed to be white, but I can’t really say for sure. Certainly plenty of room to headcanon characters however you want! At least through the lens of this story, race seems to be a non-issue in McIntyre’s post-nuclear-bombardment world.

Gender/Sexuality: Gender appears to be binary and cis, but there does not seem to be much of a difference between the relative status/power/freedom of males and females. Masturbation is portrayed as a healthy act of self-care. Polyamory is common, at least among the desert peoples Snake encounters, and homosexuality and bisexuality common. Among the mountain people it is quite normal for a person to bring up the possibility of sex with someone they have just met. If the other person declines, the initiator doesn’t press the issue. So, basically, the social norms are for adults to have sex with whomever they please so long as everyone consents, and to respect other people’s right to have or not have sex. AKA how the world SHOULD work.

Other: The character of North is an albino and has gigantism. I’m not sure if these fall under the category of disability; regardless, I found him an understandable character even though he was the bad guy. There are also the ‘crazies’ who roam the desert. It’s not clear whether their behavior is the result of mental illness or of damage done to their ancestors by radiation exposure. There do seem to be some mental health resources in place, at least amongst the mountain people.

OVERALL RANKING: 10 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases)

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Posted by on 12.5.2014 in Books


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