Monday, March 3, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas: 1978 winner Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake

Taking place in the distant future, Dreamsnake by American writer Vonda N. McIntyre, tells the story of "Snake" a Healer on a post-apocalyptic, radioactive, unforgiving Earth. Healers in this period are highly respected and equipped to handle health emergencies in a place that has largely forgotten modern medicine. When Snake's only dreamsnake is accidentally killed while helping a patient, she is professionally hobbled and embarks on a quest to find a new one. Along the way McIntyre details a quest riddled with hazards, hostiles, odd sexual mores and a decimated landscape all of which leads to a fascinating and provocative story. Unlike so much science-fiction, the story has no obvious “offworlders” but does make it clear that there has been contact with extra-terrestrials and this becomes an important part of the story by the end of the book. Along with winning the 1978 Nebula award, Dreamsnake was also the recipient of the 1979 Hugo award from the international science-fiction community.

Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre, Houghton Mifflin, 1978, pp. 277
Dreamsnake has the heavy undertone of drug use and culture that one might expect from a book published in the 1970s. Indeed, Snake’s primary method of creating medicine is by three snakes and the alchemy that comes from mixing their venom. The primary antagonist is also very much akin to a drug lord and it’s the magic-turned-science of the Dreamsnake that gives this book has much a fantasy feeling to it as a science-fiction one. So while strictly speaking I would label it a science-fiction novel, it has some intense fantastical elements to it and at times could almost be integrated into the elaborately constructed worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. The characters are both well developed and richly detailed and their convincing motivations do well to drive the story forward. With a number of the sub-plots, the story is also somewhat layered and gives the readable characters a humanity that makes the story as much about them as it does the odd new world.

This is not really the type of science-fiction I would normally buy and honestly I only read it because of the Nebula quest I'm currently on. But I’m glad I did. It was a worthy winner of the award for best novel from the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for 1978 and a very Good read overall.     

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