“Dreamsnake” by Vonda N McIntyre – A Science Fiction classic – still as fresh and powerful as when I read it in 1980


The cover on the left is the edition of “Dreamsnake” that snagged my attention back in 1980. The graphics were original and intriguing. Winning the Hugo AND the Nebula awards placed it alongside “Dune “, “The Left Hand of Darkness“, “Ringworld ” and “The Dispossessed ” all by authors I knew well. Yet I had never heard of Vonda McIntyre.

I bought the book, was hooked from the first scene, read it compulsively for the next few days and have carried it with me from house to house ever since.

When I came across the audiobook version (with a much less inspired cover), I decided to find out whether the book was impressive because it was of its time or whether it was simply a good book.

The audiobook itself must have been pioneering as it was recorded by Blackstone Audio in 1999. You can hear its age from time to time in the sound quality but Anna Fields’ talent as a narrator more than makes up for that.

Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

I’m happy to say that “Dreamsnake” is just as good now as I remember it being then.

Even on the first read, I was aware of how deftly Vonda McIntyre tells her tale. She builds a complete view of a complex world, not by using info-dumps/quotes from historical chronicles, but by showing what people take for granted and what they question.

Back then I was also impressed by the liberal sexual mores of societies that embraced, polyamory and required adults to have control over their own reproductive capabilities. These were radical ideas back then but “Dreamsnake” neither sensationalises them nor pushes them as dogma.

On a second read, I became aware that Vonda McIntyre had done something truly remarkable that I didn’t notice the first time around: she has written an exciting adventure that calls for bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of physical danger but where problems are never resolved through violence.

The strongest themes in this book are freedom, responsibility, and mutual obligation. Yet the book also reads as a quest-based adventure.

“Snake”, the Healer in the book, remains one of my favourite characters in Science Fiction. She is honest, brave, determined to help others but not superhuman. She is prone to anger, guilty of arrogance from time to time and often endangers herself and others because of a fundamentally naive world-view. Yet she is the kind of person who will always inspire fierce loyalty without ever seeking to do so.

“Dreamsnake” is a short book by modern SF standards. On the re-read, I was aware of how much more I wanted to know about this world and the people in it. There is enough here to power at least a trilogy.  “Dreamsnake” was actually built on a short story “Of Mist and Grass and Sand” which perhaps explains its compact power and there were no sequels.

If you are an SF fan, you should count “Dreamsnake” as part of the cannon.

If you’re not sure if SF is for you, give “Dreamsnake” a try and see if Snake and her serpents can win your heart the way they did mine.

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