Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre


WHEN (this was published)

Dreamsnake, written by Vonda N. McIntyre, was published in 1978 by Houghton Mifflin Company.  McIntyre based the novel on her novelette, “Of Mist, Grass, and Sand,” for which she received the Nebula in 1973, and a Hugo nomination in 1974.  In the 70s, McIntyre witnessed both the women’s liberation movement and the rapid development of genetic knowledge and technology.  To write a story with a dynamic heroine, systematic gender equality, nonexistent rape culture, uninhibited casual sex, homosexuality, and polygamy, was and still is an incredible feat.  McIntyre was recognized for her efforts, as Dreamsnake won the Hugo in 1978, and the Nebula in 1979.  Dreamsnake was only the third book featuring a female protagonist to earn the Hugo.  However, the book fell out of favor and has not been in print for over a decade.

WHO (should read these 277 pages)

Anyone with a healthy sense of adventure, a fondness for reptiles, or an interest in the medical field would find Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre enthralling.  I would recommend it to high schoolers and adults prepared for strong liberal sexual undertones, focused on values of consent, equality, and safety.  But really, if you have Ophidiophobia, don’t read Dreamsnake unless you’re serious about confronting your fear.


WHAT (happens between the pages)

A young woman named Snake sets out through the treacherous landscape of post-apocalyptic Earth to develop and utilize her skills as a healer.  One of the most useful tools for a healer is the snake, ranging from average sand vipers, to albino cobras that can catalyze medicines and vaccinations, to alien hallucinogenic dreamsnakes.  The death of Snake’s dreamsnake, Grass, sets off a chain of events that sends our heroine on a perilous journey to the technological walled city of Center and beyond.  Along the way she heals the sick, battles for the weak, and meets many fascinating individuals, like Merideth, an ambiguously gendered polygamist jeweler, Melissa, a scarred twelve-year-old horse tender, and Arevin, who is not the expected knight-in-shining armor love interest.  The vivid and diverse set of characters, the believable yet imaginative biological extrapolation, and the dynamic, inspiring, protagonist carry the reader through a memorable adventure in pursuit of knowledge, compassion, and dreamsnakes.


WHERE (we can fit this book into our understanding of the world)

Heavily influenced by women’s lib movements and discussions she was having about gender, reproduction, equality, McIntyre created a feminist utopia in the world of Dreamsnake.  This influence is felt in the systemic gender equality that pervades the setting, as all individuals can own property, participate in neutral casual sex, and enter into fluid polygamous partnerships.  Due to the biological ability to control fertility (biocontrol), men and women share the burden of prophylactics, and consent precedes all sex.  Sexual assault is abhorred in society; it is unclear if they even have a word for rape.  Things function supposedly so people “can all be as free as possible most of the time, instead of some [sic] being free all the time,” though slavery persists in isolated areas (McIntyre, 61).

McIntyre also issued statements on science with her passages on genetic manipulation and cloning.  People who live in the advanced city of Center hold fear and disgust for practices of cloning and mutation, whereas the healers genetically manipulate organisms and manage to maintain balanced, caring relationships with them.  McIntyre humanized science a bit there, showing individuals as the driving force behind discovery and having the power to affect the implications of their work for the better.  She also demonstrated science’s effectiveness at bringing people together with her description of the healers’ community as a place for gathering to further peace and knowledge.

This healers’ community is shown to have faults, however, in its isolationism.  In fact, almost all groups in Dreamsnake share this fault, most likely developed as a coping strategy for the lack of interpersonal trust in harsh post-apocalyptic conditions.  Arevin’s clan, for example, had a practice of withholding their given names until an intimate connection is created.  In another case, isolation from the healers’ knowledge led to the death of Snake’s dreamsnake.  Center is also isolated, which created an ignorant population, vulnerable outside the walls of their city.  As McIntyre reminds us, “[Snake’s] people, like all the other people on earth, were too self-centered, too introspective.  Perhaps that was inevitable, for their isolation was well enforced.  But as a result the healers had been too shortsighted” (255).  McIntyre illustrated how people are shaped by forces outside their control, and can only make choices within environment boundaries.  But in this case, choices led to isolation of knowledge and technology, which inhibited the growth of humanity.  This proved a detriment to Snake’s society, and many were hurt because of a stubborn refusal to share.


WHY (you should read this)

Mostly because it’s magnificent, but also to prove this reviewer wrong:

 “Why do female science fiction authors write like female science fiction authors? Do they have to be so stereotypical? Their ability to write characters is shit, which is extra annoying because women are supposed to be so fucking empathetic. “Dreamsnake” is written like some sort of personal fantasy of a science fiction high school loner. In it, the female heroine is a healer in a post-nuclear warfare Earth. She goes from place to place, helping people, but none of the places and events are interesting. In it, there is a muscled hero with him acting all chivalrous and completely in love with her, that…just fuck. You know what, in my personal project of reading every Hugo winner, I have realized that every science fiction book awarded to a female author has been shit and I can only rationalize it with the fact that the judges were probably huge nerds that probably felt that by giving high points to the female authors, they might get to fuck them. Even if the female authors looked like science fiction aliens…” — Goodreads.com

HOW (you can read this book)

Dreamsnake is available as an e-book:


McIntyre, Vonda N. Dreamsnake. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Abedi, Mohammad Ali “Dreamsnake.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., 1 Aug. 2013.

2 responses to “Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

  • cstabile

    Misogyny isn’t dead on the internet. Quel surpris. I’m surprised that Goodreads doesn’t have a better policy. Why don’t you post part of this review on Goodreads as an antidote?

    Anyway, very nice review. Your insight about the way that McIntyre humanizes science is an important one. I’m wondering in this context what you think about the murder of Grass at the beginning of the novel?

  • McIntyre Interview with Quintin Kreth | Feminist Science Fiction Seminar

    […] Throughout this term, I have primarily studied the life, correspondence, and published works of Vonda N. McIntyre, a Pacific Northwest science fiction author. McIntyre was born in Louisville, Kentucky on August 28, 1948 and has lived primarily in Seattle since  her family settled there in the early 1960s. She is a 3-time winner of the Nebula Award and also won the 1979 Hugo Award for her acclaimed novel Dreamsnake. […]

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