Dreamsnake Review

21:02 Tue 15 Sep 2009. Updated: 12:54 12 Oct 2009
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Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Locus and Hugo awards. I’m having trouble figuring out why. This is not to say it’s bad—it’s quite good, and I’ve definitely encountered worse award winners. But it won all three while seeming to me like a good but unremarkable novel, and my expectation is that the “triple crown” winners would be remarkable in some way.

Dreamsnake does stand out in some respects from the previous winners. It’s entirely planetbound, with no characters at any time leaving Earth. It’s postapocalyptic, depicting a world ravaged at some earlier date by nuclear war and containing communities with vastly different technological levels. (It’s not a “postapocalyptic novel” in the traditional sense, however, as it takes place long after humanity has recovered to a functional state.)

I mostly liked the writing style, thought that McIntyre had some good ideas about how societies might evolve in the future, and thought there were excellent pieces of characterization in it, although some of it was less convincing. Like the two winners before it, Dreamsnake contains some musings on how human sexuality might change over time, and I thought that was handled pretty well.

What makes it short of remarkable is that the plot and the world aren’t quite compelling enough. The plot, is is the usual approach, uncovers the world as it progresses, but about two-thirds of the way through it veers off and leaves quite a few questions unanswered. It’s a relatively simple quest plot, with the lead character, a female healer called Snake, searching for a replacement for her dreamsnake (an alien snake that grants visions and that healers use to ease the pain, and sometimes the passing, of their patients). It has a romance subplot tied into it also, which I found less than convincing.

I thought it was worth reading, and I suspect that other triple crown winners will strike me as less deserving, but there was something ultimately slight about Dreamsnake that made me surprised that it won—I woud have been less surprised by a terribly-written winner that had some kind of (purportedly) “big idea” at its heart. Dreamsnake is definitely better than that, and perhaps my own focus on plot is what makes me underestimate it.

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