A Less Apocalyptic Postapocalypse

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Hugo awards for best novel. It also won the Locus Award, given on the basis of a poll run by Locus magazine. Its first chapter was originally published as a novelette called “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand.” That got a Nebula, too. People really liked Dreamsnake, is what I’m saying. Despite this, it was out of print for years and is now only available as an ebook. Apparently it got caught in a couple of publisher meltdowns. I’d at first wondered whether it was just so different from the last twenty years’s worth of science fiction that publishers didn’t know what to do with it.

Cover of Dreamsnake

While checking the dates on those awards I came across Tor.com’s rundown on the 1979 Hugo awards and there were multiple comments to the effect that Dreamsnake hasn’t aged well. Which is weird. I mean, yes, this is a very 1970s novel. It’s a post-apocalypse where the apocalypse was a nuclear exchange, not a climate disaster, pandemic, or zombie swarm. Humanity enjoys copious free love because someone has invented biofeedback-based birth control, perhaps following the discovery of a surviving Whole Earth Catalog. Dreamsnake does not contain dolphins, but if it did they would probably talk. But these are minor quirks, not problems. Many, many SF novels still considered classics have aged far worse. There are more interesting ways in which Dreamsnake departs from today’s SF, and to me those differences make it seem fresh.

I read Dreamsnake a few months ago. I decided to finish and post this review after The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet because Dreamsnake is another SF novel set in a world that doesn’t feel malign. Which is funny, because it’s a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. But it’s the rare post-apocalyptic story about how civilization still functions, more or less.

Snake is a doctor on the post-apocalyptic equivalent of her internship. She travels through scattered communities with a trio of snakes engineered to produce medicine instead of venom. Unfortunately a patient’s family freaks out over her dreamsnake, the snake that provides anesthetic, and kills it. Dreamsnakes are really hard-to-get space snakes, so this is equivalent to the new intern letting somebody smash the MRI machine. Snake hopes to salvage her trip by finding a new dreamsnake, or at least some clues to how to convince the damn things to breed. Meanwhile over in the B plot Arevin, a relative of the ophidiophobes, leaves to find Snake’s people and let them know the dead snake incident was totally not her fault.

Many modern science fiction and fantasy novels follow one of two templates: endless, meandering serials with oversized casts and heavily media-influenced series whose individual volumes read like Hollywood movies. Dreamsnake is a single, complete, not-overly-long novel with only a couple point-of-view characters. Like Long Way it’s a picaresque novel with ongoing plot strands that come up at the climax. (Between these novels I’m coming to realize how much affection I have for this narrative structure.) An episodic structure is exactly what this novel needs to express its themes: moving Snake between different people with different cultures and technologies, and showing them coexisting, is the point. Arevin’s subplot gives another perspective on the places Snake visits, and reveals more about her society without having to send her home.

The different sub-stories allow Dreamsnake to run its themes through several variations. What’s interesting about the novel’s setup is Snake’s reaction to the death of her dreamsnake. It would be easy to put all the blame on the people who attacked her snake, who honestly should have known better. But Snake also blames herself for not getting how afraid they were, or explaining enough: she “didn’t understand them until too late.” She should have talked to them more.

Snake’s adventures center around communication, and problems caused by miscommunication and bad assumptions. An exile from a domed city dies because she went prospecting in a radioactive crater; her people lied to her so often she no longer believed in the danger. A young man is given outdated information on those birth control techniques and causes an unwanted pregnancy. Snake discovers and rescues an abused child by being the first person to pay any attention to her. On a less fraught note, Arevin discovers late in his journey that he may have mildly offended several people by misunderstanding what they meant when they asked if there was anything they could do for him.[1] In between, Dreamsnake is punctuated by small misunderstandings cleared up by talking. Snake solves problems by asking questions, sharing information, and considering other points of view. She loses her temper with stupidity or genuine evil, but generally she’s patient, tolerant, and curious.

This is unusual for a post-apocalyptic hero. Post-apocalyptic fiction is squarely in the middle of that strain of SF that assumes heroes are tougher than they are smart. This is especially true of media SF, but given that novels are a textual medium it’s odd that many SF novels also have heroes who don’t primarily solve problems by using their words.

SF has a bad habit, going back to “The Cold Equations,” of valorizing people who make what are laughably called “hard choices” to survive. By this they mean that their heroes will compromise their morals to ensure their own safety. This never seems as difficult to these heroes as the phrase “hard choices” would imply. Nowhere is this a bigger cliché than in an apocalyptic wasteland. Survivors lock the riff-raff out of the fallout shelter and leave the weak and injured for the zombies. This is not how most people behave during disasters in real life. That’s because real life doesn’t have writers out to punish anyone who doesn’t live up to their standard of toughness. Post-apocalyptic heroes make hard choices because they’re in the power of authors who contrived their worlds to require them.

But Dreamsnake’s world isn’t inherently hostile to the people in it, so most of those people are reasonable. Dreamsnake has villains, including an abusive guardian and what’s basically a drug dealer, but it’s interesting how tawdry and how small these villains are. The narrative doesn’t center on them and they don’t drive it. They’re not strong, charismatic, or clever. They aren’t Snake’s biggest problems; they seem more like symptoms of problems. In Dreamsnake’s world villains aren’t powerful, just pathetic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Dreamsnake is not a utopian novel. This is, again, a world with radioactive craters. But the communities that are left are getting along okay because humanity didn’t abandon every value it ever held the moment the bombs fell. Most people do their best to cooperate and to fix things, and McIntyre didn’t construct their world to constantly pull their football away. I wish Dreamsnake had been a bigger influence on the SF genre. It needs more novels where evil is weak and heroes solve problems with kindness and curiosity instead of face-punching.

In closing, I should really try harder to review books I liked on their own merits instead of spending most of the review comparing them to the ones I disliked.

  1. They forgot to add “Nudge nudge, wink wink.”  ↩