Book Review: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields)
On a far future Earth destroyed by nuclear warfare, most people have reverted to tribal living on the desert. These people rely on roaming healers armed with three snakes whose venom help provide healing relief. Snake is on her first year of bringing roving healing, but when a misunderstanding ends in the death of her dreamsnake, she is determined not to return home to the healers until she finds a way to replace him. It is almost impossible to breed dreamsnakes, but maybe the city will be able to help. The city that keeps the tribes mostly locked out and communicates with the people who live in outer space.
This book made it onto my tbr for three reasons. It’s 1970s scifi by a woman author, known for being feminist, and is supposed to be able to change your mind about snakes. I was surprised to find it on Audible but elated, especially when I heard the sample of the narrator’s voice. She speaks at the perfect speed and tone for my listening taste. What I found, upon listening, was a book that brought everything I had been promised in a unique plot that I still find myself thinking about periodically. It is just so different, and different is good in my scifi.
You can’t talk about this book without talking about the snakes. I have a gut negative reaction to snakes; one that most likely was learned before I have memories, I’m sure. Both my husband and a close friend think snakes are super cute, so I was hoping this book might change my perception to at least be less negative. Interestingly, a key part of the plot revolves around a person minsinterpreting a snake as dangerous and reacting violently to it. Snakes are not seen as not dangerous, just that only certain snakes have truly dangerous venom, and people are encouraged to get immunized against this venom and to be cautious in areas where they might frighten a snake into striking. I came to care about Snake’s snakes and by the end of the book, where there is a scene that normally would have haunted my dreams (it involves someone in a pit full of snakes), I actually was able to react rationally to the situation and be more concerned about the evil of the person who threw the person in the pit and whether the person would be able to get out of the pit eventually than really be concerned about the snakes themselves. The book presents snakes much like other animals. They’re a living creature that can be dangerous or harmless or some mixture of both, and it’s about building your own knowledge so you know how to handle them more so than just being gut afraid of them. If that was all this book gave me, I would have been impressed, but it gave me so much more.
The plot leads through multiple different tribes and cultures, and all are imagined creatively and differently from each other. Cultural understanding is valued but only to the point where the culture is not actively harming innocents. As mentioned earlier, the whole book centers around a cultural misunderstading, and everyone on both sides of it takes responsibility for the situation. There’s a love interest for Snake who seeks to help her but she also helps herself (along with others). There’s a positive representation of adoption, as well as multiple sexualities and women and men both being responsible for birth control. Without giving anything away, the ultimate conclusion is about how changing your viewpoint can bring a solution, which is kind of the other side of the coin of the original cultural misunderstanding. It’s a smart book, largely about how different people interact and how humility and willingness to listen can move everyone forward.
Overall, this is a unique piece of scifi with an engaging plot that will change your mind about snakes. It left me wishing there was a sequel so I could revisit this world.
5 out of 5 stars
Readers who are sensitive to discussions of child rape should be aware it is discussed as something that occurred in the past to a character, although not depicted, and the victim is ultimately empowered.