Dreamsnake: an under-appreciated novel for the ages and quite possibly my new favourite book. As far as I’m concerned, its main flaw is the lack of a sequel.
Set far in the future, the events of Dreamsnake occur long after a nuclear war has decimated most of the world. The story is told from the perspective of Snake, a woman who uses modified serpents to heal illness and injury. When one of her snakes is lost, she goes on a quest to try and redeem herself and restore her abilities as a healer. McIntyre’s rich fantasy world is cleverly unveiled little by little as Snake’s journey progresses.
The fact that the novel is 1970s feminist sci-fi undoubtedly puts some people off but, Dreamsnake holds up over forty years later due to brilliant worldbuilding, complex characters, and an interesting plot. Grounded primarily in biology rather than technology, the sci-fi aspects don’t seem dated, and the world remains believable. The writing style also feels in keeping with more modern books, and lacks the challenging passages and wordy description often found in older novels.
In fact, Dreamsnake was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Even today, sci-fi and fantasy are dominated by male protagonists and plots centred around violence. As well as having a self-sufficient female protagonist who is a healer, not a fighter, there are many other progressive aspects of this book. Snake meets polyamorous triads as well as other non-traditional families, and none are treated as shocking or lesser. Although the most significant relationship is one between mother and daughter, sex and sexual relationships are discussed throughout the story in a way that is refreshingly honest but not overly graphic. McIntyre also subtly challenges gender expectations, including by introducing characters who fulfil traditionally male roles and only later mentioning that they are female.
Despite being progressive, Dreamsnake crucially doesn’t feel as though it is trying too hard to achieve this, instead maintaining an equally casual tone when describing the scenery or when introducing a character’s two fathers. This effortlessness is part of its genius, as is the way in which many plot points quietly reflect real-world issues whilst remaining immersive and readable. If you only like fast-paced, action-packed adventures, this might not be the book for you, but for me the unique concept, character growth, and world exploration make it well worth reading.
Although the story does reach a conclusion, the depth of the worldbuilding and the openness that remains absolutely would have allowed for a sequel, and I believe there was more that could have been explored. Having said that, I do appreciate the mystique surrounding certain aspects of the Dreamsnake world that leaves the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. In any case, the late McIntyre did not write a sequel, so I will have to be content with rereading this book over and over again.
– M Shelton
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