The following review was published in the April 2011 issue of Cascadia Subduction Zone. We are grateful to CSZ for granting us permission to reprint it here in the BVC blog.
The Wild Winds of Possibility
Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake
Reviewed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dreamsnake is in some ways a strange book, unlike any other in science fiction, which may explain the even stranger fact that it’s not currently in print (except on line at http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/dreamsnake/).
When people ask me what sf books influenced me or what are my favorites, I always mention Dreamsnake. Invariably I get a warm response — “Oh yes!” And people still tell me how much the book meant to them when they first read it and ever since. But these days, many younger readers don’t know it exists.
The short story the book was based on won the 1973 Nebula; the book was an immediate success; it became and still is beloved. Its moral urgency and rousing adventure story are not at all dated. It should have gone from one paperback reprint to another.
Why didn’t it?
I have some theories.
Theory #1: Ophidiophobia. The phobia is common and extends to pictures, even the mention, of snakes; and the book features them even in the title. A heroine who lets snakes crawl on her, and she’s named Snake? Oh icky.…
Theory #2: Sex. It’s an adult book. Snake, though, is barely more than a kid, setting out on her first trial of prowess, so that young women can and do identify with her, happily or longingly (and her taste in men is far better than that cavewoman Ayla’s). But could the book be approved for use in schools? The sexual mores are as various as the societies, including some very unorthodox customs, and Snake’s sexual behavior is both highly ethical and quite uninhibited. She can afford to be fearless, because her people know how to control their fertility through biofeedback, how to prevent insemination through a simple, learned technique. But, alas, we don’t.… Given the relentless fundamentalist vendettas against “witchcraft” and “pornography” (read imaginative literature and sexual realism) in the schools, few teachers in the 1980s could invite the firestorm that might be started by a rightwing parent who got a hint of how young Snake was carrying on. Sexless hard-sf or Heinleinian fantasies of girlish docility were much safer. I think this killed the book’s chance of being read widely as a text in junior high or high school, and even now may prevent its being marketed to the YA audience.
Theory #3: The hypothesis of gendered reprinting. It appears that as a general rule books written by men get reprinted more frequently and over more years than books written by women. If this is so, Heinlein has always been given a handicap over McIntyre and will always have one.
Looking on the bright side, however, good writing tends to outlive mediocre writing, real moral questioning to outlast rant and wishful thinking. Dreamsnake is written in a clear, quick-moving prose, with brief, lyrically intense landscape passages that take the reader straight into its half-familiar, half-strange desert world, and fine descriptions of the characters’ emotional states and moods and changes. And its generosity to those characters is quite unusual, particularly in science fiction with its tendency to competitive elitism.
Take the birth-control-via-biofeedback idea — certainly one of the great technological- imaginative inventions, and appreciated as such by many of McIntyre’s readers (although because it’s not hard tech and is subversive of gender dominance, male critics have tended to ignore it). McIntyre doesn’t make it a subject of celebration, excitement, or question; it’s taken for granted, it’s how things are. Meeting a young man whose education has been so cruelly mismanaged that he doesn’t know how to control his fertility, Snake is appalled, but sympathetic. She knows how bitterly humiliated he is by what he can see only as a personal failure, like impotence, but worse, because for him to have a heterosexual relation might involve damage to the other person.…
They do manage to solve his problem.
Yes, there is some wishful thinking in McIntyre’s book, but it is so thoroughly, carefully worked out in terms of social and personal behavior that its demonstration of a permanent streak of kindness in human nature is convincing — and as far from sentimentality as it is from cynicism.
The writer Moe Bowstern gave me a slogan I cherish: “Subversion Through Friendliness.” It looks silly till you think about it. It bears considerable thinking about. Subversion through terror, shock, pain is easy — instant gratification, as it were. Subversion through friendliness is paradoxical, slow-acting, and durable. And sneaky. A moral revolutionary, rewriting rules the rest of us were still following, McIntyre did it so skillfully and with such lack of self-promoting hoo-ha that we scarcely noticed. And thus she has seldom if ever received the feminist honors she is due, the credit owed her by writers to whom she showed the way.
What I mean by sneaky: Take the character called Merideth. When I first read Dreamsnake I thought the odd spelling of the name Meredith was significant and tried so hard to figure out why this enigmatic, powerful person was called “merry death” that I totally missed what’s really odd about Merideth. Three-cornered marriages being usual in this society, Merideth is married to a man and a woman…sure, fine.… But we don’t know whether as husband or as wife. We don’t know Merideth’s gender. We never do.
And I never noticed it till, in conversation about the book, I realized that I’d seen Merideth as a man — only because Meredith is a Welsh male name. There is no other evidence one way or the other, and McIntyre avoids the gender pronoun unerringly, with easy grace.
June Arnold’s The Cook and the Carpenter came out in 1973 to much acclaim by feminists and was read mostly by feminists. Dreamsnake was published five years later as science fiction and read by everybody who read science fiction. How many of them even noticed that the gender of a character had been left up to them to decide, or refuse to decide? I still remember the shock of realizing that I’d been well and truly subverted. All the stuff we were saying about gender as social construct, as expectation, was revealed to me as built solidly into my own mind. And by that revelation my mind was opened.
I wish this beautiful, powerful, and highly entertaining book were back in print for the generation of sf readers who missed it, and all the young readers ready to have their mind blown wide open by the wild winds of possibility. Dreamsnake is a classic, and should be cherished as such.
Ursula K. Le Guin met Vonda N. McIntyre at an early SFWA meeting in Berkeley (Ursula’s home town) when Ursula was thirtyish and the author of some but not yet innumerable books, and Vonda was, well she seemed about 15 but must have been over 21, because they went off together to the bar in the beautiful old Claremont Hotel, where they bonded. They have remained friends ever since, both in their daylight personas and as the shadowy, inscrutable figures of Ygor and Buntho, who do workshops, make books, hang curtains crooked, and send many, many emails between Portland and Seattle. Vonda is Ursula’s extraordinary webmistress and Ursula lured Vonda into the National Writers Union. This disclosure is made in the interests of balanced review judgments: if Ursula did not admire Vonda’s writing wholeheartedly, she wouldn’t write about it.
Ursula’s most recent publication is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, with photographer Roger Dorband, Raven Press, 2010. She graciously contributed a poem to the CSZ’s inaugural issue.
Get your ebook copy of Dreamsnake right here at Book View Café.