Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feminist Futures: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

When we started planning for the Feminist Futures project at Nerds of a Feather last year, I had a lot of thoughts about what I wanted to cover. Russ and Tiptree? Yes please! (Le Guin was already well in hand.) Something to fit within our main time period but also demonstrate the existence of marginalised voices outside white cis women? Enter Jessica Amanda Salmonson's pioneering women-led adventure fantasy anthology, Amazons!. And I knew wanted to do something from a more thematic perspective, looking at how feminisms of the time hold up to modern perspectives, particularly where assumptions of the gender binary come in.

Those posts exist. However, one post that I wanted to write, that I expressed my excitement for to the rest of the team, that didn't happen? That was Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre. My copy of that book is currently in a friend's storage box, and I never quite figured things out in time to get hold of them. Dreamsnake, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus winning post-apocalyptic story of healing and hallucinogenic venom, whose author somehow doesn't get offered up in the same breath as Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree and Butler nearly as much as her contributions to the genre merit, would have to wait.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Vonda McIntyre died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. The catalogue of her contributions to genre - in her original stories, her canon-enhancing Star Trek novelisations and tie-ins, her founding of the Clarion West writers workshop and of the Book View Cafe ebook site, and her support and warmth to others - have since been written by those much better placed than I to appreciate the loss her death represents. Through these posts, I learned from these posts was just how much of a contribution McIntyre has made, and learning about these things through obituaries always, always, feels like too little too late.

So, last weekend, I returned to Dreamsnake, to remind myself of how it felt to experience this weird, wonderful story the first time around. It's a post that's been too long in the making, but even though the author is no longer with us, it's certainly not too late to put her feminist future in this series where it belongs.

Dossier: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Snake is a healer in a fractured post-apocalyptic world, travelling through various communities which live out relatively isolated existences in a world which appears to have gone through nuclear war. As you might guess from her name, the title, and almost every book cover Dreamsnake has been released with (except for a 1994 edition which decides to focus on the book's stripey horse. There's also... this.) this healing involves snakes: Mist, an albino cobra, and Sand, a rattlesnake, are both bred to synthesise various cures and vaccinations for illnesses, representing a combination of genetic engineering and on-the-spot biochemistry. The third snake is even more special: Grass is a dreamsnake, an extremely rare "offworlder" breed able to create hallucinations and pleasant dreams which are most often used to ease the pain of the dying.

Dreamsnake's plot falls roughly into three episodic parts. In the first - which originally formed the self-contained novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" - she meets with a nomadic desert community who seek help for a sick child, but panic when she leaves the boy with Grass overnight and kill the dreamsnake, leaving Snake bereft of one third of her abilities despite her success in eventually healing the boy's illness. Initially resigned to returning to her community to admit the loss, Snake is instead persuaded to travel into the mountains to the region's only "city" - an underground vault still closed off to outside visitors but which might be willing to help her in return for information about one of their own. The second act sidetracks this journey somewhat as Snake spends time in a mountain community healing the town's mayor and fixing everyone's problems, leaving with an adopted daughter and a shady follower apparently trying to steal her stuff. In the third act, Snake's interactions with that shady follower leads her to an unexpected source of Dreamsnakes and a dangerous showdown with the man who keeps them. Interspersed with all of this are brief scenes from the perspective of Arevin, a man who despite only meeting with Snake briefly in the opening has now been set up as her designated heterosexual love interest and is seeking to close the gap between them. Arevin is not going to make much more of an appearance in this review, which should indicate how much I think this romance adds to the overall plot.

Feminist FutureDreamsnake's science fictional underpinnings are mainly rooted in biology and genetic engineering, and the technology-disguised-as-magic of the healers and their snakes is complemented by other assumed developments in humanity, particularly when it comes to fertility. It's assumed that everyone in this world has enough physiological control over themselves to, uh, raise and lower the temperature of different body parts, preventing the release of gametes while letting them have all the no-strings-attached sex that they want. The ability to have sex divorced from threat of pregnancy plays out as a constant through the different communities in Snake's world, meaning that sex for pleasure is widely accepted and cohabitation is usually based on more than pairings, but that people can become ostracised if they get a reputation for not having control, as its assumed that sex with a risk of pregnancy won't be enjoyable for anyone involved. Given the level of technology that societies have in Dreamsnake, there's an implication that these scientific underpinnings came at least in part from whatever society came before Snake's, and while this is left completely mysterious it's still pretty revolutionary to consider that despite apparently wiping themselves out in a nuclear war, these forerunners also found time to take the gendered implications of fertility seriously and focus scientific priorities on it.It's also worth looking at the characterisation here. Dreamsnake follows a protagonist who it's hard to believe predates the "paragon Bioware protagonist" stereotype by two decades (maybe more, I have no idea how pathologically helpful you can be in Baldur's Gate). Snake is practical, sensible in both her actions and her emotional regulation, and constantly able to overcome the biases and irrationalities of people around her, and the narrative is happy to showcase her ability to do so, deepening the worldbuilding through what we see through her eyes. Snake gains different reactions from different people, but they are all through the lens of her being a healer - a non-gendered role - and aside from assumptions of heterosexuality there's no suggestion that Snake's journeys through the world are particularly shaped by her being a woman. It's a refreshing standpoint, reinforced by moments like Arevin taking the lead on childcare within his extended family, which makes me forgive the occasional moments where Snake comes across as a little too annoyingly right about everything, and it's a point that leads me on to...

Hope for the Future: In almost all post-apocalyptic stories I can think of, where human society contracts from a lost age of high technology into pockets of isolation, there's generally a patriarchy involved. Whether it's a return to "natural" hierarchies across society and the assumed erosion of status for women due to lack of average muscle mass, or the creation of pockets of extreme - often religious fundamentalist - patriarchy as part of a patchwork of ideologies, if you're reading a post apocalyptic story in which women exist, there's probably going to be some heightened misogyny, rape and exploitation somewhere, and it's probably going to be at least a side plot to the main narrative. There's an assumption that, without the social, cultural and technological forces of our current society, at least some men are going to go back to the default state of treating women like things.

What sets Dreamsnake apart is that it completely resists this interpretation of post-apocalyptic society. Sure, all of the societies Snake visits have their own permutations of close-mindedness, societal bias and emotional repression, with some interesting, understated nuances here. Arevin's people don't tell their names to anyone except immediate family and very close friends, making the fact that Snake learns his name in the short time they are together an indicator of how quickly and deeply he develops feelings for her; a group of nomadic scavengers are persuaded to overcome their fear of outsiders' medication and experiments with the promise of a Tetanus vaccination; the mountain community are collectively obsessed with beauty and ostracise Melissa, the girl Snake adopts, largely because of facial burns. What none of these societies have is baked-in misogyny: a point which is driven home (as cringey as this is going to be for modern readers) by the rape subplot with Melissa and her guardian. When Snake finds out that Melissa is being raped, she is completely thrown by how monstrous a person would have to be to do something like that, and faces a challenge in bringing the man's behaviour to light because the community's leaders are equally unable to believe that someone would force sex on another person. Although I'm a lot less impressed on a second reading with the introduction of male violence just to drive home how little male violence this book has, it does achieve that effect.

Moreover, the lack of baked-in patriarchy and restrictions on Snake's actions by virtue of being a woman make the antagonist of the third act, North, much more compelling and sinister, because the threat he represents is not overshadowed by the general awfulness of society, or played up to have to compete with the casually awful predators that men without societal constraints are expected to be in post-apocalyptic fiction. There are a ton of predatory undertones to North's behaviour towards Snake and Melissa, but these climactic scenes benefit from being allowed to stand as the behaviour of an awful person, rather than the inevitable result of a woman in post-apocalyptic times trying to do something besides staying at home with the water purifiers.

Legacy: Dreamsnake clearly made quite an impression on its release, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus (SF) awards. In doing so, McIntyre became the third author after Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) to pick up all three awards for the same book. What I don't know, but would be interested to find out, is how many other authors have picked up an award for a short fiction piece, as McIntyre did for the novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" (which won a Nebula) and then gone on to win again with a reworked longer piece. I can't think of any other examples, but that doesn't mean they're not out there...

In Retrospect: Four decades after its release, Dreamsnake is a fascinating and worthwhile read, with a world that's just as interesting on a second visit and which is well integrated into an episodic, character driven plot. There are elements that might look different if Dreamsnake were written today: the sexual violence against Melissa feels like an exhausting contribution to an overused plot device from a modern perspective, even though it's not used to humiliate her or to titillate the audience, and despite the expansion in what constitutes a family unit, the actual relationships and humans of Snake's world are pretty heterosexual and binary, particularly given the big biological reveal at the end. Nevertheless, this is a book which deserves all of its current recognition and more: a work which looks the patriarchy of our own world in the face and says "nope, this one's not for you". It may only be a small part of McIntyre's legacy but it's one I'm so grateful to have experienced.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: McIntyre, Vonda. Dreamsnake [Houghton Mifflin, 1978].