Review of Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
By COYLE NEAL
Despite winning both the Hugo (1979) and Nebula (1978) awards, despite the fact that it’s incredibly well-written with a fast-paced plot set in a deeply imaginative world, and despite the fact that it is one of the most thoughtful expositions of second-wave feminism ever turned into a novel; you’ve probably never heard of the book Dreamsnake.
In part, this isn’t your fault—the book hasn’t done well in print (though there’s a cheap electronic copy available here).
In part, this is your fault. At least, that’s what Ursula le Guin says. More on that in a second.
Set after the nuclear holocaust, “Snake” is a healer who travels the savaged landscape attending the wounds of people using her three snakes Sand (a rattlesnake), Mist (a cobra), and Grass (a dreamsnake) as biological mortar-and-pestles to mix and dispense medicine. (Which I thought was actually kind of a creative idea—feed a genetically modified snake a certain kind of drug or plant, let its body filter it into its venom, and then use the snake’s instinctual strike as a means to give a sterile injection.) But when Grass is killed by terrified peasants, Snake goes on a quest to find a new dreamsnake—that rarest breed of viper which acts as the anesthetic snake and is (most likely) brought to earth by the enigmatic off-worlders. Along the way, she deals with the crippling loss of Grass and her subsequent inability to help in the direst of circumstances—a situation complicated by her adoption of the abused orphan Melissa.
So much for the book itself—and I should note that McIntyre is an excellent writer and that you could do a lot worse than to add Dreamsnake to your to-read list.
At least as interesting as McIntyre’s book are Ursula le Guin’s thoughts on both the reasons you’ve never read it and the value of Dreamsnake to feminism. First, she suggests that you won’t read this book because of your (likely) ophidiophobia—fear of snakes. A book about a woman who carries snakes and intentionally uses them on people is simply creepy to most people, however well-intentioned and useful those snakes may be. Second, there is some sex in it (not graphic), and that will probably immediately eliminate its use in high schools. Third, there may be a bias in the publishing world that means men’s novels get reprinted more than women’s novels, so once Dreamsnake went out of print it was statistically unlikely to be given another run.
All of which is unfortunate, according to le Guin, because Dreamsnake is an important addition to the feminist body of literature:
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.
In other words, McIntyre’s prose is so unobjectionable, so straight-forward in its science fiction plot and themes, that we miss the “subversive” nature of its feminist message. I confess that I missed this on reading through the first time; yet looking back at it, le Guin is right. A subtle-but-clearly-present theme throughout Dreamsnake is that men have been brutalizing women, holding them in subservience, and forcing them to conform to a worldview that keeps the patriarchy in place.
Again, we’re never explicitly told this. Men who work for these ends are always awful for other reasons, so if you’re not looking for it you’ll just think “wow, that guys an abusive jerk/drugged-up-cult-leader/bureaucratic drone.” It’s only on a second pass (or once le Guin has pointed it out) that it jumps out at us that it is always women who are the objects of their awfulness and men who are defending the traditional hierarchical order.
In opposition to this patriarchal oppression is Snake’s treatment of the rescued orphan Melissa. Where Melissa had been abused and held in subjection by the man responsible for her care, Snake rescues her and plans to show her a better way:
Perhaps Melissa could not yet think of herself as someone with a right to her own dreams; perhaps so many of her dreams had been taken from her that she no longer dared to have them. Snake hoped that somehow she could give them back to her daughter.
Melissa has constantly been defined by the men in her life. They told her who she was and what she should be. Snake reveals to her the possibility that she should be able to define her own identity. She should be able to have and pursue her own dreams, and live in a way that reflects her own desires (which, if you’re interested, involve working with horses).
Again, le Guin is quite right to point out that this is an excellent representation of the feminism of the 1970s. Moreover, she’s correct that this representation is handled in such a way that few will take issue with it. (And I think she’s also right that people tend not to read this book because it’s about snakes.)
I think the problem arises for us as Christians when these arguments are carried a step too far. Should women be able to outline and pursue their own dreams in the workplace, political realm, and community just as much as men? Absolutely! Should people—men and women alike—be able to define their own identities in every conceivable way however they want? Here is where we as Christians are going to respond that we find our identities not in who we are by nature, but in who Christ is and what He has done for us. Our sinful selves have been crucified with Jesus on the cross, and in their place new life has been given and we have been reconciled with God. (Galatians 2:20)
Which I think leaves Christians with an interesting perspective on the kind of feminism found in both le Guin and McIntyre—we can agree with and work with our feminist friends for their political goals of freeing women around the globe and working with them at home in pursuing their dreams. At the same time, we can disagree with our feminist friends by suggesting that these will never be more than secondary matters, and that there is a higher identity that should be sought out that transcends whatever small hopes and dreams we might have for ourselves—an identity with found in Jesus Christ that brings with it a restored relationship with God.
Dr. Coyle Neal teaches political philosophy and church history in Washington, D.C.