Dreamsnake is a 1978 SF novel by Vonda N. McIntyre, who is apparently best known as the author of numerous Star Trek tie-in novels.
I find that fact a little hard to process.
Dreamsnake won the Hugo, the Locus, and the Nebula – one of only thirteen novels in history to achieve the trifecta. Dreamsnake was the seventh. In this accomplishment, McIntyre followed Niven (Ringworld), Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama), Haldeman (The Forever War), Le Guin (The Dispossessed), and Pohl (Gateway). This novel is therefore one of the greats in the panthon of science fiction.
But to be honest, I find that fact a little hard to process too.
Dreamsnake is nowadays rather less remembered, McIntyre rather less famous, than most of the other authors to have achieved that level of acclaim. And that, I can understand. Not because of the quality, per se, but because this is a novel written in 1978 – not only accidentally, but essentially. In fact, this is a novel that’s a full-length (if we take a very generous interpretation of ‘full’) expansion of a short story originally written in 1973. Essentially 1973. The date of composition was, to be frank, my overwhelming impression of the book. It would be hard to imagine any book more ‘early seventies SF’ than this one.
And that’s to blame, I think, for many of the failures of the novel. And yet it’s also what underlies many of its triumphs.
Dreamsnake is a book that has both failure and triumph within it; that’s no surprise, that’s true of a lot of books. What makes this one a little perplexing, however, is that it succeeds at the difficult things, but goes astray on the easy ones.
Problems first. It makes perfect sense that the novel is an expansion of a short story – it has that tentative and limpid quality that one often finds in these cases, as though the author wanted to show us more but didn’t really know how to turn vignette into plot. As a result, what we get remains more vignette than narrative, which limits the extent to which the story can emotionally connect, and to which it is able to thrill. More of a problem, the author did not commit to the idea of an extended short story, but unsuccesfully tried to construct a narrative arc – so what we get is a series of sketches, of episodes, logically and causally linked but melodically detached, and as a result the scenes constantly teeter on the brink of dull repetition. Any given episode would have worked well as a short story (indeed I gather than three or four of them did), but all strung together I felt there wasn’t enough progressive narrative to distract from the similarities. There is a certain child-like “and then…” quality to the construction.
But that’s not the failure – it’s a problem, a limitation, but not a failure. The real failure lies in two linked issues. And one of them, the central one, is really hard to explain. How about this: there is at the heart of the book a fundamental naïveté. Strip away the trimmings, and the story is the sort of story we expect from pulp fiction, particularly YA – here I really can see the author as a popular shared world tie-in writer, because in some ways it’s the kind of writing I was putting aside as too childish, too simplistic, when I was just entering puberty. It’s a worldview: the world is divided into good people and bad people. The good people vastly outnumber the bad people, so almost all problems can be dealt with easily by just explaining why you’re right, and then the good people will nod and agree with you and do what you want – and if they don’t, it’s because they can’t, and need to be helped to improve. Perhaps a good person is doing the wrong thing because they’re afraid, for instance – so you pity them and resolve to help them overcome that fear so that they can agree with you, as any sane person would. The bad people, meanwhile, oh they’re very bad. They’re dangerous not just because they’re bad, but because basically they could do anything – I mean why wouldn’t they, they’re bad. If you’re particularly insightful you might give some psychological reason why they’re bad people, probably involving childhood abuse, and as a result you may pity them, but here and now they’re just bad people, and the reason they do bad things is because they are bad people, and thus are fundamentally uninteresting, because bad people are just a sort of vermin who occasionally make obstacles for good people, they aren’t really people themselves. Then again, nor are the good people, because being good is similar to being perfect, and all the good people are wonderful people with so many talents and virtues, and maybe just one or two minor handicaps sprinkled in to act as obstacles and provoke the occasional bit of angst. And of course, when two (or more, this is the seventies!) good people meet, there’s a good chance they fall in love at first sight, which is all very wonderful because love is always good.
I’m exaggerating here, to the point of disrespect – sometimes you have to amplify a sound in order to show it to somebody else. This is the sound I think I can hear running through this book, even if the author would doubtless reject it presented in such bald and hyperbolic terms as above.
And to be honest, it needn’t matter too much – except that in some ways the author doesn’t appear very talented. And that lack of talent – not appalling lack of talent, not the lack of elementary skills, but lack of the spark of genius that elevates a writer above the crowd and equips them to take on more difficult and ambitious challenges – manifests precisely in the ways that highlight the simplicity of this worldview. That is, in character and voice. Most obviously this is seen in the dialogue, which is competent but rarely more than that, but it extends throughout the characterisation. It’s not an incompetence, it’s a… a sort of pixelated quality, a posterisation, a lack of subtle, tactile nuances. In a more straightforward book, that set up an exciting plot and just got on with it, this would be no problem at all; I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I’m sure I’ve happily read many books that were worse in this respect. But both the narrative structure and the tone or worldview draw the eye to this area, and there’s not that much there – the protagonist herself, Snake, is solid enough, but does not stand out, and the characters around her are flat and unconvincing. They’re likeable, of course, because they’re good people, and almost perfect. But on some level, jaded as I am, I find the simplistic psychologies and omnipresent Mary Sue virtues and skills alienating, off-putting, even somewhat angering (I have a strong native antipathy to being manipulated, and I’m so clearly meant to like the good people that I want to dislike them all on principle and out of spite). And again, this needn’t be a problem either – no doubt some writers could make these fairly stock characters immortal in the memory and specific, and could texture and complicate them delicately, breaking up the outline of their perfection with disruptive camoflage. But these two problems – a lack of deftness in characterisation and a naïveté of narrative worldview – amplify each other dramatically and create a disappointingly hollow core to the novel where I wanted to find a living, beating, complicated, individual heart. Instead, it feels more like an era, in book form.
So then why do I feel conflicted about this book? Why don’t I just dismiss it out of hand?
Because the things it does do well, it does very well. The writing is not ornate, but is elegant, and evocative, particularly in its landscapes and scenes (although I confess I did become a little confused about distances and directions). That’s a big part of it. But more importantly, the author really embraces the idea that science fiction can hold a mirror up to contemporary society, and she paints a nuanced and compelling portrait of a world in some ways far more primitive than ours, and in other ways far more advanced, and uses that world to interrogate the assumptions people make about ours. Unfortunately, this book is 1973, so everything comes from an assumption of polyamorous bisexual free love and communalism and all that, which makes some of the ideological content problematic for a modern reader – in some respects too naïve, in other respects too conservative (in that it assumes it’s being read in 1973 as well). But the charitable reader will take this as not just a dream for the future but also an education in the dreams (and indeed in this case nightmares) of the past, and be grateful for a book that is willing to engage with serious questions from idiosyncratic perspectives, without feeling entirely like a political lecture. This ideological interrogation (which does admittedly become too obvious and clunking at times, but which for the most part is well-handled) is only one part of a broader success in worldbuilding – the world is eminently believable and understandable, and yet alien and strange. Indeed it’s tempting to say that this is a novel that is all worldbuilding, the plot being only an excuse for some sight-seeing – but unlike other novels of which that is true, Dreamsnake does a fantastic job with with its exposition. Rather than the information about the world getting in the way of the narrative tension, the information about the world is the narrative tension, as McIntyre masterfully drips out understanding in measured doses, foreshadowing here, teasing there, or at other times quietly letting us make our false assumptions before twisting them abruptly out of our grasp.
[McIntyre is writing in Asimov’s subgenre of ‘social science fiction’, which in this case means a ‘SF’ setting that is tantamount to fantasy. I’m not a SF expert, but Dreamsnake reminds me very much of the work of McIntyre’s contemporary in that subgenre, Ursula Le Guin – McIntyre’s not as good a writer as Le Guin, and Dreamsnake is a little less high-concept than much of Le Guin’s work, but something like it could easily fit into Le Guin’s oeuvre.]
The imagination shown in the setting, and in how the setting is gradually unveiled, is also visible in the plotting. Unlike some authors, McIntyre doesn’t take her decision to follow a broadly picaresque, landscape-painting structure as an excuse to abandon narrative techniques. Although I didn’t feel she was able to give much of an arc overall, she did produce an interesting narrative structure, complete with misdirection: to put that more plainly, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. There’s a real sense that the author is defying convention here: many things that the reader expects to happen do not happen (indeed, things the reader expects the book will be ‘about’ are not what it is in the end about), while things the reader does not expect to happen do happen, or things expected to happen at one time instead happen at another. This contributes to the weakness of the plot structure in the end – the old reliable patterns have become cliché for a reason, because they are powerful – but at the same time it adds a sense of excitement.More than excitement: fascination. It also amplifies the power of the things that do occur – in particular, I was caught off-guard by several events early on that I really wasn’t expecting at all, and brought to the brink of tears, when paradoxically I would have been more blasé had the same things happened later.
The result is a ‘quiet’ book – although there are action scenes (and indeed McIntyre handles action well, when it crops up), the emphasis is not on events but on images and thoughts. Above all, it seems like a book less concerned with fulfillment than with temptation – our imaginations are seduced into McIntyre’s world, in part for its own beautiful sake, in part for us to bring something back to our own. Unfortunately the flip side of that is that sometimes the desires it provokes it does not meet, and the heart of the confection (though not its soul!) feels a little hollow.
Adrenaline: 3/5. Some gripping moments, but in general a slow book. In particular, while the end and the beginning are very succesful, the middle portion lags a little, feeling like necessary linking material, added to make to two exciting bits fit together.
Emotion: 4/5. The characters are often too perfect and unmemorable to care about, but there are also times when the author really manages to make an emotional situation hit home. Anything that makes my eyes moisten must be at least a 4…
Thought: 4/5. On the one hand, while not radical (at least, not to any reader who is aware of the existence of 1973), the book is thought-provoking. And on the other, the freedom of the plot prevents the brain from falling into complacency.
Beauty: 4/5. Some very elegant prose, and some very striking imagery.
Craft: 3/5. What she does well, she does brilliantly. But I still can’t get over the things she does badly. It’s as though someone’s taken, say, There Will Be Blood and put in the dialogue from a teen soap opera.
Endearingness: 2/5. Although some aspects of it I really liked, overall it too cold, too light, and the characters too uninteresting (again, I do like Snake herself, but I don’t find her memorable enough to outweigh the dull supporting characters).
Originality: 4/5. There are some familiar things here, and, as I say, the book feels extremely 1973. On the other hand, the setting, while not unique, is distinct and intriguing, and the plot really is unique.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. A somewhat peculiar mixed bag in terms of quality, although to be honest that just makes it even more interesting. And while a rating of ‘good’ may put it in the middle of the pack, Dreamsnake is worth reading because it achieves that grade in a different way. Certainly worth reading, particularly for readers more interested in intrigue than excitement.