True heroism is not shooting guns or raiding countries or marching off to war. True heroism is the thankless bravery of running a hospital in an Ebola zone, knowing there is no cure should you become infected. True heroism is staying in a hospital in Syria, tending to the wounded, knowing you may become another anonymous airstrike victim at any time.
Doctors are the true heroes, so it is strange that so few fantasy and science-fiction stories take one as their protagonist. Dreamsnake is one such novel, and it is a relief to read about a character who patches people up rather than chopping them to bits.
Snake is a healer in a ruined world, who cures the afflicted by means of a bioengineered cobra, Mist, and a rattlesnake Sand. She also carries a third serpent, Grass, which is the dreamsnake. Grass cannot save anyone, merely ease the pain of the dying, and its origins are obscure:
A tiny serpent, thin as the finger of a baby, slid himself around her neck to show his narrow head below her short black curls. He probed the air with his trident tongue, in a leisurely manner, out, up and down, in, to savor the taste of the smells. “It’s only Grass,” Snake said. “He can’t hurt you.” If he were bigger, he might be frightening: his color was pale green, but the scales around his mouth were red, as if he had just feasted as a mammal eats, by tearing. He was, in fact, much neater.
Written in 1978, Dreamsnake still feels relevant in its story of people lost in a confusing world, unsure of where power really lies. Its main theme is one of arrogance; how human arrogance destroys the environment, societies, our health and eventually the relationships we have with each other.
Snake herself is almost an antithesis of that great fantasy icon, Conan the Barbarian. Not only does she have no weapons, but she very rarely finds herself able to deal with the problems that confront her. She is often powerless and frequently fails to cure the people that place themselves under her care.
Yet she is also brave in a way that is reminiscent of Doctor Who, in that she in unafraid to confront great danger despite the fact that she carries no weapons herself (unless you count that six-foot cobra, of course).
One 1970s quirk in the book is the younger male characters, Snake’s love interests. They often resemble those bare-chested, big-haired prog rockers of the era like Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey. Perhaps that look will be coming back into fashion again soon.
Dreamsnake is coming out in a new edition in anticipation of the film release of another of Vonda McIntyre’s books, The Moon and the Sun. If you’re in any doubt as to how good an author she is, that title won the Nebula Award for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel in 1997, when the shortlist also included A Game of Thrones by a certain George R.R. Martin. Whatever happened to him?