In the Nebula-winning novella “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” a healer, Snake, uses three specially bred snakes to inject medicines to the sick. Whilst saving the life of a young boy one of her snakes is killed by his suspicious family. Unfortunately these dreamsnakes are almost irreplaceable and a healer without one is seriously limited. Snake must set off back to her people and beg for another chance.
Vonda N. McIntyre depicts an isolated community, unaware of the world beyond theirs, and crippled by fear of it. Snake fails to engage with them and they refuse without recognition.
“Are you afraid?”
“I will do as you tell me.”
Snake is an outsider, and they fear her. She has medicine, her snakes, that they need yet do not understand and so fear, and through their fear, destroy them. McIntyre makes all of this explicit whilst drawing the reader through the imaginative, original details of her concept: The Dreamsnake. It is a story full of emotion, the saving of a child, the tentative bonding of Snake and one of the family, the tension when Grass is killed. It is also a story that recognises some reasons why people fear the other that are less often articulated. Ignorance is obvious, but guilt leading not to reconciliation but deeper discomfort and fear is as interesting here.
“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” later became the opening of the Hugo-winning novel Dreamsnake, a book that is curiously hard to find these days. Dreamsnake follows Snake as she tries to find her way back to her people in the faint hope of forgiveness for losing Grass. It is in many ways a classic, episodic, SF fantastic journey across what we gradually learn is a post-apocalyptic world. Along the way she meets a trio in a polyamorous relationship which is shown to have an equally balanced power dynamic. The community in “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” also appears to have some kind of polygamous partnership system implied, but it is clear there that they have a leader. She is a woman.
When Snake reaches a town she finds a society where physical perfection is not only the ultimate desire, but those who fall short are excluded, hidden and abused. Snake befriends and rescues a young girl scarred from a fire who has been abused and mistreated since.
There is a link to McIntyre’s first novel The Exile Waiting, as the world of Dreamsnake is the outside world of that novel’s city-locked setting. There is no need to read these in order however. Though the City is mentioned it is only seen as Snake attempts to gain entrance and refuge but is turned away.
It may seem that Dreamsnake is a polemical novel, and it is true that McIntyre was an outspoken feminist commentator on 70s SF alongside better remembered writers such as Joanna Russ. She certainly doesn’t pull punches, and several set pieces nicely subvert expectations. Dreamsnake is a clever novel though, McIntyre works on multiple levels simultaneously. There is drama and action, social comment, and romance, and there is a neat trick when the gender of one character is never revealed. I must confess I didn’t spot that until I read an interview elsewhere, and I realised I had made an unfounded assumption like many other readers, as I’m guessing was McIntyre’s own expectation.
As noted McIntyre’s work can be hard to find now, though she does sell her work from her own website. For many years it seemed her only available work was her Star Trek spin-off novels. Her collection Fireflood & Other Stories covering her 1970s shorter work was published in the UK and is worth looking for. Aside from “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” the collection also includes ‘Aztecs’ which became part of the novel Superluminal. ‘Aztecs’ opens in hospital, Laenea is recovering from surgery to replace her human heart with an artificial one so that she can undergo the rigours of a space Pilot’s existence. This need to become transhuman to develop space flight was common in 1970s SF, see also McCaffrey, Spinrad, Delany and others, but McIntyre examines more closely the process rather than the aftermath as Laenea fights through her ordeals to maintain her humanity. McIntyre frequently returns in her work to ideas of biocontrol, conscious manipulation of body functions. In Dreamsnake the idea of birth control via biocontrol allows for a tender, intimate scene which gently challenges egotistical views of sexual prowess. ‘Aztecs’ takes this further as Laenea strengthens her abilities to manipulate the artificial heart rather than be governed by the natural stresses of her human heart. Again the author is not afraid to make individual points within the bigger picture.
A man moved up behind her while she was in the dim region between two streetlamps. “Hey,” he said, “how about–” His tone was beligerent with inexperience or insecurity or fear.
Elsewhere in stories such as “Fireflood” and especially “The Mountains of Sunset, The Mountains of Dawn” McIntyre achieves an elegiacal poignancy whilst raging against the dying of the light that is not death but institutionalisation. Her protagonist in the latter story particularly spans generations and refuses to accept the constraints of the new at the cost of her freedom.
The work for which Vonda N McIntyre is about to become famous however is at least superficially nothing like those works discussed so far. Her 1998 Nebula Award-winning historical fantasy novel The Moon & The Sun is currently being filmed in Australia with Pierce Brosnan, William Hurt and Fan Bingbing in starring roles. In Versailles at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV a young woman comes into contact with a sea monster. Her natural philosopher-priest brother has captured it for the king. Marie-Josephe is a lady in waiting to Louis’ niece, and much of this novel entertainingly depicts events at court. She is also a talented artist though obviously not allowed to pursue this, but her brother allows her to sketch the sea monster for his studies. She is also openly mocked by the Pope for her daring to think she can compose music. It becomes clear that Marie-Josephe has a truer understanding of the monster than Yves, and her empathy reveals it is not a sea monster but a sea woman, a mermaid. Both women along with Marie-Josephe’s maid Odelette are trapped in their roles, literally and metaphorically, but each comes together to break out. Odelette, initially a slave from Martinique, is revealed to be Turkish, Marie-Josephe it is implied is possibly mixed race also from Martinique and McIntyre deftly uses assumptions of identity around these and other characters including gay members of the court to subvert standard genre tropes. It is in the fears and superstitions of the court that The Moon & The Sun comes to resemble Dreamsnake, in the breaking of institutions that it echoes other earlier works by McIntyre. Her ability to tell a moving story from the point of view of an ‘alien’ is also evident in many of her short stories.
On that 1998 Nebula ballot McIntyre beat luminaries such as Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold and something called A Game Of Thrones by George RR Martin. (Whatever happened to him?) Despite this, she has almost been forgotten. On the strength of Dreamsnake, Fireflood and The Moon & The Sun she ought to be read more widely and discussed.