Book Review: Dreamsnake

Book Review: Dreamsnake

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1979.

So I’m pretty tired of the whole post-nuclear holocaust theme. Post any holocaust, really, but Dreamsnake worked for me.

Points for a well written, strong female lead in 1978. Points for a well thought out setting and a wider universe that’s only hinted around the edges. Points for a cast of multi-dimensional characters.

Snake is a healer, moving from place to place trying to help people as best she can, often in the face of fear and ignorance. She’s also a realistically constructed character, with understandable motivations and emotions and, as the primary (but not only) POV character we get to see the world through her eyes.

There was a nuclear semi-apocalypse, so common in 1960s and 70s SF, but less common that it happened after humans had managed to get off world, at least a little. There are remnants of the old civilization, and some of those still have contact with off-world humans. There may also be aliens. None of these are exactly central to the story, but they make pieces of the puzzling world Snake lives in, though none of them are ever really explained in any detail, much less the level of detail I’d like to figure things out. But that’s okay. Snake accepts the all as part and parcel of existence, so we have to as well.

The book is named for one of the snakes a healer depends on to make their way in the world. And it’s not native to Earth. The other two are, though, and bio-engineered to be a healer’s tools and companions. More than that gives things away.

Lots of reviews will flag this as feminist SF. Is it? Probably insofar as the main character is a competent woman who doesn’t require a man to protect and provide for her. But Snake is an interesting character and subverts a lot of expectations for the world she lives in.

Lots of reviews will flag this as social SF. Is it? Well, there’s plenty of social commentary, and on such diverse subjects as sexuality, relationships, slavery, gender roles, and societal structure. So yes, I suppose it is.

Lots of reviews will flag this as soft SF. Is it? It doesn’t strike me that way, though I suppose it may depend on how you read things. Alien worlds and creatures are a given (the Dreamsnake, among other things, and it’s life cycle is well thought out and important), but they’re not the subject of the story. Genetic engineering is an important part of the background, but it’s not the subject of the story. The science is here, but it’s extrapolations and not front and centre, so easy to miss.

Overall rating: 4 stars. In a decade of Hugo and Nebula awards with more 4s than 3s (the 70s), this is a strong 4 for me. I enjoyed Snake as a character, and the way she tackled her existence in a harsh world still recovering from a nuclear conflict hundreds of years in the past.

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