Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Dreamsnake

Vonda N. McIntyre
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ - -


Yes, the cover of this book's 1986 mass-market paperback edition makes it look like it’s going to be one of those super-goofy magical fantasy novels. But it’s really quite good.

It takes place on a post-nuclear-war Earth (always a good start). Nobody remembers what society was like before the war – or even that there was a war. They are all living either in small towns or as nomads in the countryside. All overt modern science and technology has been lost.

Or – that is what it appears at first. It turns out that some science does remain, although it is not very well understood, even by its practitioners.

For example, the main character, Snake, is a healer. She has a set of venomous snakes that she uses to cure people. At first it seems like random ritual but it turns out that the snake venom actually is an antibiotic and that the training the healer received was essentially first aid and basic nursing – so there is a reason why it really does work.

At the beginning of the story her key medicinal snake, the Dreamsnake, accidentally gets killed by scared townspeople and Snake has to go on a long journey to find another one. Along the way she also happens to be able to get the people of the towns and the people in the countryside to stop being prejudiced against each other. It is an okay road trip story; the characters Snake meets up with are mostly interesting and the locations are good. I especially liked reading about how the land is spotted with giant pits—which everyone avoids—that you gradually realize are nuclear bomb craters still full of radioactivity.

But I definitely thought the best part of this book was the way McIntyre presented an apparently undeveloped, backwards world and then gradually allowed you to see how science lay under the superstition. It was a good take on how knowledge might survive but be transformed after the sophisticated structure around it is lost.

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