Thursday, June 28, 2007


Why, yes, I can read a book in less than two months. I know, I was shocked to remember I could as well. I confess that part of the credit goes to the book itself, Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. Not many characters, not too subtle in its plot, only around 300 pages, Dreamsnake makes a nice summer getaway of relatively light fantasy fare.

The main character, Snake, is a healer on an unnamed world. There are as many hints that this world is Earth as there are that it is another world completely, but ultimately it doesn't matter. Her travels within the story do not take up much time or space, and though the possibility of it taking place on an alien world is clear, nothing happens as a result of it. Snake is well-trained in the diagnosis of injury and disease and apparently well versed in curing them, but the first few patients we see her with are not complete successes. Her failure is due, in great part, to the method by which her medicines are delivered--poisonous snake. She milks the venom from her pet cobra or rattlesnake, then feeds the snake a drugwhich causes the snake to produce medicine, which then is delivered by snake-bite. Patients unfamiliar with the practice are understandably unsettled by this, and the relatives of those patients are concerned as well. And when the family of Snake's first patient in the book kill her prized dreamsnake--the snake whose venom provides dreams of what the patient most desires--out of fear and loathing for snakes, the crisis that drives the rest of the book is set into motion. Without her dreamsnake, Snake feels incapable of being a healer, and what's more, she's certain that the community of healers she comes from will drive her out for her failure.

To be honest, there appears to be a bit of a plot flaw here. The beginning of the novel contains a lengthy passage of Snake milking her cobra, but there is never a very sufficient explanation of why the medicines it can produce are not similarly milked and delivered via more pedestrian means. There is a scene where Snake does exactly that with other medicine, and the reaction of her patients is very much like contemporary patients--fear of the needle--which is a darn bit less violent than fear of being bitten by a snake that one knows to be poisonous.

Snake's second patient has abroken spine, and Snake suffers the guilt of being unable to heal her from this injury. The woman's partners and Snake devise a plan to carry the patient to the what is apparently the only city on the planet because, as it fortunately turns out, the patient is a missing member of the ruling family. But the plans turn to naught when Snake discovers that, as her patient lay wounded and unable to move, she lay in the radioactive crater of a bomb that had gone off in the past until she was rescued. Snake also cannot treat radiation poisoning and so helps to euthanize the patient, adding to Snake's angst. But Snake now has a mission, go to the city and tell the woman's family of her death and, since there is apparently a spaceport at this city, see if they can provide her with more dreamsnakes...because it turns out the dreamsnakes are not from the world where the story takes place. With dreamsnakes in hand, Snake believes she can redeem herself to her community.

Along the way to the city, Snake visits a town of beautiful people whose pleasing exteriors mask repulsive interiors. We are also introduced to the perhaps progressive sexuality of the peopel on this planet; they spend part of their youths learning how to control their reproductive systems so that men are voluntarily sterile and woman can usually keep from conceiving unless they want to. As a result, the people are an exuberantly friendly lot, and attraction is handled with physicality, even at the ages of 12 to 15. It's all handled rather adroitly, without voyeurism and exhibitionism within the book. But Snake must move on, after adopting a young girl who was being abused by her mentor.

And so it goes, which is where the book fails. There are many hints and allusions to what could be interesting subjects that end up never being built upon. For instance, in that same town, we find out that the mayor will not allow its citizens to be bonded to anyone else for more than a year. There is a little discussion of this, all from the point-of-view of people who know what this means, but to the reader it's fairly opaque. How common is slavery on this world? How is "bonding" the servants/slaves handled elsewhere? Snake meets a young woman who has had rings of unbreakable material pushed through her ankles as a sign of her being bonded...where did it come from? Who did it and how? We get no answers to these questions.

The novel ultimately has the feel of the first book in a series, where a lot of ideas for how this world works are floated out without much detail, so that they may be picked up later and expanded upon. For instance, it turns out that some human tribes on this world mate in triads, but it is only mentioned in passing and never explained beyond the recognition that it is there. How disappointing.

I fully recognize that if McIntyre had expanded her novel along the lines of explaining some of these things, she would run the risk of having too much information not having to do with the story she wants to tell. Furthermore, she would end up breaking her narrative, since everything is told from Snake's point-of-voew, and she already knows what we don't. And yet it still feels lazy; the author's art is exactly in telling us the details without making it into a recitation. And it's not like anything of real importance happens in the novel; the plot meanders along the path you exactly expect it to, detouring momentarily to show how things are different from what the reader knows before moving on to Snake's next encounter.

And so it ends up being like Chinese food--you read the book and are minimally satisfied, but within moments you immediately want more, possibly more filling fare. And, honestly, Dreamsnake is a nice enough diversion; I'm just saddened by the content that drifts ghostlike into the view of the reader only to disappear completely when one's full attention is brought to bear.

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