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Cover of first edition (hardcover)
AuthorVonda N. McIntyre
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
LC ClassPZ4.M1526 Dr PS3563.A3125

Dreamsnake is a 1978 science fiction novel by American writer Vonda N. McIntyre. It was well-received, winning the 1979 Hugo Award,[1] the 1978 Nebula Award,[2] and the 1979 Locus Award.[1] The novel follows a healer on her quest to replace her "dreamsnake", a small snake whose venom is capable of inducing torpor and hallucinations in humans, akin to effects produced by drugs such as LSD or heroin. According to the author,[3] the world is Earth, but in the post-apocalyptic future and thus scientifically and socially much different from the present: a nuclear war has left vast swathes of the planet too radioactive to support human life, biotechnology is far more advanced than in today's Earth—genetic manipulation of plants and animals is routine—and alternate sex patterns and other-worldly tribalism appear.

The novel is based upon McIntyre's 1973 novelette Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand, for which she won her first Nebula Award.


The story opens with Snake, a healer, having been brought into a desert tribe to assist in the healing of a very sick little boy named Stavin. She is dependent upon her snakes for healing purposes and has three: Grass, a small and rare dreamsnake that is used for calming the patient and taking away their pain, Sand, a rattlesnake whose venom is used in making vaccines and healing potions, and Mist, a cobra with the same purpose as Sand but whose venom makes stronger potions.

The desert people are afraid of the snakes and of Snake herself, and when Snake leaves Grass to keep Stavin's dreams sweet through the night while she works on an antidote, they remove Grass, crippling it. Snake guards Mist through the night as the snake creates the antidote, assisted by Arevin. When Snake returns to the boy, the villagers show her the snake and she crushes its head to put it out of its misery. Snake blames herself for the loss of her dreamsnake and loathes having to return and tell her fellow healers of her mistake. It is doubtful she will be able to get another dreamsnake, as they are from another world and the healers have been unable to breed them, and can only occasionally clone them.

Stavin takes the potion and survives, and Snake travels until the next request for her aid comes. Jesse, a horsewoman, was injured in a fall off a horse and has broken her spine. Snake fears Jesse's request for assistance in a painless death, because Grass is gone. Jesse is eventually convinced by her two companions to try going back to the Central city, where she is from, to get help from the ruling family that she was a part of before she shunned them and left. They have more contact with the otherworlders and perhaps more technology that can help her recover.

The four start off toward the city when Jesse suddenly grows worse. Snake realizes, seeing the dead carcass of the horse Jesse was riding in the distance, that Jesse had fallen and lain in one of the radioactive craters remaining from the nuclear war their planet faced years ago long enough to have developed radiation poisoning. It is unclear whether Jesse dies of this or from Mist's strike (Snake's only remaining form of assistance) but her final wish is to bequeath Snake a horse named Swift and urges the healer to tell the city dwellers of Jesse's death in the hopes that the news of Snake's assistance at the end will persuade the Otherworlders to give the healers more dreamsnakes, which will put the family in Snake's debt and perhaps allow her to speak with the Otherworlders and ask them for more dreamsnakes. Before setting off, Snake goes to pick up her pony at the Oasis, where friends of hers have been watching her other things and finds all her belongings have been ruined. The natives of Oasis apologize for not guarding her things better and say that a crazy came down from the hills and must have done it. Her journal is missing.

Arevin, the desert dweller, finds himself wanting to go after Snake, because he has fallen in love with her and believes that she is too hard on herself in the issue of Grass' death. He travels to the healers and tells two trustworthy ones the story of what had happened, but is surprised to find that Snake is not already there. He heads south in an attempt to find her.

Snake arrives at a village along her way and is invited to the governor's mansion by the governor's son Gabriel, an extremely handsome young man who always goes cloaked out in public. She is also asked to heal the leg of his father, who had a spear go through it. It is infected and Gabriel's father is a difficult man to treat, but Snake manages to cure him without taking the leg. She also invites Gabriel into her bed in the casual way that is done in this time, because every child is put through biocontrol training for fertility control. He is horrified by this, having failed in biocontrol when he was a teenager and gotten a friend pregnant, which is why he sulks about in cloaks—he is ashamed. She soothes him, saying that healer pregnancies are rare and they usually adopt children and that she has excellent control herself. Snake also figures out that he was incorrectly instructed in biocontrol, and suggests another town where he might better learn and make a fresh start.

While checking in on her horses, Snake meets Melissa, a twelve-year-old, severely burned girl who hides out in the stables and assists the stablemaster, who takes credit for all her work. She is shy and doesn't like anyone to see her scars in a town with such beautiful people. Melissa has been severely abused by the stablemaster, physically, mentally, and sexually, and Snake uses this knowledge to free her and adopt her as her own child.

While riding in the town, Snake is again attacked by the crazy, who grabs her snake case and attempts to take Sand and Mist from her. Snake fights back and keeps her snakes, but is injured and has to take a few days to heal before continuing her journey. When she leaves for the Central city, Melissa accompanies her.

The pair make it to the city and are turned away, despite bringing news of Jesse, because of Snake's mention of cloning. They attempt to head back toward the healers, but must shelter in a cave to wait out the desert storms. Once they are over and they start back, they are again attacked by the crazy, who Snake ends up capturing. He is after her dreamsnake, having become addicted to its venom after being bitten many times by many snakes. Snake can think of no place that the man would be able to be bitten by so many snakes and is intrigued. She makes him bring them to North and the broken dome where the crazy said it all happened.

At the dome, Snake and Melissa are captured by North, who recognizes her as a healer against whom he bears a grudge as a result of his gigantism; they could have prevented this if he had had treatment as a child. He puts them both in a large, cold pit filled with dreamsnakes. Snake keeps Melissa held above the snakes to prevent her from continuously being bitten, herself protected by her many years of being bitten. After, North takes Melissa away and forces many dreamsnakes to bite Snake until she is drugged and passes out.

Snake comes to and observes the dreamsnakes, finally understanding how they breed. She manages to escape the pit, finding all North's henchmen asleep in dreamsnake dreams. North himself is awake, but shrinks back when threatened by a dreamsnake, having never been bitten himself, then relents. Snake finds Melissa and escapes back to the horses, where they are met by Arevin and safety.


Ursula K. Le Guin praised the book, saying "Dreamsnake is written in a clear, quick-moving prose, with brief, lyrically intense landscape passages that take the reader straight into its half-familiar, half-strange desert world, and fine descriptions of the characters’ emotional states and moods and changes." [4]


Dreamsnake won multiple awards, including the 1978 Nebula Award for Best Novel[5] and the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novel.[6] It was also the winner of the 1979 Locus Poll Award for Best Novel[7] and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Awards[8] and was nominated for the 1979 Ditmar Award in International Fiction,[9] which was won by The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey. In 1995, Dreamsnake was put on the Shortlist for the Retrospective James Tiptree, Jr. Award.[10]


  1. ^ a b "1979 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2010-03-11.
  2. ^ "1978 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2010-03-11.
  3. ^ Blogging the Hugos Interview with Vonda McIntyre
  4. ^ Ursula Le Guin Review Dreamsnake
  5. ^ "Keith Stokes, Vonda N. McIntyre honored with SFWA Service Award". Nebula Award. March 11, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  6. ^ "1979 Hugo Award". Hugo Award. August 26, 1979. Archived from the original on May 7, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  7. ^ "The Locus Index". Locus Magazine. July 8, 1979. Archived from the original on August 6, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  8. ^ "Dreamsnake". Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. 1978. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  9. ^ "Ditmar Award Winners". Locus Magazine. 1979. Archived from the original on January 18, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2010.
  10. ^ "James Tiptree, Jr. Award Retrospective Short List". James Tiptree, Jr. Award. 1995. Retrieved June 17, 2010.