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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. Snake leaves Grass to keep Stavin's dreams sweet through the night while she guards Mist as the snake creates the antidote. When Snake returns to the boy, the villagers show her Grass, which they have attempted to kill out of fear; she breaks its neck to put it out of its misery. Snake blames herself for the loss of her dreamsnake and loathes having to 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 can only occasionally clone, and never breed them.

Stavin takes the potion and survives, and Snake travels until the next request for her aid comes. Jesse, a horsewoman, has broken her back in a fall from a horse. 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. They have more contact with the Otherworlders and perhaps more technology that can help her recover.

The four start toward the city when Jesse suddenly grows worse. Snake realizes, seeing the dead carcass of Jesse's horse in a crater, that Jesse had lain in one of the radioactive areas 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 bequest a horse, Swift, to Snake. She also urges the healer to tell Jesse's family of her death and Snake's assistance, putting them in her debt and possibly an opening to speak with the Otherworlders about more dreamsnakes from the Otherworlders. Before setting off, Snake collects 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. He is horrified by this, having failed in biocontrol when he was a teenager and gotten a friend pregnant. She soothes him, saying that the protections all healers receive against their snakes' venom usually renders them sterile. 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. Her burn scars render her self-conscious 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 convince the mayor to free her. When she leaves for the Central city, Melissa accompanies her as her adopted child.

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. The crazy attacks them after the storms end, and Snake captures him. He is addicted to dreamsnake venom. Snake knows of no place where so many dreamsnakes could be found together, and makes him take her to the 'broken dome', a relic of the Otherworlders' arrival ages ago, the gangleader North, and his colony of dreamsnakes.

North bears a grudge against all healers, who could have treated his gigantism if treatment had been available. He puts them both in a large, cold pit filled with dreamsnakes. At first, Snake holds Melissa above the snakes, herself immune after her medical training.

While in the pit, Snake realizes that the intense cold brings dreamsnakes to maturity, and they breed in triplets, rather than the paired sexes of Earth. She escapes the pit, with a small sack of dreamsnakes on her belt, only to find all North's associates in dreamsnake venom-induced comas, and Melissa in a basket of dreamsnakes, similarly comatose. Snake escapes back to the horses, where they are met by Arevin, who helps Melissa recover.


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 Archived 2013-10-28 at the Wayback Machine 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. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  7. ^ "The Locus Index". Locus Magazine. July 8, 1979. Archived from the original on August 6, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  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. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  10. ^ "James Tiptree, Jr. Award Retrospective Short List". James Tiptree, Jr. Award. 1995. Retrieved June 17, 2010.