In any event, my memory is that I had problems with Dreamsnake, although now having read it a second time it's hard to reconstruct what my objections would have been. I think I probably didn't understand some of the subtler things McIntyre was up to, and I probably found it lacking in the kinds of swashbuckling adventure I still looked for in those days. Not that there's no action in Dreamsnake, and in fact the kind of action there is is one of the subtle things McIntyre is up to.
This is above all a novel about snakes and horses. Earth is a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland, and other than one domed city that has contact with offworld aliens or colonists, which is what The Exile Waiting is about, people live an agrarian or nomadic life at very low tech levels, at least on the surface of things. For example, when they travel long distances they travel by horse, so horses are important characters in the story. I was thinking of it as a kind of post-apocalyptic Arcadia, because the nuclear catastrophe provides a kind of civilizational reset that allows McIntyre to explore some utopian or countercultural ideas about how things might bet organized more equitably. The setting is a little reminiscent of Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast series, or even Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.
As we follow the Healer, Snake, through this wasteland, we begin to learn that there's other tech at work, however. The Healers use genetically-engineered snakes to treat disease, specifically by modifying the venom glands to produce healing enzymes that are then injected into the patient via snake bite (ow!). The dreamsnake of the title is an alien life form that produces a venom that seems to be like an opiate in killing pain and causing people to enter a dreamlike state of consciousness. Amongst other things, it's used as palliative care for people who are dying a painful death. The crisis of the novel is that Snake loses her dreamsnake. Come to think of it, the primary use is probably to numb patients before they're bitten by the big snakes with the medicinal venom. Dreamsnakes are extremely difficult to come by, so her career as a Healer is in jeopardy. Snake sets off on a journey to try to solve the problem, and through her journey we learn more about this world.
Along with the genetic engineering, the post-apocalyptic people have also learned to control their own fertility through a mechanism that I'm not sure is fully explained. For men it's a matter of controlling the temperature of their testicles so that the sperm is killed. For women, one supposes they are either able to dissolve the ovum or block it from being released or something along those lines. One of the smart things McIntyre does is explore the ways that useful tools like this somatic self-control and the gentically-engineered snakes can be used badly or mistakenly. For example, people can become addicted to the dreamsnakes. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Sonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, which was published later.
There's also a connection between the two novels in the shared interest in nonviolent solutions to conflict. This is perhaps where my younger self would have been most out of step with Dreamsnake. The thing that McIntyre is inventing here is how to tell a dramatic story about a female protagonist in which the climax isn't the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. Throughout the novel she shows problems being solved through cooperation and consensus. The brilliant thing she does in the final climax is resolve the overriding crisis of the novel through cognitive breakthrough. Cognitive breakthrough is a common trope in science fiction, but it often comes on top of the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist. McIntyre was part of a movement of New Wave and Feminist writers who challenged this paradigm, and she cleverly points out that cognitive breakthrough -- the scientific Eureka moment -- can work dramatically to replace the protagonist pounding the shit out of the antagonist.
Although I should add here that McIntyre does embrace one conventional heroic -- and indeed traditionally female -- trait: endurance. Like every Andre Norton protagonist ever, Snake is pushed to the limit of endurance and beyond. Her toughness and ability to take the pain is a token of her heroism, alongside her ability to solve the scientific problem.
Without getting into spoilers, the cognitive breakthrough in Dreamsnake also connects the novel to Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, which was also published later. It's a brilliant stroke involving the explanation for how the dreamsnakes reproduce, and again, how human scientists failed to understand it for so long through their own cognitive biases. This is gripping stuff once you're attuned to it.
McIntyre is modifying a very traditional kind of science fiction story here. I can see why it won a Hugo, because it both embraces the conventional and tweaks it for the current moment. For example, group families are at least as old as Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, and McIntyre rings some variations on it based on the counterculture of her time, from the polyamory of the Healers to the way that they don't marry or bear children but only adopt orphans. When one Healer adopts an orphan, the child becomes the responsibility of all Healers, and it will be raised to be a Healer.
On a final, personal note, I have to say that throughout this review I've had to fight the inclination to refer to the author as Vonda rather than McIntyre, because I do know her and consider her a friend. I have one of her awesome bead creatures sitting right here on my desk. [Stops to fondle bead creature.] I was frequently distracted while reading the book by the fact that some of the characters were clearly based on other people I know, or at least people like them. Maybe that's another reason I liked it better the second time around. It's not that I was in it, but my friends were.