Vonda N(eel) McIntyre Essay - Critical Essays

McIntyre, Vonda N(eel)


McIntyre, Vonda N(eel) 1948–

An American science fiction novelist and short story writer, McIntyre won a Nebula Award in 1973 for Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand. Her fiction is frankly feminist and generally upbeat, for McIntyre writes science fiction "because it allows my characters to develop as far as their abilities will take them, unlimited by the crippling demands and unambitious expectations our society puts on us." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Gerald Jonas

The heroine of Vonda N. McIntyre's "Dreamsnake" … kidnaps a young girl, to raise as a daughter. The heroine's name is Snake. Her profession is that of healer; the tools of her trade are genetically altered snakes, whose venom-producing glands have been adapted to manufacture specific medications and vaccines. Sometime in the dim past, Snake's world suffered a nuclear holocaust…. Everything about this world, from its wild animals to its people, is described with luminous clarity. Snake's physical prowess, her ability to take care of herself in tight spots, is abundantly demonstrated but never insisted upon; her love for her adopted daughter, and for the desert tribesman who loves her, is handled without undue sentiment.

The dreamsnake of the title is an off-world serpent whose hallucinogenic venom brings not healing but an easeful death for the terminally ill. When the heroine's dreamsnake is killed, she must search for another; the book tells of her quest and its successful outcome. This is a superbly crafted s.f. adventure story, in which the sex of the protagonist is important only as a symbol of the present state of the art. The book would have virtually the same impact if Snake were a sensitive fellow who adopts a young boy and falls in love with a desert maiden. Whether this androgynous quality is a post-feminist triumph, or an example of co-optation, I leave to the ideologists of the movement.

While "Dreamsnake" is unmistakably science fiction, the book itself can be enjoyed by people whose interest in and knowledge of science fiction does not extend much past "Star Wars." (pp. 22, 24)

Gerald Jonas, "Science Fiction: 'Dreamsnake'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 25, 1978, pp. 22, 24, 26.

Carolyn Wendell

Perhaps it is still impossible at this stage of consciousness-raising to envision a woman character alone, uninvolved with a man…. [However, the heroine of "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" possesses] some degree of autonomy and, just as importantly, [is] involved in an interdependent relationship, rather than one in which the male takes the lead and the female is the submissive follower. The two give and take, sharing weaknesses as well as strengths. (p. 350)

Snake, the heroine of "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" rejects a relationship with a man until she has made amends with herself and her teachers for having lost one of the snakes on which her healing skills depend…. Snake impresses the reader as a human being, one who possesses skill, courage, and emotional understanding, rather than as the clichéd science-fiction female who may feel, but only the gentler emotions, and who certainly never thinks. (pp. 350-51)

Carolyn Wendell, "The Alien Species: A Study of Woman Characters in the Nebula Award Winners, 1965–1973," in Extrapolation (copyright 1979 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 343-54.∗

Carolyn F. Ruffin

What worries science-fiction writer Vonda McIntyre about genetic engineering is not just the possible creation of alien microbes—it's the loneliness of the human spirit caught in biological traps.

In "Fireflood and Other Stories" McIntyre explores a world of futuristic technologies built out of flesh and psyche—instead of "Stars Wars" electronics. For example, in the title story the central character is a woman physiologically reconstructed so that she is adapted to mining on Mars: She has become a clawed, armor-plated, slow-breathing body with a human inside….

Taken separately, some stories in this collection are weaker than others. They seem to be laboratory experiments in themselves—the author's attempt to explore a particular biological invention or human remake.

Other stories—notably "The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn," "Screwtop," "The Genius Freaks," as well as "Aztec"—achieve an effect all too rare in science fiction: Instead of merely portraying cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers in outer space, they describe true human encounters, characters who grow in dramatic situations.

Taken together, as variations on a theme, the stories offer startling foresights. McIntyre pushes the debate about laboratory experiments with recombinant DNA into a new dimension: She describes people isolated on genetic islands of intellectual, physiological, and technical specialization, and the grotesque mistakes possible to mere humans trying to invent better humans.

Some readers may find some details too vivid for their taste, so clinical are McIntyre's portrayals….

With the exception of one delightfully humorous version of the familiar consumer-against-the-computer story, the pieces in "Fireflood" are poignant—several are love stories, not all are boy meets girl. The language is lyric no matter how bizarre the subject or outlandish the land. The collection is a kind of mythology—Olympus legends for the future. After reading these myths, would-be Prometheans might not wish to steal fire from the gods.

Carolyn F. Ruffin, "A Mythology for Humanity's Future," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 23, 1980, p. 17.

Eve Ottenberg

The human body has its shortcomings. For instance, it can't fly like a bird, or burrow to the center of the earth, or breathe underwater. Our genes have not been engineered into the perfect regularity envisioned in the science fiction futures of Vonda McIntyre's Fireflood and Other Stories. It may, of course, be interesting to imagine what life would be like if they were, but after reading these stories, one is left wondering, why all this fuss about biological change?

The answer comes from McIntyre's feminism, her desire to show a future in which sex roles have been radically changed by evolution. But it is one thing to vaunt a much improved society, another to show real people in it without resorting to clichés of the moronic "I'm okay, you're okay" variety. Unfortunately, McIntyre's stories succumb to this impoverished psychology so utterly that they lose their critical point of view. And without this, they reveal the unpleasantness that, I'm convinced, lurks in most science fiction: the cult of the quantitative intelligence.

To McIntyre's credit, she mulls over the notion that a perfect mind would resemble a super-computer from a different angle. Though this assumption is the usual sci-fi excuse for yielding the reins of government to an autocratic higher being, in her story "Genius Freaks," she puts the higher beings on the bottom of the social ladder. McIntyre's test-tube wizards slave their brains away...

(The entire section is 525 words.)