Friday, March 23, 2007

Vonda McIntyre and "Of Mist and Grass and Sand"

The child watched with eyes so dark the pupils were not visible, so dull that Snake herself feared for his life. She stroked his hair. It was long and very pale, a striking color against his dark skin, dry and irregular for several inches near the scalp. Had Snake been with these people months ago, she would have known the child was growing ill.
Vonda McIntyre's Nebula award winning short story, "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," was published in Analog in 1973. It was one of the first biology-based science fiction stories I ever read, and it's stuck with me since I first read it in my teens.

According to the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database at NYU the story is notable for its approach to medicine:
Although the setting is startlingly different, and the care provided is through highly unorthodox means, the healer in this science fiction story experiences in remarkably similar ways the everyday wear and tear of modern medical practice. Snake, a young female itinerant healer, has been asked to save the life of a young boy. Her attempts to do so, and her interactions with the boy, his family and community, and the tools of her trade (the snakes-mist, sand and grass) are detailed in the story. "Professional development" issues that this strong and complex character has to deal with include truth-telling, interfering and ignorant family members, self-sacrifice, and possible reprobation by her peers and teachers.
"Of Mist and Grass and Sand" was incorporated into a novel, Dreamsnake , that won both the Nebula and Hugo in 1974.

In Ben Bova's introduction to the story in his anthology, The Best of the Nebulas (1989), he notes that McIntyre actually started writings with the intention of incorporating the biological sciences in her fiction:
I first met Vonda McIntyre at a science fiction convention when I was the editor of Analog magazine, and she a recent science graduate from the University of Washington who wanted to write science fiction. With great earnestness, she asked me if I thought that "hard" science fiction had to be based on the physical sciences. Couldn't good stories be based on biology, instead? I encouraged her to try.
Luckily for fans like me, McIntyre has made a career of it. She offers two other biology-related stories on her web site:
  • The short story "A Modest Proposal For the Perfection of Nature" was published in the journal Nature in 2005 as part of the Futures series. It describes a future world where man has engineered all life to his needs.
  • McIntyre's novelette, "Little Faces," is set in a future where humans travel through space in symbiosis with their living space ships. It has been nominated for a 2006 Nebula.
Good reading!

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that summary. I just finished reading Dreamsnake and was wondering how it made the transition from short story to novel. Very good book, it is a shame it is out of print.


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