6182 in-depth character profiles from comics, games, movies

Snake (Vonda McIntyre's Of Mist Grass and Sand) portrait 1

Snake

(Vonda McIntyre novels)


Context

Of Mist, Grass and Sand (OMGS) is a 1973 sci-fi novelette by Vonda McIntyre . It won her her first Nebula.

McIntyre later expanded OMGS into a novel, Dreamsnake. Because geeks gonna worldbuild. But this entry only covers the novelette, due to time constraints.

OMGS was mentioned as an off-the-cuff example of genre-expanding work by genre historian Jess Nevins . I realised with some puzzlement I hadn’t read it, and we agreed I really should. So blame him for this profile. 😺

The novelette is a fine, well-written example of the “window into another world” approach to sci-fi.


Advertisement


Powers & Abilities

Snake seems to be in good shape. She can function for days on very little food and water.

She seems to have a strong personality and solid charisma.

Like Yankee Doodle (not that one), she’s a-riding on a pony. This tiger-striped mount also carries her supplies.

She is competent at hot desert survival, and trapping.

Slithers

As part of her medical training, she’s nearly immune to snake venoms.

She’s also a veteran snake handler. That includes :

  • Wrestling with large snakes.
  • Catching them harmlessly as they attack her.
  • Performing emergency medicine on serpents. We see her intubating a snake (using a small hollow branch from a nearby bush) to perform artificial ventilation.

Advertisement


Primum non nocere

Snake is a physician – a travelling healer. That she bears the name “Snake” indicates that she was a top medical student.

For small wounds, she uses salves and unguents. But serious medicine is done using her three snakes – Grass, Sand and Mist.

All three are well-tamed. But handling venomous snakes remains complicated. And they can get scared, picky, hungry and/or confused.

Grass is inoffensive and tiny, with a triple-tipped tongue. It has smooth pale green scales, with red scales near the mouth. Its venom “gives dream and eases dying”, so it might be an opium-like compound. It seems chiefly used for euthanasia.

Sand is a rattlesnake, who isn’t used in the novelette. One gets the impression that it performs like Mist, but smaller. So it is easier to control, but cannot generate as much medicine.

Srs snk bzns

Mist is a huge albino (or perhaps an atypical leucistic  specimen, since she has silver eyes) cobra, about five metres long. There’s a tan spectacle motif on the back of her hood.

Snake uses it as a biological reactor and injector. The procedure is :

  1. To quickly kill a small furry animal, and drop a tiny dose of a selected medicine into its mouth.
  2. Quickly give the dead animal as a snack to Mist (cobras prefer live prey).
  3. Provoke Mist and force her to spit out her full store of venom.
  4. Mist will then start replicating the injected medicine with her body. This is painful and disorienting for the snake, who must be restrained for hours. Since Mist is so big, Snake needs a helper to do this.
  5. Once the process is over, Snake will have Mist bite the patient on a selected spot. This injects a large quantity of medicine, as if it were venom.

Evidence-based reptiles

Part of the procedure involves letting Mist “smell” the patient’s medical condition using her tongue.

At first this appears to be ritualistic rather than medical. However, it seems that it allows the reptile to determine how much drug must be produced. And perhaps the exact formulation.

In the novelette, Mist is used to kill a large tumour. If it was a cancerous one, it is possible that the medicine injected by Mist is beyond what 2010s medicine can do.

When Snake talks to her reptiles, her speech is rendered as Early Modern English, with thees and thous. It seems her snakes understand this to an extent. But it’s not “snake language”. Since nearby people understand what Snake is saying when she speaks like that.


Setting

Of Mist, Grass and Sand takes place in a harsh, black glassy sand desert. Snake comes to consult for a low-tech tribe of desert-dwellers.

(In the expanded, novel-length version we learn that the world is actually a post-apocalyptic future Earth. However, the desolate planet doesn’t resemble its pre-nuclear self much).

(We also learn that the snakes are bio-engineered species, and that “dreamsnakes” (like Grass) are of alien origin).

Snake says she was trained at “a station”, and that somewhere there is a “mountain with a city inside”.

We the people

The natives (and perhaps Snake) have dark skin, angular faces and high cheekbones. However, one of the locals is stated to have fair hair. Another description implies skin tones more akin to Northern Africa or the Middle East.

Since their environment is so hard, the natives have a highly regimented culture. They are wary about everything, and suppress their emotions as much as they can.

They do not normally speak their names – this is reserved for close friends. Having friends is seen as a risk, as lack of resources may bring betrayal in order to survive.

The parents whom Snake meets are a triad – two husbands and a wife. This seems to be a standard arrangement for this people.

Snake also meets this polity’s  leader. Though her function is only indicated by her wearing a plain circle as a pendant.


History

Itinerant healer Snake is summoned — through unrevealed means — by a small community. One of their children is badly sick, and about to die.

They have been reluctant to call for a healer. They’re not used to foreigners, and snake-based medicine scares them. In their environment, snakes — such as horned vipers — are a major source of casualties.

The child therefore has little time left to live. Though Snake is exhausted from days of riding across the desert, she has to prepare a treatment ASAP.

And only her largest, hardest-to-handle serpent will be potent enough to — hopefully — save her patient.

(Such elements — matter-of-fact triad marriages, dark-skinned protagonists, harm brought by closed minds and the suppression of emotions, female leaders and experts, a story about caring for a kid, etc. — weren’t common back then. Sci-fi was just recovering from the lows of the Campbell era).


Description

The story is told from Snake’s POV, so there’s no description of her. But she speaks in a soft voice, has a narrow waist, and sports short, black curly hair. She isn’t tall.

When her snakes are out of her case, Mist usually rests on her shoulders and waist, and Sand is coiled around a forearm.

Snake’s hands are covered with snake bite scars. A good chunk of those likely come from the inoculation process.

I went ahead and drew a portrait of her, since people seldom click on profiles without a peekchur. But it’s based on my arbitrary mind’s eye.


Personality

During the story, Snake is exhausted. She’s chiefly struggling against fatigue, and the locals’ mistrust to save her patient. Only once the treatment is underway can she allow herself to collapse and release her tension.

She is a dedicated doctor. Her absolute priority is her patient – assuaging his fear, having as good a bedside manner as she can muster, making an accurate diagnosis, and preparing Mist for the injection.

Snake sometimes finds being responsible for the survival of others an emotional burden. Sensing that the leader of the desert-dwellers bears a similar weight helps her relax through a feeling of solidarity.

Snake ? Snake !? SNAAAAKE !!

An important part of her medical ethos is to remain neutral and non judgemental, as long as this doesn’t imperil lives.

There’s an implication that each small Human community has its own mores and traditions, which others likely do not know about. And which play a role in their continued survival.

However, Snake’s tolerance for bullshit isn’t as high as it could be. She respects strange customs and shows understanding and patience, but this has to be a two-way street.


Quotes

“I am Snake, Stavin, and in a little while, in the morning, I must hurt you. You may feel a quick pain, and your body will ache for several days, but you will be better afterward.”

“She will touch you with her tongue. It might tickle, but it will not hurt. She smells with it, as you do with your nose.”

“Call me Snake, if you can bring yourself to pronounce it. Speaking my name binds you to nothing.”


DC Universe History

The original novel has little setting definition. So Snake could exist as a pulps -style Mysterious Exotic Healer in a Far-Off Desert Of +2 Exoticness.

She might even have ties with other desert nomads, such as Apocalypse (En Sabah-Nur), Gateway or Lady Eve of the Kobra Cult.

Her presence in the Fallout post-apocalyptic California would also feel natural.



Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG

Tell me more about the game stats

Snake

Dex: 03 Str: 02 Bod: 03 Motivation: Responsibility
Int: 04 Wil: 03 Min: 04 Occupation: Travelling healer
Inf: 03 Aur: 04 Spi: 03 Wealth: 002
Init: 012 HP: 010

Powers:
Regeneration: 03, Systemic antidote: 04

Bonuses and Limitations:
Both Powers only apply against known snake venoms.

Skills:
Animal handling (horses): 03, Animal handling (Snakes): 05, Charisma (Persuasion): 04, Martial artist: 05, Medicine: 06

Bonuses and Limitations:

  • Martial Artist substitutions can only be done vs. a snake.
  • Power Loss – if not working with her snakes, Snake loses 3 APs of Medicine. She usually does this to cure small ailments and routine care (such as cleaning a wound).
  • Snake-based medicine can be done in any environmental condition.

Advantages:
Expertise (Desert survival, Toxicology).

Connections:
None demonstrated.

Drawbacks:
Snake has some sort of medical oath she must follow.

Equipment:
For the snakes, use the stats for a cobra in the animals files.

  • Grass has even more APs of Shrinking, making it a non-threat.
  • Sand has one AP of Shrinking, not two.
  • Mist has no Shrinking, STR 03 BODY 02, and upper-end venom.

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Source of Character: Of Mist, Grass and Sand novelette.

Helper(s): Darci.

Writeup completed on the 9th of August, 2019.