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Books Vonda N. McIntyre, champion of women in science fiction, dies

Vonda N. McIntyre is pictured in this undated handout photo.

JEFF FRANE/The New York Times News Service

Vonda McIntyre, a science-fiction writer whose tales featured female protagonists – among them the healer in a postapocalyptic Earth who cures the ill with snake venom – and who also wrote five Star Trek novels, died on April 1 at her home in Seattle. She was 70.

Frances Collin, her agent, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

When Ms. McIntyre began reading science fiction as a young girl, male writers dominated the genre. By her 30s, she was one of the category’s leading women, following a path established by Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm and Anne McCaffrey. She then became an inspiring mentor to many younger female writers.

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“The modern feminist movement was just gaining steam,” Ms. McIntyre recalled in 2010 in an interview with Gizmodo. “And there was a lot of controversy in science fiction about whether women should have anything to do with science fiction at all, which I actually found quite hurtful.”

Ms. McIntyre graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1970 and studied genetics there as a postgraduate until ending her studies in 1971. Using her education to illuminate her science fiction proved more alluring than being a research scientist.

A short story, Of Mist, Grass, and Sand (1973), introduced readers to Snake, a healer who travels to remote lands after a nuclear holocaust to heal sick people with venom from her genetically engineered rattlesnake (Sand) and cobra (Mist), and to ease their pain with her rare alien dreamsnake (Grass). Snake is asked to save the life of a young nomad boy, Stavin, who has a brain tumour.

“The cobra reared and struck, biting as cobras bite, sinking her fangs their short length once, releasing, instantly biting again for better purchase, holding on, chewing at her prey,” Ms. McIntyre wrote. “Stavin cried out, but he did not move against Snake’s restraining hands. Mist expended the contents of her venom sacs in the child and released him.”

When Stavin asks if he will die, Snake reassuringly tells him: “No, not now. Not for many years, I hope.”

Ms. McIntyre’s story won a Nebula Award in 1973 for best novelette from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, competing against veteran male writers such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. When she expanded the story into a dark novel about Snake’s continuing quests, Dreamsnake (1978), she won another Nebula and a Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society.

In an article in The Guardian in 2012 about the women whose books have won Hugos, writer Sam Jordison praised Dreamsnake as a “feminist – and determinedly feminine” novel that features a protagonist focused on saving lives rather than “kicking butt.”

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He added, “It’s a challenging, unsettling book and a long way from the macho swashbuckling that some people still think typifies [science fiction].”

As Ms. McIntyre continued to write novels and short stories, she became known as a mentor through her founding in the 1970s of the Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle (where her friendship with Ms. Le Guin flowered). She encouraged many writers, mostly women, over the decades.

“She was one of the women who made me think I could write science fiction,” Nisi Shawl, author of Everfair (2016), an alternate-history novel, said in a telephone interview. “She was instrumental in theorizing about birth control and sexual consent in the future, and she grounded her feminist concerns in scientific realities. That was amazing.”

With The Moon and the Sun (1997), Ms. McIntyre took on alternate history and speculation about human evolution.

The novel is set in France during the reign of King Louis XIV, who sends a priest-philosopher on a mission to capture sea monsters in the hope of bringing back the secret to immortality. The priest returns with two creatures: a dead male monster and a live mermaid-like female who has human features but twin tails, webbed fingers and toes, and who communicates in an eerie singing language. The priest’s sister tries to free the creature.

Kirkus Reviews called The Moon and the Sun – which also won a Nebula – “an enchanting slice of what-if speculation.”

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Vonda Neel McIntyre was born on Aug. 28, 1948, in Louisville, Ky., and moved to the Seattle area with her parents, H. Neel McIntyre, and Vonda (Keith) McIntyre, as a teenager. She began reading science fiction in the 1950s, but could not always relate to the male-centred stories written by men. By 1966, as Star Trek began its three-season run on NBC, she found a passion.

She said on several occasions that she began writing a Star Trek script as she watched the first episode in 1966.

The script was rejected, but she eventually turned it into The Entropy Effect (1981), an original Star Trek novel.

Now a part of the Trekkie literary universe, she was hired by Pocket Books to write the novelizations of the films Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, all based on their screenplays.

She also wrote another original Star Trek novel, Enterprise: The First Adventure (1986).

Fonda Lee, whose action-adventure science-fiction novels include Jade City (2018), said Ms. McIntyre’s Star Trek novelizations motivated her as a teenager to read Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Ms. McCaffrey.

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“I once confessed that I’d considered whether to write under a male or gender-neutral pseudonym,” Ms. Lee said by e-mail. “Vonda’s reaction to me was blunt, ‘Don’t do it.’ She was rightfully proud of the strides that authors like her friend Ursula Le Guin and she had made in proving women to be a force in the field of speculative fiction.”

Ms. McIntyre leaves no immediate survivors. Her sister, Carolyn McIntyre, died last year, also of pancreatic cancer.

When Ms. McIntyre herself received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in early February, she felt driven to finish her final novel.

“Vonda is pleased with progress on her book,” her friend, Jane Hawkins, wrote on the CaringBridge website on March 18. “She said yesterday that while she will continue to work on it, she wouldn’t be embarrassed to see it published as is.”

On March 21, Ms. Hawkins provided an emphatic update.

“Vonda has finished ‘Curve of the World’!” she wrote.

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Ms. McIntyre died 11 days later.

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