Anne McCaffrey

This is my second post in the morbid series “This Person Just Died So I’d Better Read Something of His/Hers and Write About It.” (The first was Komatsu Sakyo’s unforgettable Espy.) It also fits neatly into Moldy Fantasy, but I don’t want to overburden myself with titles. For now we’ll stick with the Recently Deceased Author tag, but quietly subtitle this Moldy Fantasy Part 2. It may be the inaugural post in a third series, but more on that later. And so without any further explanatory ado, Two Dudes delves into the worlds of Anne McCaffrey.

I’m not totally certain what to expect from the Pern series. I read the first six books (Dragonriders of and The Harper Hall of Pern) long, long ago, and remember liking them, even if they didn’t make as big an impression on me as some of my (unfortunate?) early favorites. (*cough* Dragonlance *cough*) I never got around to anything else until a few years ago, when I picked up The Rowan completely at random. I put it down very quickly, but I’m not sure if that is a reflection of the writing quality, or just the fact that I should never have chosen a book for and about telepathic teenage girls. Teen Witch in space anyone? Regardless, with Ms. McCaffrey’s recent passing, it seemed appropriate to give one of her classics another spin.

Any sort of plot summary is no doubt utterly superfluous, but just in case, here we go. The Pern books are an ancient and perhaps pioneering example of science fantasy. People on Pern were once colonists from Earth, but have been beaten back into feudal tech levels through the depredations of a rogue planet that careens through the solar system every two hundred years or so. When it passes close to Pern, the so-called Red Star flings out Thread, a non-sentient but implacably hostile life form that devours all biological mass it encounters. The Pernese combat this with dragons, bio-engineered to fly, breathe fire, and psychically bond with their riders. These riders form a privileged warrior class charged with protecting the planet. This is technically fantasy, because there are swords, suits of armor, nubile damsels, brave warriors, and of course dragons, but it is science fiction because there is a reason and an explanation for all of it. A delicate walk on the tightrope indeed. The story follows Lessa, our plucky but delicate heroine, and F’lar, the stern but just dragon rider, as they save everyone and spite their antagonists.

A few initial positive thoughts to begin with. McCaffrey manages to combine, in one novel of just a couple hundred pages, pretty much everything I dislike in SFF. Dragons and their riders have telepathic powers, time travel becomes a factor later in the story, and romance is comparatively prominent. This is a true recipe for disaster, and yet it worked. I finished the book and had fun doing it, which means that all three of these irritants were just barely subordinate enough to the cool stuff (dragons flying around burning stuff). There was never really any question that (SPOILER ALERT!) Lessa and F’lar would triumph and find true love along the way, but that’s not really why anyone reads this sort of thing. So points here for fun and for keeping potential absurdities under control.

Frequent readers who don’t enjoy my penchant for wandering off on political and economic tangents may want to skip the next paragraphs. Several questions bubbled up when reading Dragonflight. I realize that some of these are no doubt endemic to fantasy, but since I don’t read a lot of fantasy I will ask them here. Pern’s feudal structure was rather surprising. Because the dragons have to be raised in the mountains, the dragon riders are forced to depend on the castles and towns for their sustenance. This is fine when the Thread are falling and the dragons are necessary, but the Red Star only rolls into town every two hundred years or so. Orbital irregularities mean that in the story, it has been roughly four hundred years since the dragons were last useful. This means that for four hundred years, the dragon riders have been a useless top of the food chain. Four hundred years! We are supposed to hate the unwashed masses for rebelling against the taxes, but that’s an awful long time for people to expect subservience. Apparently nobody ever thought of taking up farming during the multi-generation interludes, but instead just wondered why resentment festered on every side. Lessa often complains in the book about people being too hidebound and narrow minded, not realizing what a bizarre economic rut her society is stuck in. Surely creatures that fly, can travel instantaneously between two points, and breathe fire have some other economic use. If nothing else, think what UPS could do with this sort of thing, beyond flaming duels with FedEx carriers. (“UPS: We get it there faster, and set the competition on fire. Literally.”)

This odd stasis goes for technology as well. Characters spend a lot of time bemoaning lost technologies and long extinct techniques, everything from Thread fighting devices to proper storage of written materials. I understand the initial tech loss, when the colony faced extinction, and I understand one or another Thread countermeasure disappearing over the generations, but what have these people done for the last four hundred years? Is the whole planet full of uncreative and boring people? I’m not sure how other fantasy worlds justify static tech levels, except by claiming that magic somehow nullifies the desire to research, but it baffled me that everything just stayed the same for so long. I suppose there is some historical precedent in Chinese civilization, but the whole setup from the economy on struck me as odd. Perhaps I am thinking too much? Though according to the almighty Wikipedia, later Pern books take the technological concern into account somewhat.

Finally, the rest of the Pern books may start a new list: Books the Internet Ruined for Me. I started poking around some commentary the other night, purely at random, and it may have scared me off the rest. As I have written before, I’m not particularly sensitive to feminist concerns, portrayal of women, etc., but a couple of articles really crystallized uneasy feelings that kept lurking in the background when I read Dragonflight. Maybe because the books are written by a woman, I assumed there would be less creepy patriarchy. Instead there are female characters who are strong until some defined point when they get all quivery and need a strong Man to set things right. These women are also in weird semi-abusive, vaguely rape-y relationships with guys that are otherwise heroic. Any time our nominal Good Guy is musing in a mildly regretful way that sexytimes with his partner are awfully close to rape, and the female author seems totally alright with this, my alarm bells start to tinkle a bit. There is also the matter of all desirable women being childlike, innocent waifs, but living in Japan has desensitized me more to pederasty than the author’s apparent desire to be dominated roughly by stern, muscular men. And Dragonflight doesn’t even get into psychic gay trysts between riders whose dragons are in heat, which is apparently dealt with at length in later books. Young adult fiction indeed.

So my critical reappraisal of Pern settles on: good fun until I started thinking about it too much. Dragonflight was a fast, entertaining read, the Pern setup is intriguing and well thought out, and while there may not be many surprises, it was a happy triumph for our heroes. Unfortunately, I’m less eager to keep reading for what I hope are obvious reasons. Perhaps a later book in the series, or another of McCaffrey’s works (but not The Rowan!) would suit my fancy more. Stay tuned.

Rating: Socrates. Not the Greek, of course, but the iconic, bearded Brazilian who helped bring his team back to prominence in the early 80s. Like McCaffrey, he recently left behind numerous fans when he went to The Great World Cup in the Sky.


5 thoughts on “Dragonflight

  1. Hey, thanks for putting your link in our discussion post.

    First off, of the three things you say you dislike like in SF are two that I really enjoy: time travel and romance. Now it doesn’t have to be overly done, sickly sweet romance but I like a good guy likes girl/girl likes guy relationship in my fiction. Not every novel, but more often than not. And I couldn’t read one time travel novel after the other but I almost always enjoy them when I do read them. I tend to take them as they come and not try to over analyze how they couldn’t possibly work.

    The economic things you point out make sense. The political things seem pretty common with history to me though. It often takes a long, long time for a people to realize they are being screwed over and even longer for them to do anything meaningful about it, especially pre-twentieth century when communication took forever.

    I did see some of those female issues in the beginning of the book but it would take a pretty close-minded reader to not see the progression that was made by the end when it was actually Lessa saving everyone’s butt and F’lar falling on his knees to her when she returned, and returned with a bunch of kick-butt female dragonriders. It took McCaffrey a while to get there but the statement being made was only possible because of starting the journey where she did, with women in typical sff gender roles. Again, just my two cents offered against the opinion of other articles you read.

    • Thanks Carl! I feel a bit like the grumpy old man at a party. :p

      Many of the points I raise in the post are a continuation of one or another theme that runs throughout the blog. I have no good reason to distrust time travel, for example, but I do. So there’s that. The political, economic, and gender questions are a product of my academic training. It’s how I look at the world in general, so that sort of thing is going to make its way into my posts. (I often drop those disclaimers in because I know most people aren’t nearly as excited as I am by the economic underpinnings of made up worlds.) None of this is helped by the current US political discourse, which also worms its way into my writing. However, I do try to separate my quirky viewpoint from a final, thumbs up or down verdict by structuring these as more of a dialog with the book rather than a pure book review. I hope that makes sense.

      Anyway, to sum up, I had a lot of fun with Dragonflight, but once I sat down and started thinking about it, there was just stuff I was uneasy with, even after taking things like “written in the 60s” and “she’s not a poly sci PhD” into account. There’s actually a lot out there about women’s issues in the book and my stance is comparatively moderate.

      • Oh yeah, I think you did a great job of actually saying that you enjoyed the experience and liked certain things about the book. And you shouldn’t have to give big disclaimers on what you write, books are what they are and will often bring out wildly different reactions depending on what one brings into the experience.

        I don’t bring anything academic to my reviews. I have a social work degree and am an administrator at a mental health center. I imagine English majors cringe at my ramblings and I know I’ve rubbed many a “serious” science fiction fan the wrong way with my genuine affection for Isaac Asimov, for instance. But that is okay by me, I’m just writing about my “experience” with the book and these group reads are about as in-depth as I get as they usually cause me to read differently (to a degree) than I do normally.

        I’m certainly not denying that I was surprised that McCaffrey, in the late 60’s, didn’t have a completely feminist perspective throughout the book. I was very shocked at the beginning. But I do think in simply comparing the novel to other award winners of the same time there is some ground she covered by the end of the book in moving away from typical gender roles in SFF of the period.

      • In some ways, running a mental hospital might be the best way to handle the SF crowd. Though I hope that we are, overall, a big enough tent to have room for everyone. I mostly disclaim on my posts because I want people to have the option of skipping the boring parts; I make no apologies for me or my opinions. hehe

      • Yes, I haven’t been shy about my complaints about the overall SF community being one that is not very welcoming to new members, which is one of the reasons I do my annual none-challenge. I want others to discover that you can read science fiction for fun without getting caught up in all the drama of whether or not a book is “real” science fiction and on and on and on… Always surprises me when folks complain about being a marginalized community when they marginalize their own fan base.

        Anyway, off of that rant! Yes, I believe the tent is big enough.

        You write posts after my own heart, so disclaim away if need be just don’t stop sharing your passions.

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