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.