Last week I talked a little about my reading slump and to be really honest, I’m still experiencing it a little, but I’m trying to drag myself out of it, mostly for you. Thanks to you, dear readers, I reread one of my favorite lady-authored novels, in hopes that I would feel inspired to recommend it to you. And, as luck would have it, it worked! Today I want to talk about Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey, which is old news for the sci-fi/fantasy crowd, but maybe you’ll enjoy taking a trip down nostalgia lane with me.
Dragonflight is the combined version (or “fix-up”) of two of McCaffrey’s award winning novellas “Weyr Search” (Hugo) and “Dragonrider” (Nebula). For those who are not familiar, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series takes place on a planet colonized by humans. At the start of Dragonflight, humans have lost all knowledge of advanced technologies and now live in a kind of medieval, feudal state. Pern faces an almost insurmountable threat, a neighboring star (the Red Star), whose erratic journey past Pern occurs in “Intervals” and “Passes,” rains poisonous “Thread” down on the planet.
Early colonists of Pern found that they could communicate telepathically with creatures resembling old “Terran” dragons, who have the ability to fight the Thread. Once Thread hits the ground it eats at the soil, essentially ruining it for agricultural use. In addition to that, it’s caustic and will burn you. Thread is nasty stuff, but luckily dragon fire can obliterate it. The settlers form a relationship with dragonkind through a process known as “Impression,” which is basically just staring into baby dragons’ eyes the second they hatch and then they bond to their rider forever. Dragonflight’s major conflict occurs because the Red Star has been out of sight and largely out of mind for almost 400 years, causing the Pernese to believe its danger has passed and that they no longer need the dragonriders. This conflict and the approach of the near-forgotten Red Star is at the heart of Dragonflight’s action.
In comes our hero and heroine. F’lar, a dragonman committed to the old ways and on guard for the return of the Red Star is on Search for a new Weyrwoman to control the baby queen dragon that’s about to hatch. He finds Lessa, a tiny, angry person with a big attitude and lots of power and decides she’s the one for the job. She agrees to move to the Weyr and give it a shot and adventure ensues. So. Much. Adventure. With. Dragons. Kids, this novel has everything from dragons to time travel and mind control, so get ready for awesome.
I read Dragonflight and its immediate sequel Dragonquest for the first time when I was maybe eight or nine. The idea of Impressing a baby dragon who would love you unconditionally forever was super attractive to me. I think that’s what attracts most people to the Pern books, honestly. The feudal society has its problems, but nobody really pictures themselves as a part of that world, every reader identifies with the dragonriders. It’s McCaffrey’s stellar worldbuilding that makes the Pern books so completely engaging. Do know though, that Dragonflight goes easy on some of the deeper worldbuilding particulars, as this is the first in a great many books about the planet. There’s a good taste of it to whet your appetite, but things are complicated on Pern, so it’s not overwhelming. It’s not a standalone kind of book, though it does have a solid ending, rather than a cliffhanger.
I’ve talked before about how the worldbuilding largely excuses some other features of McCaffrey’s writing that might otherwise irk a discerning reader. There’s nothing to hinder readability, but McCaffrey’s writing style is not particularly sophisticated (die-hard Pern fans, please don’t shoot!). What I’m saying is, if you can overlook it, it doesn’t really matter because McCaffrey has an incredibly well-thought out understanding of Pern You’re in good hands, they way you are when you read Tolkien’s work. McCaffrey was a great storyteller, so if there are blips in her writing style, it’s not really such a big deal (to me, the folks on Goodreads have a lot of nasty things to say though). You’re there to lose yourself in Pern and interact with the characters anyway and that will happen, I promise.*
As an adult, I find that I don’t have as big of a crush on F’lar as I used to. He seems really bossy to me, which may be what McCaffrey intended, because Lessa is constantly irritated by him. Because their dragons mate, they’re thrown together in what eventually becomes romance. We get both F’lar and Lessa’s point of view at varying intervals and we see that they don’t always understand one another well, in a really typically gendered kind of way. F’lar is used to the idea that women aren’t a part of governing structures, so he acts superior a lot of the time. Lessa thinks this is a load of dragon manure and pretty much does what she wants when she wants.
It’s a fun dynamic to observe because it feels reasonable. Yes, they grow to love each other and accept one another’s faults, but there’s nothing instantaneous about it. They’re attracted to each other (and their sexual relationship is somewhat problematic at first), but they’re not ruled by that attraction. Even though the way McCaffrey constructs F’lar’s masculinity is pretty typical privileged male fare, he’s able to learn how to do better and his interactions with Lessa change his approach, which is nice to see.For her part, Lessa is changed by F’lar as well. Her incredible impulsiveness is tempered by his more careful attitude. They’re able to recognize when the other is right and when they’re in the wrong. I think the coolest thing about all this is that their dragons are almost always the voice of reason when F’lar and Lessa are messing things up. It’s these relationships that make Pern feel real for me.
Lots of newer readers complain that McCaffrey’s writing is “chauvinistic” — primarily because Pern is most definitely a patriarchy when Dragonflight begins…. And let’s don’t forget that this book was published in 1968. Some folks seem to think that McCaffrey isn’t condemning this patriarchal structure enough. Perhaps this has to do with the shifting point of view in the narration. We often get an unadulterated look into Pern’s male perspective and it’s not very progressive. But Lessa is. Lessa doesn’t waver for a moment in her surety that she should lead. She’s an arrogant protagonist and I kind of love that about her. What I’m not in love with is the “she’s different than other women who are inherently inferior because of their traditional femininity” kind of narrative, but I do think that lessens a little as time goes on. Would I call this a “feminist” novel? Not really, but it does subtly subvert some of the sci-fi gender dynamics that were common at the time of its publication, which again, was 1968…
What’s so great about rereading the Pern books is that I see their influence in so many other texts that are incredibly popular right now, so I think that younger readers will find something to love about Pern. McCaffrey is the original real-deal when it comes to that fantasy/sci-fi blend and you can feel it when you read her books. Pern is grounded in the kind of masterful storytelling and worldbuilding that other genre writers can draw from, but never completely replicate. Fans of Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling, Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn and Jane Lindskold’s Artemis Awakening will probably enjoy the Pern books.
*All of Allison’s promises are theoretical and have no actual foothold in reality. As you know, she can offer you nothing but her word, which is shaky at best most of the time. If you want to confront her about this, hit her up on Twitter.