Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
This month I read the first in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as part of a readalong. This was a win/win for me as it allows me to actually achieve three goals in one. Firstly, vintage sci fi – currently being hosted by Andrea at the Little Red Reviewer. Two, it counts as an entry for my Sci Fi reading experience being hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings not to mention being involved in some really good discussion and (c), as Anne McCaffrey is a ‘new to me female author’ I’m submitting my review as part of the year long experience being hosted by Worlds Without End, the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. Details here. There may be slight spoilers contained within.
I don’t know whether this series really needs any introduction so I’ll be fairly brief. The setting is Pern. The feeling is mediaeval. The fantasy elements involve dragons and the sci fi elements surround the planet that orbits Pern and on a cyclical basis drops Threads that pose a real threat to the survival of the planet.
The story involves a number of characters but the two primary characters are Lessa and F’Lax. Lessa is the only surviving member of a noble family – the rest having been killed when Fax took over Ruatha Hold. Lessa manages to survive by disguising herself as a drudge and working in the castle. She plans revenge and isn’t afraid to wait out the years in order to achieve it. At this point it’s fairly obvious that Lessa is more than she at first seems. She has managed to befriend the watch-weyr and she also has the ability to use magic in a way that alters people’s perception or encourages them to behave in the way that Lessa wishes.
Lessa first encounters F’Lax when he is on a routine scouting mission looking for women to take back to Benden Weyr to imprint with the new queen dragon that is shortly due to hatch. Lessa is persuaded to return with him to become a Weyrwoman.
Now, there’s obviously more to the story than that, the threat from the threads poses an imminent danger and yet F’lax and Lessa have a difficult time convincing anyone of the fact – it’s been a few hundred years since the last threads were eliminated and the people of Pern have become complacent. They’ve let their traditions slip. They no longer sing the songs that repeat their history and the valuable lessons they need to be aware of. And, on top of that, they resent having to provide tithes to the Weyr – which I suppose stands to reason in their minds – providing food and other provisions for dragonriders and their dragons with their insatiable appetites when they basically seem to do very little to earn it. And, to add to the dilema, during the last Thread attack there were six Weyrs to help defeat the enemy – only one of those Weyrs is still occupied. The others are empty – a grim reminder of the fact that they are no longer needed.
So, that’s a flavour of the story, the set up and what’s to come.
I understand that this book was a coming together of two novellas by the author and having discovered this fact it does make sense. There does feel like a divide and for my part I confess that I enjoyed the second part of the story more than the first. I certainly didn’t dislike the first part, I thought it was a good introduction to the world and the characters. We became aware of the psychic abilities between the riders and the dragons and we witnessed Lessa’s bonding with the new female queen. However, at that point, whilst I loved the dragons, I wasn’t really convinced about either of the two main characters. F’Lax comes across as quite, how to put this, well, frankly a bit sexist. He doesn’t give Lessa any clue about what’s going on, he acts like it’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to his sexual prowess and can’t seem to understand why she isn’t falling around at his feet in a permanent swoon. I mean he frankly does get on my nerves a little bit at this part of the story! Then there’s the full ‘thing’ with the rape! I really did struggle to believe that McCaffrey wrote that into the story – in fact I was struggling to believe that a female had really written it (okay, just to clarify – not that a female author wrote about rape but more that a female author came up with this particular element of the story which was basically intrinsic to the lives of the dragonriders)! Then we have Lessa, who I like, but acts sometimes like a real brat. She rushes into situations and frankly sometimes causes a bigger mess than would otherwise have been the case with her hasty actions. Then, I had a bit of a moment. Okay. This isn’t our world. The way these people are acting is natural for them – they’re on a different planet that was colonised long ago, so I needed a bit of a wake up call – this isn’t the planet Earth and these people are not bound by the same conventions or niceties as we are. They have dragons, psychic dragons no less! So, having gotten over myself a little bit I found it a bit easier to chill with my reading.
Then the second half, I thought, really came into it’s own. We started to get a better feel for the motivations of F’Lax and the responsibilities that he takes so seriously. Okay, he doesn’t always explain himself but I guess he doesn’t really have the time. He cares, really cares, about his Weyr. He cares for his riders, his dragon, and eventually, in spite of his best attempts to hide it, he really cares for Lessa (he just doesn’t want to show it and be perceived as weak). Then we have Lessa. She’s spent years growing up with no love or family support. She’s secretive and only really trusts herself plus she’s headstrong and doesn’t like to take orders. But, we eventually see a different side to her also. She starts to fit into the Weyr. She’s still frustrated but I think that’s understandable given that she’s such a strong character living in a very male orientated world.
What I really liked was the way that McCaffrey hands something to us in a way that we don’t even realise she’s even doing it! She takes this young woman, who is totally out of place and really in a quite male dominated world but then turns it so she becomes such a significant figure – and she really does this in a very low key way. Lessa is the one who discovers the time travel ability. Lessa uncovers the secret of the Weyrs and Lessa is the one who manages to come up with the eventual solution – a solution which leaves F’lax at home fretting over her welfare and whereabouts. You really do have to hand it to her for the subtlety she uses here. She also managed to totally pull a blinder as I never saw the eventual outcome coming at all (in terms of the other Weyrs).
Would I really call this sci-fi. I don’t know. I haven’t read a lot of sci fi so others can probably better judge. However, I think the sci fi is very light (that’s about the best description I can come up with). I like to think of this as a fantasy/sci fi fusion. If you’ve read Feist’s Riftwar saga then you’ll know what I have in mind.
The other really interesting thing with this read was it really made me aware of the difference in writing styles from when this was written to present day. Fortunately for this series there is very little to age the characters or story. As I mentioned it has a mediaeval feel and there’s no high tech gadgets that would now feel dated. McCaffrey also veers away from indulging in different terminology or words which can sometimes feel a little bit forced. But, even with that there is a definite different feel which I suppose is inevitable. I just find it interesting and is a good example of how speech, writing styles and ideas change so much in what is really a relatively short period of time. I also thought it was really interesting to look at the nature of the threat in the story – it’s an environmental threat which seems a lot more relevant for us now. I don’t know whether McCaffrey had reasons for believing that environmental threats would become so real but her incorporation of this into the story is really clever. There is no army attack, no little green men, but it makes the threat no less real to the planet. She steps out of the major battle scenario the likes of which we see in Tolkien and brings to us a different type of enemy than we’re used to dealing with.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading McCaffrey, certainly enough to move onto the next story set on Pern. I thought this established a really good base for future novels and once I got over my own concerns about right and wrong which weren’t really pertinent to this time and place I was able to become a lot more absorbed and appreciate what the author eventually achieved.
I think this is another of those experiences where if you read this when it was released you would probably be absolutely bowled over and I can see why so many people adore the books. Thankfully I was able to put my ‘look at this from another perspective’ glasses on and read it in the vein it was intended. Good for me!