Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonflight book cover
Rating 6.1/10
Nothing like voracious insatiable alien parasites for bringing people together

I remember very well the last time in my life I read an Anne McCaffrey novel. In the end of my first term at university as an undergrad, I started a new McCaffrey I'd not read before and found that I was able to predict who would be the book's love interest just from their physical description.
 
I'd read and enjoyed a great many McCaffrey novels as a teenager, but suddenly I found myself feeling that I'd outgrown them, indeed as I grew older and became a good bit more jaded, I started viewing them as overly fluffy and sentimental. Perhaps because now my life contains a good bit more fluffitude and sentimentality, I have found McCaffrey increasingly on my mind of late, and myself referring to her surprisingly often in book related discussions with my lady.
 
Whether it is because (largely due to my lady), I am now at a point where I can appreciate a little mild fluffitude with a slight seasoning of sentimentality, or whether it is because I question my younger self’s judgement, or whether it is just because I do have a bit of a thing for dragons and to ignore such a landmark in dragon literature seems foolish, I decided not only to go back to McCaffrey, but to begin right at the very beginning her first novel and the start of the Dragon Riders saga, the original Dragonflight published in 1968.
 
Though occurring on the distant future colony of Pern, Dragonflight does in many ways at this point feel rather more like a fantasy novel than a science fiction one, since despite it’s genetically engineered dragons and telepathic abilities that are psychic rather than magical, the semi medieval society with its hereditary aristocracy and proud tradition of dragon riders who serve as protectors and judges does seem to be closer to what you would find in a typical work of fantasy, indeed I wonder if Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar with their equine companions were influenced by McCaffrey.
 
The story begins with Lessa, who is a drudge (almost literally a slave), in her family’s ancestral hold of Ruatha. Her family were murdered ten years previously by the dictator Fax, and Lessa has been quietly working towards her revenge by using her telepathic abilities to subtly influence those around her. This scheme comes to a head when F’lar, a dragon rider from Pern’s sole remaining Weyr (as orders of dragon riders are called), arrives searching for a girl who might be able to both form a bond with the golden queen dragon about to hatch from its egg and take on the responsibility of becoming the next Weyrwoman, a task F’lar takes especially seriously given that he suspects the thread, the parasitic alien life form the dragons were created to defend against might soon return.
 
Far from the fluffiness I feared, one of the first things about Dragonflight that struck me was that the attitudes of the society depicted here seem far harder and more primitive than I remembered. Though I suspect McCaffrey decided to tone things down later, and to attribute the earlier harshness to the presence of the tyrannical Fax, at the same time the harshness does heavily increase the sense of danger and the alien quality of the world, after all Lessa’s plan to depose Fax feels far more audacious if we are in a world where she risks actual Death if she is caught, likewise later conflicts between the Lords and the Weyr become much more serious in a world where we already know violence is close to the surface.
 
What makes this harshness a little more effective and chilling (and slightly at odds with later books), is the casual way McCaffrey skates over such things as conquest by blood, the slavery of the drudges and apparently legalized concubinage as though they are fairly normal in this society, not to mention small nasty details such as F’lar noticing that Fax’s wife is afraid of getting too physically close to him, or the fact that candidates attempting to form a bond with hatching dragons are frequently mauled in the process.
 
One problem however with this use of medieval attitudes, is that in places it does create some slightly ambiguous turns of plot and character.
 
F’lar for example is not only looking for a girl to form a bond with the new queen, but also to become a capable administrator. He frequently dismisses many of the women he sees as “lacking spirit” and is attracted to Lessa by (of all things), her small delicate supposedly noble woman’s hands, which he is able to notice both despite the hard physical work she has been doing, and Lessa’s use of her telepathic abilities to avoid being noticed.
 
While it is understandable that the vengeful Lessa would be somewhat obsessed with her being of Ruathan nobility, for others, (especially F’lar who as a Dragon rider seems predisposed to ignore hereditary nobility given that those chosen by the Weyr can be of any station, the focus on noble blood seems rather odd and indeed makes the book feel something of a traditional Princess and the Pea type of fairy tale.
 
This problem with not quite knowing where to stop medieval attitudes also seems to affect McCaffrey’s characters. F’lar is haughty, arrogant and frequently a little domineering, indeed he finally gets Lessa to accept his offer to to become a dragon rider by taunting her for not living up to her bloodline.
 
There are a good few reviews that criticise F’lar in particular, and McCaffrey in general for the way F'lar treats Lessa, while he doesn’t actually hit her, he does man handle her several times throughout the book.
 
I can say that the occasions when F'lar shakes Lessa as a reprimand, even when she is about to do something dangerous, or when he forcibly shoves her into a chair to get her to sit down and stop talking at a public meeting are definitely less than pleasant, (though on the latter occasion since Lessa was about to start a war perhaps he had a little justification).
 
On the other hand I do not know how much of this was simply intended as more evidence of Pern’s medieval attitude, since undoubtedly Pern is not intended to be a society where both genders are equal, something which indeed Lessa has to overcome and which is a major theme in later novels.
 
Then again, since McCaffrey was born in the 1920’s it is also possible that her own beliefs about what level of gender related physical force was acceptable were slightly off, indeed watching the 1959 film Ben Hur the other day I did note an occasion in which the main character similarly manhandles his love interest.
My lady in fact has even accused McCaffrey on occasion of somewhat conforming to the tropes of fifties romance, particularly with F'lar. Whatever the reason I can say this makes F'lar a little difficult to like at several points in the book.
 
Lessa as the other primary protagonist is unfortunately also less than pleasant on occasions, being head strong, proud, manipulative and frequently a little childish, indeed in some ways she is almost a typical princess. Again, how much this was due to perhaps older traditions of writing romantic characters or how much due to Pern supposedly having ingrained noble prejudices and sense of pride I do not know. Nevertheless, just as there were points I found it difficult to like F'lar, I found similar problems with Lessa, which is quite surprising given that her rags to riches story of revenge is one which would incline me to be sympathetic almost by default.
 
This is typified in one section where Lessa masterminds a scheme by which the dragon riders kidnap and terrorise the wives of several Lords who are not paying their tithes to the Weyr, a sequence which I believe was intended to be funny, but whose actual implications and impact upon the people involved is one McCaffrey plainly did not consider.
 
This extortion is also a little problematic given that at this stage thread has not been seen on Pern for four hundred years and it is therefore not so unreasonable of the Lords to wonder why they should be paying taxes to a bunch of haughty dragon riders anyway, a perspective which McCaffrey utterly ignores.
 
All that being said there are a number of surprisingly nice character moments in the book. These include Lessa’s genuinely touching friendship with the Watch Wher, a stunted dragon like creature keeping watch at Ruatha hold, not to mention the bond she does establish with her dragon, indeed for much of the book the dragons actually come off as nicer than the humans.
 
Fortunately, when the parasitic threads put in an appearance, everything moves into a higher gear. This is both because now the Dragon riders actions have a context, and because suddenly  the questionable character depiction of F'lar and Lessa falls off dramatically, indeed for all I was not always fond of Lessa, the final sequence when she rises atop her golden queen dragon to fight thread is quite remarkable, as are some of the things she achieves when the situation gets desperate.
 
As we move from a story of slightly petty bickering politics and tradition to one of cooperation against a mindless alien menace we also meet memorable and sympathetic characters who McCaffrey will take time to explore later, like the wise master harper Robinton and the single minded smith Fandarel.
 
Stylistically, McCaffrey’s prose are fairly unambitious, though I do admire the way that she picks out smaller details which make Pern feel like a real place as opposed to simply a fantasy stage dressing. I was also quite pleased with how well she handled her books pacing since rarely did it feel that the work either dragged or moved too quickly which is a surprising achievement for a first novel (particularly one with so much political wrangling). Unfortunately, since Dragonflight is a first novel there are still one or two minor stylistic niggles. I did not like the fact that we rarely actually hear dragons speak so much as have their conversation described to us, or the way Lessa’s unspecified Jedi like mind powers seemed a little indefinite and rather nebulous; likely why McCaffrey largely dropped this aspect in later books, though it shows her competence as a writer that neither Lessa’s powers nor those of her dragon make solving problems too easy.
 
Then again, the dragons themselves, although perhaps not as evident in this book as later in the series are wonderfully real, especially in the descriptions of their various personalities, the practical ways their riders take care of them and especially the discovery of their talents, and when eventually the thread itself does start falling the idea of a mindless, wriggling silver alien life form is profoundly and wonderfully nasty; small wonder it brings so many people together.
 
Dragonflight is in many ways a problematic book. Questionable attitudes, the at times dislikeable characters and the slightly uneven details of world building and power. However there is a lot the book gets right, in the creation of its world, and (eventually), in the depiction of its characters.

If you are a newcomer to McCaffrey’s Pern series, you would likely be best starting elsewhere (perhaps with the far more mature Dragonsdawn), however if you want to see how the saga began, and indeed see how a young writer converted two Hugo winning novellas to form her first steps into a historical world of alien dragons, Dragonflight still definitely has something to offer, for all there is no denying McCaffrey did refine both her craft and her dragons later on.

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2-stars

I first heard of Pern around 2003 while at university, spending much of my free time roleplaying online on telnet-based MUSH games. Occasionally I'd be looking for a new game, and stumbled across a number of Pern MUSHes. Not having any idea what Pern was, I never joined any of them, but I did become aware that it was a long-running and evidently popular series featuring dragon riders. I assumed it was typical generic fantasy fare, somewhat akin to Dragonlance, but when I learned it was science fiction masquerading as fantasy, I removed it from my "to read" list, as I tend to be irritated by fantasy settings with sci-fi backstories. Recently, I decided to make an effort to read the older classics of fantasy and sci-fi, partly to gain a better understanding of the history of speculative fiction, and partly because books from before the 1990s tend to be rather shorter than today's bloated doorstoppers, making them less of a commitment. I am also attracted to the idea of long-running series with many relatively short novels set at different periods in the history of the same setting, something which used to be somewhat common in 20th century fantasy and sci-fi but seems to have since been replaced in modern times by sprawling mega-series telling a single story over thousands of pages. Having mellowed out somewhat in my disdain for certain tropes even as my disdain for word count has hardened, I was rather hoping to pick up Pern as something of a guilty pleasure, with many installments to look forward to. I had a suspicion that it would be trashy, but I have learned to love popcorn fiction - you can't live on popcorn alone, but it makes a pleasant snack now and then. I was not, however, quite prepared for how bad Dragonflight actually is. Oh, it started promisingly enough, with Lessa living as a slave in her own ancestral home, plotting her revenge on the invader who murdered her family. However, that plotline is summarily dealt with in the first few chapters, and the only antagonist in the whole book is killed off with it. What follows is unremittingly bland and tedious. The quality of the prose is mediocre, even by genre standards. Surely the cliche of a character seeing themselves in the mirror and reflecting on how beautiful they are was trite even in the 1960s? Then there is the awful poetry which prefaces every chapter, supposedly the teaching ballads of master harpers, which serves only to demonstrate that McCaffrey had no talent for verse whatsoever. The setting itself - usually among the most important aspects of a secondary world fantasy or planetary romance sci-fi - is scarcely developed, with minimal detail, description, or atmosphere. Scant development is also given to surely the most important element, the bond between dragons and riders, with Lessa's bonding with Ramoth treated in almost perfunctory fashion. Although, maybe that is a good thing, considering how silly some of the worldbuilding we're actually given is. Perhaps apostrophe-laden names were not such a horrendous cliche back in the 60s when this was written, but it's difficult not to roll eyes at it today. Apparently, you have to give up your vowels when you bond with a dragon (but you get them back if the dragon dies). Then we get to the biggest issue with Dragonflight, to a modern reader. The relationship between Lessa and vowel-deprived dragonman F'lar is an unpleasant reminder of a not-bygone-enough age, when domestic abuse was considered appropriate manly behaviour. I will not delve too much into the specifics, you can read the following oft-quoted pasaage and judge for yourself: "[F’lar] set his teeth, wishing, as he had a hundred times since Ramoth rose in her first mating flight, that Lessa had not been virgin, too. He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa’s first sexual experience had been violent… He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape." Another rather uncomfortable moment occurs later, during the novel's climax, when Lessa, busily saving the world, is less concerned by the immediate danger she is in, than she is practically hysterical with fear of the domestic abuse she expects F'lar to visit upon her on her return, merely for disobeying him (F'lar tends to grab her and shake her any time he's annoyed with her). If only the plot could go some way toward redeeming this outdated chauvinist claptrap, but unfortunately, it's scarcely any less stupid. The great battle towards which the novel builds, for which the dragons are bred and for which the riders train their whole lives, amounts to little more than dragonnback gardening. McCaffrey somehow manages to make dragons boring by reducing them to glorified weed whackers, after whom the ground-dwelling peasants clean up by literally spraying weedkiller on whatever the dragons miss. I wish I was making this up. When I thought it could barely get any more ridiculous, the whole thing is resolved by time travel, the lazy author's best friend (although at least in this case, history is not actually changed, lending a sense of predestination to the whole affair). There is no suspense whatsoever at any point. The only interesting conflict in the whole book - between the weyr and the disgruntled dirt farmers who are obliged to supply it despite it having apparently long outlived its usefulness, is summarily resolved with minimal effort. I'm struggling to think of anything positive to say about this book. It's barely even a shadow of what I expected and I went in with low expectations. If I had to pick something, I'd say the notion of a periodic threat, appearing at intervals of centuries due to the close approach of another planet on an eliptic orbit is a nice sci-fi idea, but the execution here is terrible. I suppose, being a latecomer to this series, I don't find the dragon riding tropes as fresh as they perhaps were when it was first published. Even so, between the poor writing, bland worldbuilding, unlikable and lacklustre characters, I can't see anything to merit the evident popularity of this series, and suspect it is founded on little more than an uncritical audience's blind love of dragons. I give it 2/10, only because there are other books that are even worse and a lower score must be reserved for those.

4.1/10 from 2 reviews

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