Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

After the sad passing of SFF great Anne McCaffrey I came to the realisation that I’d never actually read any of her work (I don’t think the Pern short story that I didn’t understand in one of the Legends collections really counts). As my wife is a fan and has almost everything she’s ever written, except maybe the cookbooks, I thought I should rectify the situation. I decided to start with the first published book of her most successful series; Pern. I say first published, because my wife informs me that the chronology of the Pern books has become very complicated over the course of the 20 plus novels that Anne and her son; Todd, have written about the planet. Having now read Dragonflight I can see how this could happen.

Dragonflight didn’t begin life as a novel itself. It’s actually comprised of 2 novellas: Weyr Search (which won the Best Novella Hugo in 1968) and Dragonrider (Best Novella Nebula in 1969). Those two awards were the first time a female author had won either. When reading it I could kind of see where one novella ended and the next began, even without that knowledge. The writing style doesn’t change, but I felt that at least one of the lead characters underwent a significant shift in between the two.

There’s a brief introduction which gives readers a bit of background. Pern was settled many years, or turns as they refer to the passages of time, before by human colonists. They seem to have been forgotten about, and in turn have developed their own society and culture and lost knowledge of their origins. The planet itself is regularly under threat from threads (non sentient parasites that will leech the life from any living thing they contact if left unchecked. I liken them to the vine that I recently ripped out of my backyard), and to combat these the Pernese have captured the planets indigenous dragons and genetically altered them to enlarge them and give them telepathy. The dragons breathe fire and this kills the threads. Each dragon has a rider that they are linked to. In Dragonflight all the riders are male, so are referred to as dragonmen, but there are indications that this situation may change as Pern becomes less patriarchal.

The Weyr Search part of the book concerns itself with setting up the world, the society and culture while the dragonmen, mostly the ultra alpha male F’lar, search for a Weyrwoman to replace the recently deceased Jora, bond with the about to be hatched queen dragon and allow the fight against the threads to continue. It also introduces most of the main characters, although it is established that this story is mostly about F’lar and the soon to be Weyrwoman; Lessa. Lessa’s life will alter significantly, with her going from the displaced and downtrodden vengeance seeking heiress of the Ruatha Hold, to being telepathically linked to a queen dragon (Ramoth) and largely responsible for the fate of the entire planet.

Dragonrider focuses on the fight against the threads and the discovery of how time travel can assist the dragonriders, including Lessa now, in this battle. The largely unknown Southern Continent is also freed of threads and will be used in the future to settle more Pernese and mainly to breed dragons. The love story between F’Lar and Lessa continues and is largely satisfactorily resolved by the end of the book.

I can see why these have become so popular and some of what grabs people about the books. They’re a fantastic melding of science fiction and fantasy, largely before many authors thought to do this. Fans are still arguing over what category they actually fit in. Anne McCaffrey always insisted they were science fiction, but the medieval setting and the inclusion of dragons, albeit technologically enhanced ones, have led many people to pigeonhole them as fantasy. Ultimately though Dragonflight didn’t really do it for me.

Why is this the case? It’s mostly do with F’Lar and Lessa. I took a dislike to F’lar almost from his first appearance. He is, as I said earlier, an ultra alpha male. He just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t see how anyone else could bear to be in the same room with him for any length of time, let alone fall in love with him. I kind of hoped he may fall off his dragon at some point, so maybe his far more likeable half brother F’nor could take over the position of Weyrleader. In Weyr Search the impulsive Lessa continually made bad decisions and took actions with little thought for the consequences for her or others, so long as she got what she wanted. This continued in Dragonrider, only now she was concerned about F’lar’s reaction, which usually consisted of shouting at her or shaking her. I just couldn’t buy them as romantic leads. Maybe if Lessa had been a little less whiny and more thoughtful and F’lar more like F’nor I would have enjoyed that part of the book more.

Then there were the dragons. I’m not a fan of dragons overall. I find them dreadfully overused. McCaffrey’s dragons were a little different, and she also wrote the book before everyone and their dog started including fire breathing reptiles in their books. What I had some issues with was the fact that the Pernese have created these creatures as the ultimate weapon, plus they’re sentient and intelligent, yet they seem to allow themselves to be used as tools and never really complain. Maybe their lives were so cushy that they had no reason to do so, as the dragonriders do pamper their mounts dreadfully, they’re rather like large house pets at times. The other thing was the way McCaffrey chose to have them communicate. Until Lessa, who could speak to ALL dragons, not just Ramoth, each dragonrider was linked only to his dragon and most of what they said was filtered through the rider. Their telepathic thoughts appeared only rarely, and this was a shame as it never allowed them to develop genuine personalities. It may change in future novels.

It’s a good start and introduction to Anne McCaffrey, but not up my alley and probably written too long ago to really appeal to me.


  1. I completely agree. I can certainly see why the Dragon Riders of Pern series was so popular, and it was indeed ground breaking for it's time. My husband is a huge fan of every McCaffrey, so he was thrilled when I was read these earlier this year.

    Along with you, I wish I enjoyed it better. I found Lessa and F'lar really annoying. Why couldn't the entire book have been about F'lar's brother, F'nor? He was really cool.

  2. I adore dragons, but never got on with the Pern novels, although I did try a fair few times...

    I know so many people who went mad for them, I kept thinking I must be missing something..never figured out what though!

  3. Thanks for the comments redhead and FN. I spoke about F'lar with my wife and she agrees with us that F'nor is a much more likeable character and doesn't know why he wasn't made the lead instead of F'lar, although she tells me that he has a larger role in the next book.
    I think to a certain extent with the Pern books it does depend on when you came to them. My wife first read them as a teen when she was just discovering the genre and the love stayed with her. Being late to the party they didn't connect with me in the same way.