Dragonflight: Anne McCaffrey

★★★

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I read a lot of classic sci-fi novels that my dad had bought in the 1970s and 1980s and then relegated to a box in the attic. These were my first ‘grown up’ books and together they opened up a whole world for me, but I haven’t read them since. However, a few weeks back someone donated a treasure trove of these novels to the book stall at the village fete (not my dad’s copies, I hasten to add), and I saw the perfect opportunity to revisit the stories which had had such an impression on me as a child. First up on the nostalgia road-trip was Dragonflight, which I remembered with great fondness. Inevitably, it didn’t quite stand up to the test of time, but – having forgotten virtually everything about it except the characters’ names and the dragons – I still found it exciting and fast-paced, with a clever blend of sci-fi and fantasy at its heart.

Dragonflight is the first of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. At first glance it introduces us to a familiar pseudo-medieval fantasy world: there are lords, who govern the great castle-like Holds spread across the landscape; there are drudges, harpers and craft guilds; and there are dragons. Most of the Pernese only encounter dragons in the form of their stunted, wing-clipped cousins, the ugly watch-whers who serve the function of guard-dogs at the Holds. But there are also true dragons: the great blue, green, brown and bronze beasts stabled at the Weyr that guards the whole world. And there are their riders: brave, arrogant men who were the stuff of legend back in the mists of time but who have recently begun to seem anachronistic and parasitic, demanding tithes from the Holds in return for nothing but the memories of ancient glamour remembered in harpers’ songs.

But things aren’t quite what they seem. The story is actually set in the far future: the people of Pern are the descendants of colonists from Earth, who took advantage of this hospitable planet. But contact with Earth was lost so many centuries ago that no one  on Pern now remembers where their ancestors came from. And other, equally important memories have also faded. Songs and legends tell of how the dragonriders once went to battle against the Threads, the silvery incursions of an alien life-force escaping from a red star that hung in the skies over Pern. But it has been four hundred years since anyone saw a Thread, and legend is fading into irrelevance. Few of the Hold lords maintain the old safeguards and fewer still encourage the old songs which tell of the dragonriders and their deeds. Times are changing, though. As rebellion bristles among the Hold lords, a red star appears in the dawn skies, a Queen egg is laid in the distant Weyr, and the dragonriders of Pern ride out in Search of a woman worthy to be bonded to that Queen.

None of this has much impact on Lessa, one of the kitchen girls at Ruatha Hold, except insofar as the disturbing dreams that have troubled her. For ten years she has lived quietly incognito, cleaning the Hold which was once her family’s home, and which was brutally seized, with great bloodshed, by the ambitious Fax. The only survivor of her bloodline, Lessa has grown to adulthood nursing her desire for revenge and doing everything she can to thwart Fax’s enjoyment of her birthplace. When the lord himself comes to the Hold, she seem an opportunity for attack, but events outpace her. Fax comes with dragonriders on Search and, when Lessa betrays her ability to touch minds with the dragons, she finds herself carried off as a candidate to bond with the Queen.

Schooled to determination and patience, Lessa succeeds where the other quailing candidates fail, but her bond with brilliant, golden Ramoth only opens a host of new problems. As Weyrwoman it is her duty to govern the Weyr and its people, but to do so she must learn the complex traditions and rituals of her new position – many of which seem designed to stifle, rather than foster, creativity. After four hundred years the Weyr is stale and inward-looking, governed by the autocratic R’gul, but Lessa isn’t one to give in meekly to ‘the way things have always been done’. With the red star growing ever more visible in the skies, she knows that times must change, and she finds an ally in the man who discovered her at Ruath: F’lar, the bronze-rider, who believes more deeply than any other in the threat that is about to hit them all. But how can they tackle the imminence of Threads if they are poorly supplied, not just with food, but with dragons? The state of the Weyr has withered since the last appearance of Threads half a millennium ago, and Lessa and F’lar will have to draw on all their resourcefulness to come up with a solution.

I remembered the book chiefly for Lessa, because at the time I hadn’t read all that many books with strong female characters and I was impressed by her stubbornness and creativity. Compared to other sci-fi novels published at the time (Dragonflight came out in 1969), it’s refreshing to find a woman who actually takes control of her own situation and solves problems, rather than existing as a buxom love interest or a pretty flower to be rescued. Of course, it also helps that the characters’ primary emotional bonds are with their dragons rather than other people (although a form of romance finds its way in). In the years since, I’ve read many novels where people bond with animals or dragons, from the Temeraire series to the Farseer books, but this was the first I came across and the impact of Impression – the sudden annihilation of self in the moment of bonding with another – is very well done.

Looking back now on the novel, I’d have liked to get slightly more sense of the structure of the Weyr and perhaps more depth of characterisation, but by modern standards the book is remarkably brief (253 pages) and McCaffrey has to pack a lot in. In fact, you feel the book could have been slightly longer: after a well-paced opening, during which we get to know Lessa and her world, and see the Weyr through her eyes, things suddenly speed up and we have wonderful ideas and adventures fizzing around with hardly time to process everything, and the end can only be described as abrupt. I found myself turning pages at the end, demanding, ‘Well, what happens then?’ I know that there is a sequel, Dragonquest, but it’s slightly frustrating to have the book end at such a moment when it would have been good to have a final chapter just to wrap things up slightly and catch our breath.

Still, it was a good start to the Nostalgia Reading Project, if that’s the name I’m going to adopt for this. Coming up I have Asmiov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, H.G. Wells and Frank Herbert, so it’ll be interesting to see how their novels fare twenty years after the first, breathless read. What do other people think about the Pern books? Should I try to track down others from the series – are there gripping, unmissable developments later on? – or am I safe to leave it at Dragonflight and get my future dragon-bonded adventures from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books?

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12 thoughts on “Dragonflight: Anne McCaffrey

  1. elainethomp says:

    I found Pern didn’t wear well, so I’d recommend stopping while you’re ahead. By the way, the first part of this one was published as a magazine short, which may explain the shift in pacing.
    McCaffrey was not the first to do animal bonding, but I think she was the first to make it overwhelming. when Norton did it, the characters stayed themselves, but got some emotion and communication. I don’t know if you’re interested but you are I could probably dredge up Norton animal stories to recommend. And then there’s Cherryh, who wrote the downsides of animal bonding in her RIDER duo.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hi Elaine! That may well explain it. I was just settling into the initial pacing and suddenly we were off in a rush to fit everything in before the final page. When you mention Norton, forgive me, which books are you referring to? I don’t immediately get the reference. I haven’t come across Cherryh either. My literary experiences of animal bonding are almost entirely from Hobb, Novik et al. Mind you, it’s not a genre I necessarily seek out, but if you think there is another author who it would be good to read, then please, by all means point me in that direction!

  2. Melita says:

    Hmmm, I haven’t re-read these for a while partially because there are more troubling cases of male characters not listening “for her own good” when a woman says “no.” Personally, if I really wanted a re-read, I would do the first 3 books of the main sequence: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. Plus Menolly’s trilogy (YA): Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums (the last is weaker). I didn’t find the later books as compelling. The Robinton book, Masterharper of Pern, rewrote the existing canon by inserting him into every important occurrence of the previous books. Ugh.

    Moreta’s not bad (the true story of Moreta’s Ride), but depressing.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you Melita – maybe best to stop where I am then?! The only reason I would be tempted to read on would be to find out how the dragonriders of Benden Weyr cope with the five extra Weyrs but I have to say the characters weren’t so gripping that I absolutely have to carry on. I feel that to some extent I’ve had my story, in seeing how Lessa achieves her aim. It’s a shame to hear that the later books don’t really live up to the promise of the first though…

  3. elainethomp says:

    Norton is Andre Norton a prolific writer from the 40s-90s, and I believe, is usually credited with originating the ‘animal bond’ element in stories. Other writers took it farther, though. CATSEYE is one title where it features, maybe the earliest.

    CJ Cherryh is a prolific SF/F writer whose duo RIDER AT THE GATE & CLOUD’S RIDER features riders bonded with nighthorses. They can be overwhelmed by stuff coming from their mount, and the night horses also affect those who aren’t their riders. The story of the first deals with someone really getting overwhelmed and the fallout. I’ve always thought they read like the author got fed up with the fluffy, it’s all good animal bond stories and wanted to take a good look at all sides. I’ve bounced off Hobb’s work for years so I can’t compare. Novik’s isn’t anything like it. Novik, as I recall the 3 I read, was more Norton-y. No emotional overwhelming, just talk.

  4. Heloise Merlin says:

    For animal-bonding stories there also is the Iskryne trilogy by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette (starting with Company of Wolves) which apparently is a conscious critique of the clichés of that genre. I haven’t read the novels myself yet (been meaning to for a long time though), but considering both authors are among my favourites in the SFF field, I have very high expectations.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ah yes, the joint reading we still must do at some point, which I insist on referring to as the ‘gay wolf-Vikings book’. I haven’t forgotten about it!

      Have you read the Pern series? I thought you might have done, back in the day, and would be interested to know your thoughts on the later books…

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        Yes, one would think so, but for some reason (my best guess is that they had not been translated, and back in pre-Amazon days it could be extremely difficult to find specific books in English) Anne McCaffrey passed me by completely, so can’t really say anything about her.I can, however, strongly recommend C.J. Cherryh, if you really haven’t read anything by her – I don’t know the ones Elain mentions, but almost anything by her is good to brilliant.

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