Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
Originally published 1968
DelRey, 24th printing, 1984
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Synopsis & Review: Long ago, a world called Pern was settled by colonists who eventually lost all memory of their home planet, their origins disappearing into obscurity. Some time after settlement, the inhabitants of Pern discovered the Red Star, a erratic orbiting planet home to a parasitic lifeform which threatened Pern at Intervals of two hundred years. As the Red Star rained devastation down in the form of these lifeforms, or Threads, inhabitants of Pern developed winged, teleporting, fire-breathing dragons from an indigenous lifeform, and used them to combat Thread. During Threadfall, the dragon riders are revered, but during Intervals without danger dragonriders slide into disfavor.
The opening of Dragonflight finds Pern four hundred years into an Interval, and many believe the legendary Threads are just that—legends. Resentment has been building against the sole dragon Weyr left on Pern, as the dragonfolk are viewed as obsolete parasites. Benden Weyr’s Queen has hatched a queen egg, and the dragonriders Search for young women to Impress the new Queen. It is on this Search that bronze rider F’lar finds Lessa, the last of Ruathan Blood, a young woman who has schemed and bided her time seeking revenge for the destruction of her family. As she completes her revenge, F’lar convinces Lessa to come to Benden Weyr, where he is sure that she is the Werywoman Benden—and Pern—need. For the Red Star is again in the skies above Pern, and F’lar and others in the Weyr believe that Threadfall is once again imminent. Only, with just one Weyr left out of six, how will the dragonfolk protect Pern from her ancient enemy? Dragonflight was the first of McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, published in 1968 and constructed in part from two earlier novellas (WeyrSearch and Dragonrider, which won a Hugo and a Nebula, respectively). Though at times compelling, and nearly always fascinating, this is very much an early work; characters in Dragonflight are developed only shallowly after the Search and Ramoth’s Impression, and their actions occasionally make little sense based on the characteristics they’re previously demonstrated. For example, Weyrleader R’gul represents the conservative factions, but exists as little more than a caricature of conservatism. Also, the development of F’lar and Lessa’s relationship seems somewhat improbable, and is in large part relayed to the reader via direct statements; we must take it on faith that there are underlying emotions. It is as though there is a distance between readers and Pern, a distance found less often in more recent works. Conversely, McCaffrey’s depiction of the disguised Lessa at the start of the novel is dynamic and vivid, perhaps demonstrating the strength of the novella WeyrSearch, and McCaffrey’s own strengths in short fiction. (I feel compelled to confess that I never fail to tear up over the watch-wher when Lessa leaves Ruath Hold.)
The novel is also a work of its time: I will admit that I was more than a little surprised on re-reading when I realized just how old some of these books are; Dragonflight is over forty years in print! The Harper Hall trilogy is my contemporary! Amazing! Written during the early years of Second Wave feminism—and by a woman—Dragonflight features a lively and strong willed female protagonist, Lessa. Despite the flaws in character development, she is a likable character, and one very appealing to the many young women readers of fantasy and science-fiction. And many complaints one might have about male-female relations in Dragonflight can be addressed by the social customs of Pern. However, the sexual relationship between Lessa and F’lar originates out of the mating of their dragons, Ramoth and Mnementh. Any sex without the dragons involved (telepathically!) is tantamount to rape, even according to F’lar, yet the relationship continues that way, despite Lessa’s apparent disinterest. This smacks of the formerly popular convention of a heroine only being able to succumb to or enjoy sex after she has been raped by the hero, a convention that remained in place in many genres, including romance, well into the 70s and 80s. I understand the powerful telepathic affect upon dragonriders when their dragons mate, but that would have been an excellent place for McCaffrey to work on that development of Lessa and F’lar’s relationship. (It is only fair to note that I do not recall this being a problem in other books, though the only one I have read recently is Dragonsinger.) F’lar also uses physical force, slapping or shaking Lessa in order to maintain dominance or punish her for her rash actions, which will undoubtedly make some readers uncomfortable. In a world in which women are chattel, such occurances are to be exepected, but it is poorly used in F’lar and Lessa’s relationship dynamic.
Overall however, the world of Pern is fascinating. McCaffrey created a distinct and convincing culture, including crafting guilds, nobility, weyrs, and harpers (bards). There is a fully developed economic system, agrarian practices, and intricate social ranks and customs, and there is also plenty of realistic social inequality; Pern is no utopia. Life is often brutish, strife-filled, and short. The books tread a fine line between science fiction and fantasy due to the scientifically explained origins of Pern (and changes in later books), which contrast with the quasi-medieval pre-industrial contemporary culture. As the series continues, McCaffrey adeptly adds further information, occasionally retconning some, which could lead to confusion for some readers. Overall, an entertaining science-fantasy in a fascinating world.
Cover: Solid science fiction/fantasy cover, with a baleful Red Star and Lessa riding Ramoth. The dragon demonstrates the scientific origins of the species by not assuming a traditional scaled fantasy dragon aspect. Interesting lime green and gold color scheme.
A cock crowed in the stable yard. Lessa whirled, her face alert, eyes darting around the outer Hold lest she be observed in such an uncharacteristic pose. She unbound her hair, letting the rank mass fall about her face concealingly. Her body drooped into the sloppy posture she affected. Quickly she thudded down the stairs, crossing to the watch-wher. It cried piteously, its great eyes blinking against the growing daylight. Oblivious to the stench of its rank breath, she hugged the scaly head to her, scratching its ears and eye ridges. The watch-wher was ecstatic with pleasure, its long body trembling, its clipped wings rustling. It alone knew who she was or cared. And it was the only creature in all Pern she had trusted since the dawn she had blindly sought refuge in its dark, stinking lair to escape the thirsty swords that had drunk so deeply of Ruathan blood.
12 May – 13 May