Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.06 / 5.00

I read this book as part of a Read Along. You can find my posts here:  Week 1   Week 2  

The planet of Pern is subject to a strange phenomenon that returns every two hundred years or so. During the roughly fifty years of a Pass, Thread falls from the sky in waves like a series of rainstorms. During each Threadfall, the strange, alien organisms drift down from the sky, seemingly inert until they touch something, anything, organic, which they will destroy with mindless savagery. Only two things can hold the Thread in check: stone and the fire from dragons. Pern’s society has adapted to survive this threat by creating and supporting the Weyrs, where dragon riders and their linked partners can train to fight the Thread when it comes. However, it has been more than four hundred years since the last Pass and many now believe that Thread will never come again. This belief makes it increasingly difficult for the last surviving Weyr to continue its role of leading the rest of the population in preparing for the next Pass. The other five Weyrs have been deserted since the last Pass, which only adds fuel to the speculation that dragons, and their riders, are no longer needed and should not be supported by the rest of society. F’Lar is convinced that the next Pass is approaching, but he has to fight his own leaders to persuade them that Thread is not simply a child’s tale.

Lessa is the sole surviving member of the noble family that used to rule Ruatha Hold. When her family was slaughtered she hid with the watch-wher, a dragon-like creature that watches over the Hold and warns of approaching threats. Disguised as a kitchen drudge, she has survived in the Hold, plotting revenge against Fax, the man who killed her family. When F’Lar comes to Ruatha in search of candidates to offer the latest clutch of dragon eggs, he realizes that Lessa is a good prospect for the single golden egg in the clutch that will hatch to produce the next Queen. With her as Weyrwoman, he has a chance of changing the Weyr’s policies and keeping the world safe when the Thread returns.

This book was originally published in 1968, although two segments had appeared in Analog magazine in the year before. It is one of the first of Ms McCaffrey’s books that I read more than twenty years ago and I am glad to say that it stands the test of time. I was concerned that it might appear dated after all these years, but it has stayed remarkably fresh and relevant, offering up a marvelously detailed and fully conceived world that falls somewhere between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is the first in a series that now totals some twenty-four volumes, and the exploration of the Science Fiction aspects is more pronounced in some of these titles than others.

At first glance the setting is thoroughly Fantasy, with a medieval feel to its feudal society. However, the Introduction places us firmly in a Science Fiction universe, making it clear that Pern is actually a human colony on a planet orbiting the star Rukbat. This places Pern’s society in a rather different context, as we can see that the threat of Thread has pushed a people capable of interstellar flight into a pre-industrial period of their development and effectively stalled their ability to progress beyond this phase. The repeated effects of Threadfall are so catastrophic that is no wonder that these people are barely able to survive the long Passes, when harvesting food becomes almost impossible and cowering in stone structures is their best choice. It is a testament to the determination of previous generations that there are still people on the planet at all.

Other than this piece of information the other Science Fiction elements are rather limited. Perhaps the most important is the Thread itself, which appears to be derived from the Red Star, one of Pern’s neighboring planets. The nature of Thread is never really addressed, although the destruction that is causes is demonstrated rather graphically and we learn a lot about how to destroy it. This again fits with the idea that it is such a devastating menace that the people have never had the chance to develop the resources needed to understand what it actually is. This makes a very nice change from the standard trope of a thinking enemy that has some reason, even if it is a totally evil one, to take action against our protagonists. The Thread is alive, but in a non-thinking way, which somehow makes it so much more terrifying. There is no negotiation to be attempted or surrender to be given: they must simply endure until the Red Star moves on and the Pass finishes.

Finally, we have the dragons, although they do not really fulfill the classic Science Fiction element that we would expect. Rather it is their ability to travel between that takes us away from Fantasy to a certain extent. Whereas nothing else in this world appears to be inherently magical or unexpectedly talented, this ability is truly unique. By thinking about a place in great detail, a dragon can move into a type of non-space that they call between and then pop back out into the normal world at a different location. This ability to translocate at will is crucial to their ability to avoid and fight Thread and is a nice contrast to their fire breathing, which actually relies upon them chewing stone containing phosphine. This mundane explanation for the expected ability to belch out fire makes the whole between concept seem so much more exotic.

The lack of a major enemy, in favor of the impersonal Thread, is certainly refreshing, although we do get a few human bad guys to detest. However, most of the conflict comes from the prevailing belief that there will never be another Pass and that the Weyr is now a redundant relic of an earlier age. We get to feel all smug and satisfied as the naysayers learn the truth the hard way, but few of them are truly evil people, which adds to the satisfyingly normal feel of the society that we observe. Just as with World War Z by Max Brooks, it is interesting to see how societies cope with disaster and to follow individuals as they come to terms with their world being turned upside down.

Our protagonists are a little earnest, especially F’Lar, but this is also a function of their life experiences and so it fits perfectly with the world that they inhabit. However, they also demonstrate my one problem with this title. F’Lar and Lessa have a difficult relationship and they are both very closed off, private people, so they have some trouble admitting their feelings for one another. Even so, I did get very annoyed with the number of times that he grabs hold of her and shakes her. Whenever she appears to be being awkward, argumentative or uncooperative he resorts to physical violence in order to ‘shake some sense into her’. I found this very objectionable and, although I doubt that it would appear in a book written today, it made it rather difficult for me to like F’Lar as much as I should. Somehow I struggle with a hero who keeps assaulting his partner.

It is interesting to note that this misogynistic approach to communication is at odds with the sexual relationships shown within the Weyr. The riders are psychically linked to their dragons, and so when the dragons mate their riders do as well. As the dragons are somewhat liberal in their mating choices, this means that some of the female riders mate with many men and do not have monogamous relationships. Also a female dragon that is not a Queen can bond with a male rider, and so we can assume that homosexual relationships are perfectly acceptable as well. This liberal attitude to sex is one area where the riders are shown to be very different from those who live outside the Weyrs, where more conservative family relationships are the expected norms.

However, putting this interesting dichotomy in attitudes to violence and sex to one side, there are many things to enjoy in this title. As I have already mentioned, the setting is still unique enough to be interesting, but there are two other aspects that are even more of a ‘selling point’ in my opinion.

Firstly, there is the character of MasterHarper Robinton, who is a firm favorite with the fans of the series. He is so vividly drawn that I have to believe that he is modeled upon someone that Ms McCaffrey knew very well. He is hilarious and provides some wonderful moments of light relief, whilst providing a sensible, levelheaded counterpoint to F’Lar’s sometimes over-emotional assessments of situations. He is also the leader of the Harpers, the teachers and scholars of Pern’s society, which is itself an interesting concept. Given that Thread can destroy anything organic, and because nobody survives from one Pass to the next, all the information about Threadfall is communicated via ballads and songs. This choice of dependence upon the Oral Tradition was excellent because it is a perfect fit for the needs of the society, but also allows information to be transmitted without complete understanding so that it has to be deciphered in the present. The songs and poems that constitute the teachings about the Thread are interesting and add an extra dimension to the world.

However, the most enjoyable aspect of this whole series are the dragons themselves. They are suitably alien in their thought processes, so that they are most definitely not human, which provides ample opportunity for comedy and disparaging differences of opinion. Lessa is unusual because she can hear all dragons and not just the one she is bonded to, so we often get a dragon’s commentary on what their rider is saying, which can be very funny. In general, the dragons have excellent characters and are loveable in their own right: they seem to be heavily based upon cats, so you can imagine their love of food, luxury and attention. However, I really wish that we did not get reminded of their color so frequently. This writer’s tick gets annoying about one third of the way into the book and actually becomes laughable after that, but is a small price to pay for the dragons themselves.  

Whilst I would suggest that this title in the series is rather light on aspects that are truly Science Fiction, I can promise that the later novels take the reader both forward and backward in time within Pern’s history revealing some wonderfully interesting ideas. As it stands, I would recommend Dragonflight as a great introduction to one of my favorite authors, especially if you are a little uneasy about plunging straight into something with heavy Science Fiction tropes or an exotic Fantasy setting. This series deals with real human people who are struggling to survive a very unusual threat. Whilst it is not Fantasy-lite, it relies upon elements that are not too outlandish or difficult to visualize and so you can concentrate on the story and enjoy the banter between the characters. 

I read this title as part of:


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