A Flight of Dragons

13 Jul

Fantasy lost one of its leading lights with the death last year of Anne McCaffrey. Over the course of her 46 year career she won both the Hugo and  Nebula Awards, her book The White Dragon became one of the first science fiction novels ever to land on the New York Times Best Seller List and she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006. To readers all over the world, however, her greatest achievement remains the creation of one of the most beloved sci-fi/fantasy series of all time, The Dragonriders of Pern. As of June 2011 the series comprises 22 novels and several short stories, although it is by no means over in spite of McCaffrey’s death. Beginning in 2003, her son Todd has also written Pern novels, both solo and jointly with Anne, and aims to continue to do so. Two of the novellas included in the first novel, Dragonflight, made McCaffrey the first woman to win either a Hugo or Nebula Award. Original, inspirational and universal in its appeal, the Pern series has itself straddled boundaries that have not conventionally been crossed and broken all sorts of new ground in fiction. Pern is one of those rare fantasy worlds which almost seems to have a life of its own outside the novels – it has inspired board and computer games, music, art and graphic novels as well as, perhaps inevitably, constant rumours of a Pern film or television series. Let’s take a look at what made McCaffrey such a popular author and her world of Pern, its dragons and their riders such enduring creations.

The creation story of Pern goes something like this. Dissatisfied with life on a technologically advanced Earth, hundreds of colonists travelled through space to the star Rukbat, which held six planets in orbit around it, five in stable trajectories, and one that looped wildly around the others.  The third planet was capable of sustaining life, and the spacefarers settled there, naming it Pern. They cannibalised their spaceships for material and began building their homes. Pern was ideal for settlement, except for one thing. At regular intervals, the sixth planet of its system would swing close to it and release swarms of deadly mycorrhizoid spores, which devoured anything they touched and rendered the ground where they landed fallow for years. The colonist immediately began searching for a way to combat the Thread, as the spores were named. For defence, they turned to the dragonets, small flying lizards that the colonists had tamed when they first landed. The fire-breathing ability of these reptiles had been a great help in the first Threadfall. By genetically enhancing and selectively breeding these reptiles through the generations, the colonists created a race of full-sized dragons. With the dragons and their riders working together, the Pern colonists were able to fight the Thread effectively and establish a firm hold on the planet. They settled into a quasi-feudal agricultural society, building Holds for the administrators and field workers, Halls for the craftsmen, and Weyrs for the dragons and riders to inhabit.

Many of the Pern novels detail the politics of the Holds and Weyrs between Threadfalls. The entire line of books spans over 2,500 years, from the first landing of the settlers to their descendants’ discovery of the master ship’s computer centuries later. Dragonflight, the first of the Dragonriders of Pern books, tells of a time 2,500 years after the initial landing. The Thread has not been seen in four centuries, and people are starting to view the old warnings with scepticism. Three Dragonriders, Lessa, F’lar and F’nor, believe that the Thread is coming back, and try to mobilise the planetary defences. Lessa, knowing that there are not enough dragons to combat the Thread effectively, time-travels back four hundred years to a point just after the last Threadfall, when that era’s Dragonriders are growing restless and bored from lack of activity. Lessa convinces most of them to come back with her to combat Thread in her time. They arrive and fight off the Thread. Dragonquest, the second book, picks up seven years after the end of the first book. Relations between the Oldtimers, as the time-travelling Dragonriders are called, and the current generation are growing tense. After getting into a fight with one of the old Dragonriders, F’nor is sent to Pern’s southern continent to recover from his wound. There he discovers a grub that neutralises the Thread after is burrows into the ground. Realizing they have discovered a powerful new weapon against Thread, F’nor begins planning to seed the grubs over both continents. Meanwhile, an unexpected Threadfall is the catalyst for a duel between F’lar, the Benden Weyrleader, and T’ron, the leader of the Oldtimers. F’lar wins and banishes all Dragonriders who will not accept his role as overall Weyrleader. The banished go to the Southern Continent. The book ends with the grubs being bred for distribution all over Pern.

The third book, The White Dragon, chronicles the trials of young Jaxom as he raises the only white dragon on Pern, a genetic anomaly. Jaxom encounters prejudice and scorn from other Dragonriders because his dragon is smaller than the rest. He is also scheduled to take command of one of the oldest Holds on Pern, and there are those who doubt his ability to govern. Both Jaxom and his dragon Ruth rise to the challenges and succeed in proving that bigger is not necessarily better. Needless to say, Jaxom commands his Hold, gets the girl, and all is set right with the world. The Harper Hall trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums) is aimed at younger readers, and deals with a girl named Menolly and her rise from unappreciated daughter to Journeywoman Harper and keeper of fire-lizards. In many subsequent novels McCaffrey has examined various other aspects of life on Pern from the earliest days of its colonisation by humans. For example, although Pern was originally an interesting example of a primarily agrarian society portrayed without organised religion, in the short story Beyond Between McCaffrey introduced the concept of an afterlife. Throughout the Pern series, McCaffrey attempts to portray a society caught between its attempt to build a utopian dream and a grim and inescapable reality, which from the start forced exceptionally hard choices. The creation of the Dragons such that they were bound to aid humanity was certainly morally questionable, for example, but they were also created to preserve human lives, and no other solution existed. McCaffrey does allow a more utopian and progressive outlook to win out in the end, though the future of this society could be considered somewhat in doubt due to its static nature. Elsewhere in the series McCaffrey appears to use the mechanism of science fiction to explore the following questions which seem to underpin the common myths and fairy tales of mankind – When is a legend a legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category: Fairy tale?

With such broad and deep themes, many of the Pern books stand up very well to repeated re-readings. Inevitably, however, because of the sheer length of the series there are times when even the most loyal of readers (like myself) begin to feel like they’ve seen it all before. This is a somewhat churlish complaint, however, because in so many other ways the Pern series has also adapted and changed with time, introducing new and modern themes as it has progressed. One thing that has never changed since its inception, however, is how real and likeable both the world and the characters who inhabit Pern seem and it may well be this reason, more than any other, which makes it such a fun place to visit, over and over again, in the pages of McCaffrey’s books. Wherever you are now, Anne, thanks for the memories.


6 Responses to “A Flight of Dragons”

  1. lexy3587 July 16, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    The Harper Hall trilogy was what got me into reading when I was a kid… now, if I’m not sure what to read, chances are I’ll try an Anne McCafferey book, with the certainty that I’ll enjoy it, even if I’ve already read it.

    • ashsilverlock July 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

      Yes, it’s great to have an author that you can really count on!

  2. reflectionsinapuddle July 24, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I am trying to read Dragonflight, the first book in the series. The storyline is amazing, but the style (or lack thereof) and awkward language rife with unnecessary adverbs make me want to put the book down. I even searched on amazon to see what other readers are saying – about 90% are extolling the series. I must be a finicky reader indeed…

  3. deshipley July 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Happy news, Ash — my ongoing enjoyment of your posts have led to an award nomination for you! Congrats! Details here:

  4. StetotheJ July 30, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    Ah! Fantastic, I have been overlooking these books for ages, since Todd started writing I haven’t picked one up. I shall do post hast though after i finish WWII.

  5. Wyrd Smythe September 7, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I was a McCaffrey fan long before Pern. I really liked her Brain & Brawn series, and Crystal Singer was a favorite of mine. I read and enjoyed the Pern trilogy, and I think I might have read Dragonsong as well. It got to be much of a sameness for me, and I lost interest around then.

    One thing: I’ve never considered Pern to be fantasy. McCaffrey ground the dragons and thread in science, which I really liked. (I’m more an SF fan than a fantasy fan. For me, fantasy needs something extra. I adore Pratchett’s Discworld, for instance, and Alan Foster’s Spellsinger or Asprin’s Myth books.) In fact, looking back at McCaffrey’s body of work, I’m not sure I’d consider her a fantasy writer, but a science fiction writer.

    But that’s just me. 😉

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