Catch the pearl and ride the dragon’s wings

Taking flight with the art of Michael Whelan

Clattering through a busy May day, the Beamers met to take a ride on the backs of dragons on the planet Pern.  Like dragons themselves, a curious hybrid of science (as a possible folk memory of dinosaurs) and fantasy, Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey won science fiction awards and helped set off a wave of dragon-focused fantasies like Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic-era Temeraire books.  But did the Beamers take to this odd combination or did we decide it being neither fish nor fowl made it too awkward to enjoy?

The First Hatching of an Unusual Egg

The original novellas that make up the first half of Dragonflight, “Weyr Search” and “Dragonrider”, are both award winners, taking a Hugo in 1968 (“Weyr Search”) and a Nebula in 1969 (“Dragonrider”), giving Ms. McCaffrey the distinction to be the first woman writer to win a fiction Hugo and first to win a Nebula.  With a fast start, the series continued to make its mark, particularly the 3rd installment, The White Dragon, which became the first sf/f work to hit the NY Times Hardcover Bestseller List and to bring notice to its cover illustrator, a young painter named Michael Whelan.  So Dragonflight put us at the start of 2 notable sf/f careers.

Bestseller for both the writer and for the artist

After a 50-year gap, was Dragonflight worth the wait?  Like many novels of its time, it is relatively short, only 188 pages in my SF Book Club omnibus edition of the initial trilogy.  And like those shorter novels of classic sf/f, it does not take much time to tell its story or to dwell on the details.  For some Beamers, like Chris, that brevity is a plus.  But most of us found that the shortness of the tale had some unfortunate consequences.  Perhaps the biggest drawback was the slighter feeling of the characterization and the character development, enough that Beamers like Liz did not see any real development in either of the main characters at all.

Nick was similarly disappointed in the lack of plot points, especially at how the grand battle against the interplanetary invasive Threads, with thousands of dragons and riders, plucked from 400 years in the past, was simply bypassed at the end of the novel.  So, the book has some issues with not taking enough time to either present its characters or to tell its story, an unsatifactory compromise that Arielle would have resolved by jettisoning some of the character interaction (aka “romance”) for more of the world-building and plotting.

A Peach of a Pair

The two main characters, Lessa the sought-for Weyrwoman, and F’lar, the soon-to-be Weyrleader, were controversial characters for us, even without the limitation on their development, too.  Both characters are clearly meant to be flawed people, with both having the kinds of strength of personality that borders on (and trespasses into) arrogance.  Lessa, meant to be a younger character coming into maturity, could be read almost as a stereotypical “princess”, as Kathy deemed her.  Liz, sympathetic to Lessa’s need to grow up quickly as an exile hiding in plain sight of her enemies, still found Lessa a bit cold-blooded, being able to somewhat offhandedly mentioning killing off the warders of her family’s conquered lands, even the one who perhaps did not deserve death.

F’lar, as the “mature” character, embodies a previous model of male hero, one with the fabled “stiff upper lip” and associated lack of emotional expressiveness (save for anger).  That lack of emotion may read well in certain logical alien characters (hi, Spock!) but here we were left with a distinct sense of F’lar being detached from his teammates rather than being simply more coolly in control of his emotions.  It did please Kathy when that control broke down and F’lar raced across a castle yard to welcome back Lessa from her dangerous trip through time to bring back help, giving us a moment of genuine affection and attachment on his part.  Alan was able to wonder if the novel itself was a romance, given the focus on Lessa and F’lar, a point that Chris, who admired McCaffrey’s choice to present her heroes with flaws and all, was surprised to find himself in agreement.

Still, the rather selective ways in which F’lar did demonstrate his feelings unsettled some of us.  I found his desire to keep disguising his affection and respect for Lessa (ostensibly to keep her from being overly full of herself) to really travel into an abusive relationship, one where withholding positive feelings is less a matter of cultivating discipline and more of controlling the other person.  Then add in Lessa’s open fear at being physically shaken by F’lar whenever he was angry with her, and F’lar seems to be a “#metoo” moment waiting to be called out, to me.  So, on the whole, neither Lessa nor F’lar won as much respect from us as the book seemed to want them to receive.

To Every Thing, Turn, Turn, Turn

The worldbuilding, too, was a point of contention for us.  Certainly, the original setting of Pern, with its misty history of interstellar colonization and its peculiar problem of interplanetary invasive species (the fungal Thread) that leaps between orbits every 200 years (“Turns”, to borrow the book’s old-fashioned sf vocabulary) to burrow into the fertile soil of Pern and lay waste to its indigenous plant life, is a famous sf locale.  And the rise of (apparently genetically engineered) telepathic and fire-breathing flying reptiles (the dragons), organized into troops (“weyrs”) that soar up to burn the Threads before they land, gives a pretty uniquely fantasy spin on a science-fictional background.

But we, spoiled perhaps by the longer narratives with deeper backstories of recent published sf/f, found that we wanted more.  For example, I was puzzled by how a weyr was actually organized and run, as most of the actual work was done off-screen by “the Lower Caverns” (aka the “lower orders”).  But who are these (mostly) faceless folk?  We do get to meet Manora, the senior woman in charge of keeping the weyr fed and clothed and clean, but we never learn how she won her position nor how her sons became dragon riders nor why they (F’lar and F’nor) had different fathers.  Much about the weyrs, like their relationship to the surrounding feudal holdings (from whom they receive tribute), is really left unexplored, even as that connection of dragon troop to the folk whom they protect from a threat that is becoming forgotten and neglected is a key issue for the novel.

More, the social history of Pern is left out, too.  We know it is 400 years since the last incursion (the planets not aligning closely at the last ‘fly-by’) and that the Pernese have lost much of the knowledge of Thread and of the technology used to fight it.  But they also do not seem to have replaced it with new knowledge or technology, remaining otherwise stagnant for that 400 years of freedom from Thread, which should suggest a “golden age” period of growth.  Instead, they only seem to have tread water, or actually sunk a bit.  What, given how clever and eager they seem when faced with the returning Thread, stopped them from making something of themselves on other fronts?

A Blast from the Past

Still, we did like the book, though perhaps not as much as we once did, an experience in re-reading that Alan felt most keenly.  As another re-reader, I did find that the book had “dated” itself, which was doubly weird as I recall the book being old-fashioned back in its own day.  I read “Weyr Search” in the Isaac Asimov-edited anthology The Hugo Winners, and this original Pern tale shared the 1968 novella Hugo with Philip Jose Farmer’s surreal vision “Riders of the Purple Wage”, his futuristic homage to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  Imagine my literary whiplash going from a feudal fantasy written like a 1940s “golden age” sf/f to a future of symbolic puns and word plays!  And now, to find that “retro” work was even more backward-looking than I remembered.  But, not all Beamers are as fragile as I, nor as disappointed as Kathy (who thought the work “shallow”), so enough 6’s and 7’s were tossed at it to make it a Beamer recommendation (with reservations).



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