Revisiting Pern, the great McCaffrey reread: DRAGONFLIGHT

Tehani and Marisol bonded over Pern (and Doctor Who) at a science fiction convention, decided that it was time for a reread of the series, and really, they should blog about that. They are reading in Anne McCaffrey’s preferred way, which is basically publication order.

gl49of4nx3uzug5weu1fPern Series – Book 1 Dragonflight

M: As a quick aside, can I say how surprised I was that this book had a prologue, and how incredibly info-dumpy it was? I’ve read Dragonflight probably a dozen times since I was 10, and I never once remembered the prologue, which seems to be a point in the “Prologues are useless or should be a chapter” box I always see espoused.

T: Yes! And the prologue sets it up as explicitly science fictional – do you suppose that’s the point, given how many readers think of it as fantasy because dragons? What’s even more interesting though is how that prologue CHANGED! I started reading an early edition of Dragonflight and then switched to a new (omnibus) version and the whole thing was different, reflecting the evolving world-building that had grown (and superceded) the early details as the series went on.

Genre Bender

51M6GYpJt8LM: Pern always gets marked as a fantasy, but I’ve always read it as a sci-fi with fantasy elements due to technology loss, and the way this story goes, I felt this was reinforced the whole time. It’s clear through sense of loss, not only with the dragons and the decay in weyrs/life/etc, but in the struggle to fight Thread on the ground with what they had on hand.

And considering this book was written in 1968, I’m amazed how well it stands the genre test of time. Still a great story.

DragonflightT: It certainly holds up in terms of genre, handwavy time-travel aside (I read it as fantasy for several volumes, even though I originally first read The White Dragon…), but the same can’t be said for gender – some of the gender stereotypes are, hmmm, problematic, to say the least!

Lessa

392460202837d5b9855adcbdf16f5514M: Speaking of “cranky ladies of history”, Lessa is one of my fictional heroes. She stands on her own two feet, and pushes forward while the others try to either leave her out or push her aside/make her into a pet weyrleader, and there she goes, charging off with a screw you to everyone.

T: Despite my concerns with some of the gender stuff, this actually works really well for me, agreed! Lessa is treated poorly by many of the men in the book – she’s condescended to, mansplained to and kept in the dark. It’s absolutely right and just she goes off half-cocked to figure stuff out for herself (successfully!).

False Memories

3409504259_fb11d002b9T: You want to know what’s really interesting? In my mind, this book was about Lessa – her fight against Fax, her life as Weyrwoman, her journey back in time to collect the missing Weyrs. I’ve read it several times in the past twenty years. And yet it’s absolutely not Lessa’s book, it’s F’lar’s. It starts out from F’lar’s point of view and it ends with F’lar’s point of view (and that macho line on the last page: “…he, F’lar, rider of bronze Mnementh, was a dragonman of Pern!”). Lessa is a prize for F’lar, a reward for his perseverance. What the heck, suck fairy?!

054cb54327a978df773de466170a5145To be fair, I still enjoyed reading the book, and some parts genuinely worked well. The first Impression, for example, is just as tear-jerky as the one in “The Smallest Dragonboy”, which is my absolute favourite Impression ever. But I’m fascinated by things I never noticed on ANY of my earlier readings. Such as, in the early pages, Lessa basically names herself murderer as she thinks about how she regretted the death of the first of Ruatha’s Warders (and either directly or indirectly responsible for the death of the rest of them, too). Yet this is NEVER discussed at all!

1001497-dragon3M: You know, I had the same problem. This story is so ingrained in my mind as her story that I was caught off-guard when the book started and ended with him. I thought for sure it started with Lessa and Ruatha hold. I’m so glad it wasn’t just me!

After mulling it over (because it really peeved me off, the rampant sexism and very BOYS BOYS BOYS attitude), I bet the reason this happened was to get men to read the stories. There was such a hardcore “this genre doesn’t interest women” attitude in the early 90’s, let alone 1968 when I know it was worse. Much like how Harry Potter was swapped from a female to a male, I think Lessa’s story was couched because they found it ‘salable’ this way

0722ca65676597ea6ac23e728bc0f841T: Wait, Harry Potter was swapped from female to male? What??!

Further, the (presumably unconscious) sexism is quite remarkable. Mansplaining abounds from R’gul and F’lar, both of whom are obnoxious bullies in their own way. F’lar’s character does mellow as the book goes on, but in the first half at least he’s a complete pig, to the point of ongoing sexual assault. The most uncomfortable example of this was when F’lar was reflecting on the nature of his sexual relationship with Lessa, from the “violent” first time when their dragons mated through – the wording is as follows: “He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnemeth were involved, he might as well call it rape.” It actually gets worse. The next line is: “Yet he knew someday, somehow, he would coax her into responding wholeheartedly to his lovemaking. He had a certain pride in his skill, and he was in a position to persevere.” A POSITION TO PERSEVERE! What, because she couldn’t say no? Yes, that’s RAPE. How did I never notice this before! And all the carry on about her being jealous of Kylara, and the way it is played up as uncalled for female jealousy – what a prick!

DRGNFLGHTL1982The dilution of the nastier side of his character could be in part to the fact this book was originally separate novellas – and I’m glad he changes somewhat, but still, from a vantage point nearly 50 years on (FIFTY!!!), the ingrained assumptions about the roles of men and women are a bit much.

Other than the explicit sexual assault disguised as the natural relationship between Weyrleader and Weyrwoman (ugh, even the titles they hold…), one of the worst, for me, was the way Lessa was relegated to traditionally female roles, sometimes very explicitly, as in the scene where, in conversation with Manora, it says, “‘…We had no young dragons to feed. They do eat, as you know.’ The glances of the two women locked in a timeless feminine amusement over the vagaries of the young under their care.” Lessa has no children and hasn’t ever been responsible for them, but it’s written as expected and understood? Why?! I suppose it could be argued that McCaffrey only means Lessa to be thinking about Ramoth, here, but it just seems odd – probably it’s the “timeless feminine” phrase that gets me!

Dragonflight 2M: Well don’t you know that men don’t know how much they eat. /sarcasm

T: Another quote, when F’lar is considering the reasons time travel F’nor is so stressed out. “Lessa regarded him with such awe…” Really? She came up with the damn idea to send F’nor back in time. His thought wasn’t that brilliant!

There are lots of problems with the text, when looking back at it nearly half a century on, socially, that’s certain. For all that, this is still a bloody interesting book, and one I’ve loved for twenty years. I’m hoping the suck fairy hasn’t visited the rest of the series quite so much!

1001494-dragon1M: After reading this story, I was surprised at how many subtle jabs there are about women; they really bothered me. The fact that a boy is celebrated with an honorific shortened name, but never the Weyrwomen – why? I don’t think female riders got a shortened version, either. What is up with that?

T: I KNOW! I’m not sure we ever get an explanation for that either. Odd.

M: The bigger one was how they couched Lessa’s manipulations as just that, but F’lar’s manipulations get either a handwave or barely tacit acknowledgement because they’re framed as acceptable as a leader. He’s NOT the only leader here, and probably the only reason I don’t hate him is he finally realizes that by the end.

T: SO MANY JABS! And yes, they are really awful a lot of the time. But things get a lot better in the next book (well, mostly…). Shall we?

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4 Responses to Revisiting Pern, the great McCaffrey reread: DRAGONFLIGHT

  1. Leonie says:

    Ooh, so many things I’ve thought and still think 🙂 (That sentence doesn’t really make too much sense does it?) But you’ve articulated a lot of the stuff I’ve thought about on and off and over many, many re-reads of Anne McCaffrey.

    I was about thirteen or fourteen when I read this book for the first time. I remember loving it intensely, and for me, it was about Lessa. Even though it ends with F’lar.

    Even now, I go back and read the stories because at the heart of it all is the fact that the stories draw me in, time after time, despite the problematic things you’ve mentioned above. And sometimes the writing annoys me now – there’s the odd awkward turn of phrase or trite phrase (see F’lar’s last phrase in this book) that I find cringe worthy.

    I love the impression scenes too.

    I’m really looking forward to your comments on the subsequent books 🙂

  2. Pamela Freeman says:

    All the things you say are true (and did annoy me) but still…. Lessa. How many other women like her were being portrayed in the genre at the time? Her portrayal – especially in the short story which started the series (and won a Hugo).

    I ‘read’ F’lar and the other men’s attitudes as intended to be sexist, and that sexism was challenged again and again by Lessa and, later, the other women. Not saying that McCaffrey hadn’t internalised sexism – haven’t we all? But as a young woman who read these in the 70s I read them as an explicit critique of sexism. Because, in the end, it’s Lessa who saves everyone.

  3. fablecroft says:

    Oh, we definitely agree. Context, with the book being nearly 50 years old, is absolutely essential! For and of her time, Lessa was a fantastic character.

  4. Lessa is and will always be a book role model for me. Like you, Leonie, I read her books in those tender teen/preteen years, and Lessa is awe-inspiring. She overcame everything with her cavalier attitude. She’s awesome, and one of the first (and few) lead character women I ever read in fantasy books as a young’un.

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