Revisiting Pern, the great McCaffrey reread: DRAGONQUEST

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 2 Dragonquest

T: Another story starting out from the male point-of-view. Dearie me, here we go again… Oh, but it’s Robinton, and you know what? I’m okay with that. I love the Masterharper 🙂

I really like the way McCaffrey gives us a quick recap in the shape of Robinton’s musings here – in fact, I might suggest that people planning to read the series for the first time might like to skip the very problematic Dragonflight and perhaps start here instead? Although this book is not itself problem-free…

51l2fhN2Q7LIn this one, the rampant misogyny is toned down a fair bit, giving over to the occasional off-putting line or two. Robinton’s thoughts in the first pages, for example, include this gem: “Larad, Lord of Telgar, was giving his half-sister, Famira, to Asgenar, Lord of Lemos Hold.” Giving? Is she a plant, to be given? And when the numbweed is being made, a significant event in the Weyr, it is of course “the women” boiling it and doing the awful work to make the salve. Little lines like “This was a matter for men to settle” grate on the modern reader, but again, in the context of the year of publication (1971), and in relation to some of the horrors of Dragonflight, I could deal with it.

Less easy to handle are some other aspects. Lessa’s subservience to F’lar irritated me. She stands up to him, she holds her own in a righteous argument, then suddenly caves, pressing up against him with: “I’ve no right to say such things to you,” Lessa was whispering in soft remorse. WHY? You certainly DO have the right, Lessa! You were making him see the truth of a situation!

M: Biiiig pet peeve of mine here, too. She’s such a strong woman in the first book (writer gods help me, I HATE that phrase because of the connotations, but you know what I mean), and she’s so capitulating now! WHAT DID YOU DO TO LESSA?

Dragonquest cover 02T: But even this apparent sideslip of Lessa’s fierce personality pales in the face of the outrageously troublesome thoughts about beating women had by F’lar’s half-brother and bestie, F’nor. Oh F’nor… He has so much going for him, character-wise, and yes, the Weyrwoman Kylara IS a difficult, self-centred personality (actually, can I note that one of the awesome things I love about these books is that the women are all different? And it’s awesome that some of them are painful and horrible, and others are clever or hard-working, and all sorts of different types? You know, like REAL PEOPLE!), but I was very uncomfortable with these little gems: It was too bad you couldn’t beat a Weyrwoman with impunity. He’s not the only one – it must run in the family as later F’lar thinks First he’d better get over the urge to beat Kylara… Really, not cool.

M: Although to be fair, I wanted to punch her in the face. So I’m not sure that makes me any better than F’nor.

T: He’s supposed to be GOOD though! We can’t claim that… 😛

mccaffrey_dragonquestM: There is one big thing regarding the misogyny that overcast the disturbing particulars for me, though. The whole book revolves around inflexibility, and the inability for a group (the Oldtimers) to grow and change with the times. I found that reflected in the book’s tone as well as the theme, and I’m wondering if that’s why we see so many people ‘softening’ in this story as opposed to the first book.

No, people should definitely read Lessa’s story first, if only to understand the rapid changes in society brought out 1) from the original tense landscape to 2) the Oldtimers, which in turn gives us a realization that they’re ALL a little hidebound. At least there’s some self-realization going on…slowly.

T: Fair call. Although these early books in particular definitely need to come with a disclaimer: WARNING, BOOKS ARE OVER 40 YEARS OLD AND NEED TO BE APPROACHED WITH CAUTION BUT THEY DO GET BETTER…!

Dragonquest1On the other hand, there are attempts by McCaffrey to interrogate issues of sexism, even as she undermines this in other ways. For example, the scene in the Mastersmith’s Hall is quite fascinating. F’lar and Lessa are quite horrified by the condition of the place, and the poor food and drink supplied. When they press the smiths on the issue, they are told “Our headwoman is a good enough cook but she’s so much better at bringing up faded ink on the skins we’ve been studying that she’s been doing that instead” and “We’ve been so pressed for help, with all these additional projects…that anyone who can has turned crafter–” I found this fascinating – reminiscent of the way women took on “traditionally” male duties during war, perhaps? But McCaffrey extends this a bit a page or two on, when the smith Terry says: “Not short of men, exactly, but of people who have the dexterity, the interest some of our projects require…” Which is FASCINATING when you talk about being hidebound, because it shows McCaffrey making a point, highlighting the idea that while women may have stuck in the household labour previously, that absolutely doesn’t mean they don’t have the aptitude or interest in doing other things, given half a chance.

Following on from that, there’s a wonderful scene between Brekke and F’nor:

F’nor: Fighting Thread is hard work. Leave it to the men.

Brekke: You thinking managing a Weyr isn’t hard work? Or plowing fields and hollowing cliffs for Holds?

In my notes I wrote, “F’nor, you’re being a sexist (and I probably should have added classist) jerk but Brekke is awesome” and that about covers it. Brekke has identified a ridiculous rule (only men Impress fighting dragons, even though there’s no reason women couldn’t) and she’s decided to challenge it. I love Brekke.

M: Speaking of control and change – Kylara. This quote stuck with me: “Kylara never realized that Prideth was the only living creature who could dominate her and whose good opinion she had to have. In the fire lizard, Kylara saw a miniature dragon which she could control—easily control—and physically dominate in a way she could not dominate Prideth.”

Even the Oldtimers, whose negative attitudes permeate the entire land, aren’t as crappy of a human being as Kylara. The others come out of a time and land where they’ve never known anything but fighting, and now they’re 400 years in the future still doing it. If we brought men forward from the 1920’s, I suspect they’d never last, given women’s rights and attitudes.

She is the complete antithesis of Brekke, and that polarization comes together in one of the saddest moments in the series. This and two other places I always cry, and sure enough, I teared up a bit when her dragon flew. I wanted her and F’nor to be together so badly, and in the end, we got it, but in a much more horribly twisted way than I ever imagined. Still affects me.

9780552116350T: It’s an interesting point, isn’t it? For me, the range of characters and the ways they look at the world and consider themselves really demonstrates McCaffrey’s mastery as a writer. She had such a power to offer insight through her creations, and it’s one of the main reasons I think Pern has had such longevity.  

Even acknowledging the problematic elements (dammit F’nor, no means no!), there is so very much to love about this book. Fire lizards! And JAXOM!! New readers to the series need to know Jaxom is awesome and completely lovable and oh my gosh please don’t let the suck fairy have visited his storyline or character. I had completely forgotten how early Jaxom properly came into the storytelling of Pern. It’s either been longer than I thought since I last read these books, or my memory is just completely shot. Honestly, most of the major events of the book had been erased from my mind. Like the Brekke incident! I was in floods of tears and yet I’VE READ THIS LIKE A DOZEN TIMES! How could I have forgotten?? I was honest-to-goodness thinking “Hmm, I don’t really remember F’nor and Brekke running a Weyr together…” THAT’S BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAPPEN, YOU IDIOT!

M: Man, I wanted that so badly for F’nor and Brekke– you have no idea. I went “Oh no, this isn’t the book where– NO IT IS!” Cue crying. I think I feel a fanfic coming on. All these feelings that still deeply affect me after reading this series dozens of times.

T: And Impressions. They continue to leave me weepy – I’m such a sap!

M: You’re not the only one. Jaxom and Ruth– forever love! *sniff*

Previously, in the Great Pern Reread of 2015:

Dragonflight

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