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Book Review: Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

The encroachment of grass had not come overnight, nor had the Lords awakened one morning recently and decided in a flash not to give all their traditional tithe to the Weyr. It had happened gradually, and had been allowed, by the Weyr, to continue, until the purpose and reason of the Weyr and dragonkind had reached this low ebb, where an upstart, collateral heir to an ancient Hold could be so contemptuous of dragonmen and the simple basic precautions that kept Pern free of Threads.

As part of my ongoing writerly education, my reading resolution for this calendar year was to familiarize myself with authors from the last few decades’ fantasy canon. My progress has been uneven (there are just so many wonderful new books coming out!) but I’ve read some Tad Williams this year, and some Robin Hobb, and I’ve got books on my to-be-read shelf from Raymond E. Feist and Gene Wolf, Zelazny and LeGuin, and Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. And, on my most recent vacation, my traveling companion was Anne McCaffrey, and the first tale she wrote in the Pern series.

I’d absorbed some bare basics of McCaffrey’s world by nerd osmosis. I knew that there were dragons; I knew that the dragons worked with humans to burn up a weapon that was being dropped on their home world. I knew McCaffrey used glottal stops in her characters’ names. And I knew that she wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the storytelling norms of mainstream fiction were quite different than they are now.

I didn’t expect that last point to matter as much as it did; because of some of the book’s stylistic elements, if I hadn’t been on an airplane, I might have stopped halfway through. The characters are portrayed more distantly than I’m used to; we don’t get much of their inner monologues, or really see them change through the course of their adventure. The main characters are a couple whose attraction to each other feels at times more like a plot device than an emotional bond. The plot’s also structured differently than I would have expected, with the Big Bad Threat to the Planet not showing up until the third act; for most of the book, the force driving the conflict is politics and power struggles among the dragonriders and the other citizens of Pern. All this goes to say that reading the book has made me realize contemporary readers do expect certain things in their stories, in a way that I didn’t have such a visceral understanding of before.

And yet — I’m really glad I read this book, and I will at least be finishing the trilogy it’s a part of. And not only because McCaffrey’s shadow stretches over all the contemporary fiction featuring dragons, from Novik’s Temeraire books to Paolini’s Eragon, Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon, and Hartman’s Seraphina. Stylistic differences aside, I thought the book made a very interesting cultural exploration of how the weight of history fades over time.

What I didn’t realize until I picked up the book was that the threat the dragons and dragonriders are trained to attack — the biological Threads that drop onto Pern from a neighboring planet and will, if left unchecked, consume every living thing in their path — isn’t a constant danger. Because the Threads’ home planet has an elliptical orbit compared to Pern’s, the two planets only come close enough to allow the transfer every two hundred years or so. When the book starts, there’s been a particularly long Interval since the last Pass, closer to 400 years. As the quote I start the review with notes, much of Pern has gotten lax about adhering to anti-Threads safety guidelines, and people have started grousing about why they ought to be paying to support a fleet of dragonriders for a threat that might never come again (legend states that the Longest Interval will be when Threads never come back to Pern). This has very obvious echoes of the way people deal with abstract danger in real societies; when crime in your city is low, it’s easier to gripe about the huge amounts police officers are paid. When there hasn’t been a major earthquake for 25 years, bolting your bookcases to the wall might not be your top priority. And in any society, four hundred years is a long time.

I thought McCaffrey presented a society “gone soft” very well. Even the dragonriders themselves don’t quite know what to do against the Threads; for generations, they’ve spent their lives in flying competitions. There aren’t enough young humans being taught to ride; there aren’t enough dragons being born, because those in charge of the fertile females haven’t worked at keeping them in trim. The characters trying to prepare Pern against the threat have to go to ancient tapestries and songs for hints about how their ancestors dealt with the last incursion of Threads. It’s disaster-proofing through historical document analysis: I loved it. And once the plot to save Pern (with some help from archeology and other, more magical sources) got rolling in the last 75 pages, I stopped caring about the book’s flimsy characterization and slow start, and instead read straight through to the end.

This book does show its age. A modern story would likely spend more time in the heads of its protagonists and in describing the world, and it would probably start the big plot wheels rolling sooner. Those differences might be enough to turn some modern readers off, but after making it through to the end of the book, I can see why this series caught the imagination of so many dragon-loving kids, and I will be reading the rest of this trilogy for sure.

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