Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey (1968)
McCaffrey presumably did not envisage this novel being as successful as it was and spawning multiple sequels and spin-off series.
Cleverly, McCaffrey thought through very carefully her scientific basis for the backstory in that a colony was set up on an Earth-type planet orbiting a sun which has attracted a rogue planet. For reasons unknown, the original colonists were abandoned and contact with the earth was lost.
When the rogue draws closer to Pern, as the planet is called, destructive ‘threads’ which consume organic matter are drawn to Pern.
Thousands of years before, the humans of the time began a breeding programme of native wildlife on order to create a beast capable of dealing with the threads and so were born the dragons.
It has been four hundred years since ‘The Red Star’ (as the planet is called) passed close enough to Pern to be able to send out its deadly harvest.
Consequently, the Lords and Holds who supply the Dragonweyrs have become tired of supporting a system which they feel is no longer necessary. Additionally, there is only one Dragonweyr left and Nemorth, the elderly Queen dragon, has lain a small clutch of eggs, including one Queen egg.
Dragons and riders have to be ‘impressed’ upon each other following hatching and so F’lar, one of the dragonriders, goes on a search to find a girl capable of impressing a queen dragon egg.
The novel is the story of that girl, Lessa, a daughter of Ruatha Hold. At the age of eleven, her family were slaughtered when a neighbouring Lord, Fax, raided her family’s hold. Using her impressive psi powers she disguised herself as an elderly servant and hid within the hold.
Without giving the plot away too much, Lessa engineer’s Fax’s downfall and becomes bonded with the new Dragon Queen, Ramoth, and thus through Lessa we are introduced to the ways of dragons, dragonmen and the Weyr.
To a certain extent it is a wish fulfilment fantasy that will appeal to a particular demographic. Whether or not it was intended to do so is another matter. Young girls will obviously identify with Lessa, a Cinderella figure who was originally working as a drudge and living in hiding, only to be taken away by a handsome young man to an exciting new life of glamour and adventure, part of which means having one’s own golden dragon to whom one is telepathically connected.
Having said that, Lessa is no swooning Mills and Boone heroine but a feisty and argumentative woman who refuses to accept the concept of male domination. On Pern, when dragons mate, because of the telepathic link they share, their human counterparts are drawn to each other by violent sexual urges.
Thus F’lar (whose dragon mated with Lessa’s) becomes not only Lessa’s lover, but Head of the Weyr. Their relationship suffers because of his effort to control her (in some cases well-intentioned since Lessa tends to act without knowing what the consequences might be.)
It’s an odd addition to the Science Fantasy genre, since it lacks many of the baroque embellishments that marks works of the genre.
However, it is one of those ‘comfort reads’ that one can read repetitively and which never fails to lift one’s spirits.
McCaffrey has to be applauded for publishing a novel with such a strong female lead back in the 60s when some women found it hard to break into a genre which was previously almost exclusively male-dominated.
This may very well have been McCaffrey’s ‘Dune’ however, since although the two sequels in what became a trilogy are decent enough, an entire industry has been spawned producing ‘Pern’ novels, coinciding with an increasing lack of empathy on the part of yours truly.
The die-hard fans seem to like them, but when one encounters titles such as ‘The Dolphins of Pern’ one wonders whether the McCaffrey family – who appear to have now taken over the Pern franchise – are not scraping splinters from the bottom of a long empty barrel.
McCaffrey was obviously a very capable writer and other novels such as ‘Decision at Doona’ are neglected these days. Like Fred Saberhagen and Frank Herbert, McCaffrey may have become a victim of her own success.