Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Blog Fantastic 007: Dragonflight review

The lame cover of my edition of

Wheel and turn
Or bleed and burn.
Fly between,
Blue and green.
Soar, dive down,
Bronze and brown
Dragonmen must fly
When Threads are in the sky.

I read a half dozen or so Pern novels when I was a young teenager. I remember Dragonsdawn and one about a Harper (but I don't think it was the Harper Hall trilogy). One of them was The Dolphins of Pern. I can't say I remember too much about them. I remember that the dolphins were very smart, I remember that the beginning of man's colonization of Pern had a strong science fiction edge to it but that most of the books taking place later in its history were essentially fantasy novels. There was one story that featured spaceships and smuggling but I can't seem to remember the name. Anyway, I've always wanted to start reading Anne McCaffrey famous Pern series from the start. Not the start chronologically, I already undertook that when I was younger and I think that’s one of the reasons I stopped. Approaching the series that way didn’t really seem to work for more than two books. I’ve since learned that the best way to read a multi-part series is to do so by order of publication which is what McCaffrey has often suggested readers do (though I completely disregarded this self-imposed rule with The Wheel of Time). Still, I’m adamant to stick to it with the Pern novels because I always enjoyed them but I've always been confused about the internal history and chronology of the series, mostly because I picked the books at random after reading Dragonsdawn.

This time around I decided to read the first book which is a collection of three novellas which surprised me a bit because the book works pretty well as a whole. I really liked Dragonflight but I can’t help but feel disappointed because there are some serious things that simply do not work. I’ve essentially rediscovered Pern with this book. I remember very little from the books I’ve read before and that’s probably one of the contributing factors to my disappointment. In short though, I can summarize things quite simply by saying that Dragonflight seriously lacks any emotion. Before I get into that, here’s a bit of plot.

Pern has fallen on hard times. Every two hundred years, a Red Star passes in Pern’s orbit and in doing so releases an interstellar pest that feeds on most things biological. The Threads are silvery-grey worms that fall from the Red Star encased in eggs which break away in Pern’s atmosphere. They fall from the sky in clusters and, when they land, burrow deep into the Earth where they breed before setting out to devour all plants and wildlife they can touch. In order to survive the Pernese, earth men and women who colonized this distant planet, ride fire-breathing dragons and burn the Thread right out of the sky! Man and dragon working together to fight a common enemy, in truth, fighting for their very survival. That’s what makes Pern an enduring series in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

The Red Star’s passing happens between such lengthy intervals that the very culture and tradition of Pernese society has the chance of dissipating and leaving all of Pern unprepared for the Thread’s next deadly arrival. It’s during the end of one particularly lengthy absence of the Red Star (four hundred years) that the story begins. There is but one Weyr (a dragon fortress) functional on Pern and its men and women are left scrambling to equip themselves for survival amidst popular belief that Thread and the Red Star are nothing but bedtime stories.

The awesome full cover of Dragonflight by Michael Whelan. These gorgeous covers are one of the reasons
I liked Pern as a teen. I'm very sad the bookstore only had the new, ultra-lame cover shown at the top.
This particular story sounds great when summarized like this but McCaffrey’s storytelling left much to be desired. Her storytelling is mechanical and overtly practical. Her characters face problem after problem and they meet them head on with solution after solution. There is a lot of discussion and strategizing but it’s too neatly organized and nearly no mistakes are made which leads to disbelief on the readers part. Quite honestly, I will believe the fictional world you’ve created, even if it includes telepathic and teleporting dragons but it’s impossible for me to believe that in a time of such dire crisis, humanity will make practically no serious mistakes. Despite that important flaw, McCaffrey does succeed in creating a palpable sense of dread.

So far I can live with these mistakes but it’s difficult to pardon the lack of any engaging characters. McCaffrey doesn’t even provide a single main character the reader can relate to or root for. I was far more interested in discovering the mysteries of Pern (how did Pernese of the past fight the Threads?) than I was interested in knowing what Lessa and F'lar were up to. Their relationship is frightening to behold. I’m quite surprised that a woman could have written this book because of the way the female characters are written. Lessa is continuously treated like a child by F'lar who is like an angry father to her. More disturbing is their sexual relationship which I'm sure is tinged with violence based on how F'lar grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her whenever he gets angry with Lessa. It's weird and it prevents me from getting emotionally invested in the characters because I don't like them. As if that wasn’t enough, because of the emotional bond riders share with their dragons, when Lessa and F’lar’s dragons mate the two humans are taken over by a sense of dragonlust and also have sex. It’s written in a sense that makes it seem like the magic of their connection to their dragons is what makes them do it but I can’t help but interpret this as F’lar imposing himself sexually on the younger Lessa. I’m not even reading between the lines, I got this feeling from reading any of their scenes and interactions together. There is no warmth in their relationship, neither is there any warmth in the relationship of any of the other characters.

Dragonflight has very little emotion in it and scenes between Lessa and F'lar are not only an example of this lack of emotion but they make me feel queasy in their portrayal of a couples. As Weyrleaders of Benden Weyr, these two are Pern's best chance at survival? It’s not just Lessa and F’lar though, none of the characters really show emotion. Many of them have drive and ambition and a will to succeed, to survive but they all do so in a cold and emotionless way.

Gender roles are also messed up and very uneven. Again, this is surprising because McCaffrey is a woman, I wouldn’t have expected this of her and my young teenage self either didn’t pick up on it or I simply don’t remember these elements. In the last fifteen pages, we discover that what we thought were the old ways, the ways long forgotten, aren’t quite the ways that F’lar and Lessa have interpreted from their limited sources. Gender roles aren’t as uneven as they’ve been portrayed thus far in the story and it give me a bit of hope for the other books in the series. Still, Lessa still acts like a child in F’lar’s presence, she’s nearly completely dominated. Near the end of the book she even mentions to other characters that she’s frightened of F’lar and McCaffrey has F’lar describe Lessa as docile while he’s thinking about her on many occasions.

The world of Pern:
Where McCaffrey failed with character and emotionally charged storytelling, she makes up for it in world building. I’m convinced that it’s because of the fully realized world of Pern that the Dragonriders of Pern series has endured.

There are many things I like about the world of Pern. One of them is that riders have to take care of their dragons. They have to bathe them, oil their skin, be concerned about how, what and when they eat. They’re not just awesome fire breathing lizards with wings; they’re animals that require care and nurturing. Despite being mostly a fantasy story, McCaffrey approaches many elements that make Pern in a scientific way. I’ve already mentioned one example in the care of dragons but she explains other things like how they breathe flame. In a true fantasy book you do not need to explain or even question this. It’s a basic characteristic of a dragon. But on the dragons of Pern can only breath fire when they chew and eat firestones that, combined with the acid in their stomachs, produces a phosphine gas that ignites when combined with the oxygen in the air.

While things are explained in scientific terms, there isn’t a whole lot of technology on Pern. For all intents and purposes, Pernese live in a world were technology is at the same level of progression as it was during Europe’s medieval times. This is particularly interesting (and important to Pern as a series) when considering how the Holds and Weyrs keep track of their history and traditions. Paper isn’t a commodity on Pern. Written words are poorly preserved on animal hide and their history and traditions are mostly kept alive through songs and ballads by Harpers. Similarly to Harpers, weavers are also instructed to make tapestries for posterity which also serve a dual purpose by covering the stone walls during the winter months in order to keep out the cold.  

I find this fascinating because the existence of an oral history on Pern makes the battle for survival something continuous, even when the planet and its inhabitants aren’t immediately threatened by Threads. Their history is kept alive by Harpers who write songs to educate and entertain all of Pern. Their jobs is crucial to everyone’s survival, particularly during the two hundred years where no Threads are seen. They have to make sure tradition and routine proceedings are maintained to ensure that they will be ready by the next time the Red Star passes.

For many, many years now McCaffrey has been called the “Queen of Dragons” and you don’t need to wonder why. With her Dragonriders of Pern series (which, oddly enough, used to simply be call the Dragon series) McCaffrey has created an entire world with a culture that revolves around dragons and their abilities that help them protect their planet from Threads. Everything is structured based on dragons and their importance to the survival of Pern. What's interesting is that the threat of Thread occurs regularly but with a significant amount of time between each occurrence that Pernese tradition and culture relaxes and changes. Cultural changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing in our world. Modern life becomes increasingly complex as time passes and change is inevitable. In the world of Pern however, too much change to tradition can lead to the destruction of the human colony. The organization of the Weyrs and Holds was such as to protect mankind.

Harpers are supposed to be the teachers of tradition by the singing ballads that tell stories of the past. The problem with this oral tradition is that when three, four, five or more generations have never lived through one of the Red Star's passes, these stories and ballads appear to be much more fictitious than they really are. Tradition must remain rigid and unchanging in order for Pernese to survive and thrive but the world's technological limitations at recording and teaching these traditions is so limited that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain a single way of life. Despite the willingness to maintain tradition that witnessing the fall of Thread may have on a person, it quickly goes away when the threat is absent for generations at a time. What I don't understand is how people refuse to believe the songs and stories about Threads when their main defence against it, dragons, remains a staple of Pernese wildlife. 

Rediscovering the world of Pern wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought for sure that I would love Dragonflight from start to finish. That wasn’t entirely the case since I discovered quite a bit that disappointed me or simply disturbed me a little. But there was a lot that I enjoyed that making a return trip to Pern with Dragonquest is a sure thing at this point.  I’m optimistic for the second book in the series. The world has been more or less established and the book is revitalized by the arrival of several new characters by the book’s end. Along with these new characters is the promise of more gender balance in the book’s characters as well as in Pernese society. Although Pern seems to be an exciting fantasy world in this introductory book to the Dragonriders of Pern series, it’s a cold, emotionless place. Now that Lessa, F’lar and all of Pern’s survival is guaranteed, I’m hoping McCaffrey provides a story that goes beyond that and explores some characters and stories that are less practical and machine-like in their execution. I need some emotional investment to go along with the awesome world building.

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