Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Blog Fantastic 022: Dragonquest review

I was torn while reading Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey’s first novel in her acclaimed and popular Dragonriders of Pern series. I felt very similar while reading Dragonquest as McCaffrey’s follow up to the first successful novel is simultaneously better and worse. There’s a pretty simple reason for this. McCaffrey expands on nearly everything that was present in the first book. That includes the good as well as the bad. I admit that I enjoyed the second book more simply because the focus was widened considerably.

In my review of Dragonflight I wrote the following:
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.
The transformation of modern Pernese culture is one of the main themes of Dragonquest. The book begins with a prologue in which McCaffrey gives the reader a pretty good look at the history of Pern from the point of view of the original settlers. It includes their initial encounter with Thread and their development of their defences against it. We learn quite a bit from this prologue and it contributes to the world building of Pern, mostly by providing historical information. More importantly, we learn that dragons were genetically engineered and developed with the help of human empaths. The Weyrs were built in extinct volcanoes which explain their bowl-like shape. This is the time in Pern’s history were tradition regarding the defence against Thread were shaped. The story of Dragonquest focuses on the transformation of traditions established centuries ago.

At the end of Dragonflight Lessa travelled 400 turns (years) into the past and when she returned to the present day she was accompanied by five Weyrs’ full of dragonmen. These dragonmen are known as the Oldtimers and they’re having a difficult time adjusting to modern life. They agreed to travel to the future in order to help in part because they were bored now that threadfall had ended in their timeline. Fighting Thread was what they did and without their regular battles against the spores of the Red Star, the Oldtimers had nothing to do. Now that they’re in Lessa and F’lar’s present time, their dislike of the changed traditions is making them bitter and difficult to deal with. Likewise, the existing Lord Holders of Pern are having a difficult time adjusting to the custom of giving their Weyr a tithe as repayment for protecting them during threadfall. They’ve never had to do that before and the Lord Holders are continuously putting pressure on the Weyrs, particularly Benden Weyr, to find a permanent solution and end the problem of Thread once and for all.
Because Lessa and F’lar of Benden Weyr did a great deal of work to protect their planet in the first book of the series, most of Pern’s population is now looking at them to continue to protect them. It's interesting that Benden Weyr would not relish the opportunity to consult the Oldtimers on traditions, the care of dragons, the political and economic structure of the Weyrs and Holds and the fight against Thread. Many, many different things have changed in the last 400 years instead of the present day people learning from the Oldtimers’ experience and the Oldtimers learning about the new traditional elements and social structure of the future, both groups just clash. It’s ok for a couple of reasons. The first is that without this conflict between both groups of people there would be very little other conflict in the book. The second reason is that if you tried to look at the situation realistically, based on how two different social and culture groups behave in opposition in the real world, this outcome is to be expected. The issue now though is that F’lar and many others, refuse to consult the Oldtimers on how they did things and simply continue to make it up as they go along. Similarly, the Oldtimers refuse to accept that traditions change.

Lessa and Mnementh by John Schoenherr
The focus of the novel is still on world building. The conflict with the Oldtimers and the Lord Holders that began in the first novel gets a whole novel to itself (Dragonquest) to allow for the conflict to play out. As such, Dragonriders of Pern isn’t a typical fantasy novel because there aren’t traditional elements such as a quest (despite the title) or a clearly identified villain. The book is essentially world building through narrative storytelling. The focus is on developing the world and some elements work really well and others don’t. An example of an element that worked well is the Red Star. It’s played out in a very enjoyable way and even though this is an old book I don’t want to say any more than that. McCaffrey could have written the Red Star sub-plot in so many different ways and, for a while during the book, I was worried she’d get it wrong but she sticks the landing. It’s one of my favourite parts of the book. Other elements of the book like time travel and characters, simply don’t work nearly as well.

Time travel wasn’t originally part of McCaffrey’s series but when her editor on Dragonflight suggested she include it, she liked the idea so much it became a pivotal element of her stories. I found it to be a copout, a quick fix ending to the first novel but there aren’t any huge time jumps in Dragonquest. It’s still used regularly but it’s mostly to time jump back to the beginning of a threadfall. If time travel continues to be used this way, I’ll get over it. It’s not ideal because it makes surviving threadfall that much easier. If they miss some they can just travel back to where it began. If McCaffrey wrote about the mental and physical strain of time travel (fantasy jetlag) on dragonriders I would appreciate it more but as it is written, it’s one of the weaker world building elements.

It seems strange to me that McCaffrey has her characters deal with the Weyrs’ isolation politics with a technological solution. They have the capabilities to communicate rapidly by using dragons and going between (space and time travel) but for reasons that are never quite explained, Dragonriders are extremely reluctant to do so. Instead some Weyrs and Holds use a system of drums and drummers to communicate. There also isn’t a whole lot of details of this. From what I understand there are drummers and located at intervals between Holds and Weyrs. That seems unlikely though because the combination of isolation and the threat of Thread probably make for a dangerous situation. Fandarel, a builder, develops what is essentially a telegraph but it works without electricity. I think it’s strange that Fandarel develops or redevelops a lot of technological solutions to some of the population’s problems over the course of the book. I understand why a lot of technology was lost and that Thread forces the people to spend more time developing way to survive than they were able to give to focusing on other things like renewable energy, refining raw materials and developing sustainable technology. I guess that the use of technology in this book kind of exemplifies the contradictions present in a world where traditional science fiction and traditional fantasy elements are two side of the same coin. It think it also serves as an example that increasing the scope of your world building can leave entire sections of your work underdeveloped.

The other big problems, similarly to Dragonflight, is gender roles and characters. The gender roles are as disturbing in this book as they are in Dragonflight. F'nor reflects on the roles and activities of women in the Weyr. In short, they're constantly occupied providing for the Weyr and the dragonriders by making numbweed salve, treating wounds and other similarly domestic functions. This keeps then active, in shape and as F'nor reflects "appealing". The women in the lower caverns are there for the picking when dragonmen want sex. As demonstrated in the first book, if a woman becomes pregnant it’s not uncommon for a dragonrider to abandon her and move on. Women in the Holds have a different job to do. They're responsible for giving birth and raising children until their bodies no longer allows them to do so. It's unsettling way in which Pernese society is structured. It’s structured in such a way as to allow for their survival but that structure is done at the detriment of women who are reduced to manual labourers, tools of sexual pleasure and baby making.

I recommend clicking on the image and making it bigger. It's a great cover by Michael Whelan.

Is there no such thing as a familial structure in Pernese society? I couldn't find a definitive answer to this question in the first two books. It's odd though that five Weyrs full of dragonriders (five or six Weyrs?) agreed to travel 400 years into the future where they will permanently reside; a decision they made nearly instantly. There I no way such a large number of individuals would have done that if they had families. The Dragonriders of Pern series is so cold and emotionless. Maybe being bonded to a dragon makes it near impossible to maintain an amorous human relationship that would lead to children and family life. It’s odd that Lessa and F’lar have a child but they don’t spend any time with him at all. He kind of wanders around the Weyr while mom and dad, Pern’s power couple, take care of business. Maybe family life is something McCaffrey explores in later books. I don't know. I'll have to read them. The absence of a strong familial structure would also explain the absence of surnames.

Overall, the characters of Dragonquest are fine on the surface. Some of them even manage to be interesting but as soon as McCaffrey starts to develop relationship between characters everything goes to shit. Some characters, primarily Kylara, seem to be in the book only to be used for slut shaming and to demonstrate the complicated, odd and often time disturbing gender politics of Pern. When she becomes pregnant early on in the novel, she travels between where the incredible cold of teleportation kills the child in her womb. It’s teleportation abortion and free of any motherly responsibility, she can continue to be as promiscuous as she likes. She’s one of the most problematic characters in the book. She’s had five children at this point and she’s determined not to have any more. She’s mean spirited about it though and she regularly uses her dragon’s ability to fly between as a fantasy and science fiction method of the morning after pill. There are no contraceptives on Pern and the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancies is to be abstinent which Kylara refuses to be. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands when she becomes pregnant. It's very unfortunate that the one pro-choice female character in Dragonquest is also characterized as a slut that revels in engaging with whomever she wants whenever she wants. 

Lessa and F’nor have change for the better since Dragonflight but their comments towards the behaviour of others (again, Kylara) suggests they’re also poised for problematic character development in the next book. I liked that F’nor got a larger role in this book than the previous one. I also enjoyed his budding romantic relationship with Brekke, the rider of a gold dragon, up to the point where their first romantic encounter was turned into a scene of romanticized rape. The only characters I like without reservation are secondary or background characters. Robinton, the Masterharper of Pern is one such character. I also quite liked Manora, the Headwoman of Benden Weyr but she doesn’t get to do much and works mostly in the background.

That’s a lot of problems to deal with but, somehow, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series still manages to be interesting and enjoyable to me. It’s not always enjoyable to read, certain passages make for uncomfortable reads, but the series often provides food for thought.The problem is that there isn’t really anything I love unabashedly about the series. Any recommendation I would make of this book would come with a disclaimer and a few words of caution. There are pacing issues (there are a lot of people standing around talking), problematic gender politics and characters that are interested but flawed due to a single or small handful of character moments that just ruin them for me. I also have a few point of content with McCaffrey’s writing in general. Despite all these problems I can’t help but be swept away by the world she’s created. When I think at the world, the dragons and the history of Pern, I’m very interested in all of those things and I think they make for a fascinating setting for stories. When I look at the characters, I like them from afar and I only dislike them when I spent too much time in their heads or watching them shame others and take part in unsavoury actions. I like it and I dislike it! Thankfully, I am able to communicate why certain things bother while also being able to separate the implications of some of the elements found in Dragonquest from my enjoyment of all the different things that work. I will be revisiting Pern again but I think I need a little break from all the insanity that takes place there.

No comments:

Post a Comment