A Series Ian Likes: The Dragonriders Of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

They’re the most beloved megafauna in all of fantasy. Feared for their deadly flame, famed for their miserliness, they have somehow come to be a symbol for the magical and wondrous places inside our heads. Anne McCaffrey managed to combine the more fearsome aspects with the noblest when she created the series that she is most famous for back in the late 1960s.

Set on a distant planet about 3 000 years in the future, The Dragonriders Of Pern tells of a lost human colony which suffers from the periodic incursions of a rapacious parasitic spore called Thread which devours all that it touches. To combat this menace the colonists genetically engineer a native breed of flying lizard to several times its original size so that it can be flown by humans. Oh, and did I mention that when it partakes of a local mineral, it can breathe fire? And that they’re telepathic as well?

I read the hell out of this series when I was a kid. I reread the series recently and, fortunately, the Suck Fairy hasn’t stopped by too much in the intervening years. While it does peter off a little in the latter books (in my not so humble opinion, of course: your mileage may vary) the continuing story of the Dragonriders is compelling.

It begins with peril, of course: Pern is heading into one of its Passes, when the Thread falls and dragons must destroy it. Unfortunately, it has been a longer than usual Interval and people are thinking that Thread no longer exists. Also, there are very few dragons left. The story of how F’lar, a dragonrider, meets Lessa and convinces her to come away to the last Weyr and Impress (telepathically bond) with her Queen dragon is gripping – and won McCaffrey a Hugo award. Of course, by the end of the first novel the problems are solved, Thread has fallen and Lessa has come up with a plan to bring back the dragon population.

Unfortunately, as in real life, this leads to more problems… which are dealt with in the subsequent books… and these lead to further problems to be solved in subsequent books. Which are of a consistently high standard and still readable today. When I did my reread I was especially concerned about the “historical” novels set in Pern’s past because I’m not really a fan of prequels: quite often you get the author trying to recapture the magic of their original story, when what makes it magical is the concatenation of characters place and events that seemed so original in the original story. When you force events into a structure to create a setting it can be quite off-putting and feel mannered and unnatural. Fortunately, McCaffrey only falls into this trap a little bit. While her style does fall into the trap of being rather over-committed to her world – which can be a problem for newcomers to a series that doesn’t number the volumes to give you an idea of where you should start – she is very readable: and even though she can be accused of being rather soap-operatic in her subject matter and themes, she has her characters behave in a reasonable explicable and relatable way. Her writing has faults, but readability isn’t one of them. Of the novels co-written with her son Todd, and then written by him alone, I cannot comment for I have not read them.

I’m especially fond of the Harper hall trilogy which deals (mostly) with Menolly, a girl who must deal with the prejudices that don’t allow her to play the music she loves (as well as being one of my more enduring literary crushes), a negative aspect of life in a post-tech mediaeval-ish setting. I’m also partial to any scene involving F’nor, one of the coolest characters ever put to paper. But the aspect of Pern that helps bring it the most to life is the fact that it has been mapped: I love maps in my genre reading, especially on a place as “real” as Pern feels. There is also an atlas, lovingly crafted by the late Karen Wynn Fonstad which only adds to the investment of your belief.

There are weaknesses in the books: for a series that deals with – SPOILER ALERT! – time travel there are very few storylines that you might expect that deal with it, which is also quite refreshing.

Then there is the problem of the whole telepathy thing… some people have expressed an issue with the idea that dragons mate and involve their riders telepathically: humans get caught up in the hormonal rush and they are forced into having sex with the rider of the other dragon. It’s akin to rape, they say. And they’re right.

However…

However, anything I say will be taken as defence of a system in which such things happen. But – and you may take this “but” with a grain of salt – there are several cases of riders feeling guilt afterwards and in a couple of cases, even before it happens, which to me suggests that this was a serious issue for the author as well but was an idea that couldn’t be excluded from the stories if she was going to deal with the idea of telepathy in a serious manner. So, believe me, I understand the problems some people have with this series of books and how it has interfered with their enjoyment of them. And also with the attitudes of Ms McCaffrey, who (like many creative folks) had some strange ideas outside of her writing.

But – and I seem to be using that word a lot in this post – this series, for me, was about heroism and problem-solving and about grown-up relationships between grown-up characters, not necessarily romantic or sexual, but about people trying to get on and doing the right thing by one another, and about finding a place in the world.

Plus it has dragons. Which are AWESOME!

You can find out more about Anne McCaffrey, Pern and her other work here: http://pernhome.com/aim/

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