Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey is the first novel written in the series relating to the planet of Pern, written in 1968, but I did not realise that it is quite far along in the Pern chronology.
I chose to read it firstly because it was at the top of my fiction pile, secondly because I read a book by Anne McCaffrey years ago, Black Horses for the King, which I enjoyed, and finally because I am still in the mood for a little bit of fantasy-flavoured escapism.
It was quite different from Pawn of Prophecy which I read last – the writing is far more complex, the language somewhat archaic in places which adds weight to its medieval feel, and the topics more adult-oriented, and the world of Pern was somehow much more solid and easier to envisage, and of course, dragons (top feature – who could resist?).
Warning – contains Spoilers from this point on!
The time travel element was a complete surprise, dragons apparently having the ability to fly ‘between’ times as well as places, although ‘between’ is never quite explained. There is no ‘magic’ in the stories of Pern, so presumably it is either a feature of the planet, or of the breeding of the dragons.
Pern is a planet once colonised by the people of Earth, but hundreds and perhaps thousands of years later they appear to have lost their technology and descended into a medieval-style feudal system with dragons and their riders at the pinnacle of society, although even that tradition has been abandoned until it is realised, almost too late, that the oncoming Red Star threatens the planet with ‘Threads’ – living spore-like creatures of a thread-like appearance that rain down and which can devour and devastate the planet’s vegetation and burn and kill humans and animals alike – in short, their deadliest foe.
I was fascinated by the sexual politics in the book. At the beginning, the tyrant Fax has brutalised his women, his lady Gemma dyin€g in childbirth while he laughs at her predicament, apparently a blessed relief. The heroine – Lessa – is portrayed as a rebellious, foolish girl (although she has tremendous mental power) who must be tamed to submit to her master, F’lar, who shakes her like a child when she disobeys him.
‘Impressed’ (telepathically connected) as they are to their dragons, Lessa’s first sexual encounter – with F’lar – is a violent one, telepathically wrought, via his dragon’s mating with hers. She did not expect or consent to it, had never been informed as to the nature of their joining, and the author admits that, apart from the dragons, it was essentially a rape. That mating affects a marriage which, again, she does not consent to but must simply live with until she does eventually fall in love with him. Sex is barely mentioned though, leaving it up to the imagination to make up the rest (the raciest scene, towards the end of the book, is a single sentence:
“The cloth fell from her body to the floor as she responded to his kiss as ardently as if dragon-roused.”
…and that’s it, which frustration has apparently prompted fans to write erotic fan-fiction love scenes for the characters to fill in the blanks.
As Weyrwoman, connected to the land’s only remaining Dragon Queen, Lessa is the foremost woman in all of Pern, but has no political power, and must suffer the indignity of being ordered around and denied the autonomy of flying her dragon, something over which F’lar does eventually relent, inadvertently enabling her to attempt an audacious time flight into the distant past.
The only other women characters in most of the book are presented as repellent and disgusting in some way – Jora the former Weyrwoman was incompetent, lazy and fat, Kylara is incorrigibly promiscuous and egocentric, Fax’s other women ugly and smelly. I have to wonder whether Anne McCaffrey disliked women in general.
There is a turnaround though, as F’lar eventually has to concede – when Lessa brings forward a whole fighting wing of Queen Dragons and their riders who are ready to join in the battle against the Threads – that Weyrwomen in general and Lessa in particular cannot be tamed or controlled or curtailed by him or any man.
I did enjoy it, although I found it a little bit hard to follow and difficult to get into at first. I know that Anne McCaffrey was criticised over the dragon mating scenes – apparently such rape scenes occur across several of her books – which is obviously a little disturbing, but overall it was a good mixture of science fiction and fantasy and I will probably add some more stories of Pern to my wishlist.