Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

DRAGONFLIGHT

A novel by Anne McCaffrey (1968, Ballantine Del Rey)
Book 1 of The Dragonriders of Pern

As the Red Star approaches with the threat of deadly Thread, a disbelieving Pern slowly prepares to fight.

 

 

5 stars

Read September 15th to 18th, 2004  
    Totally awesome, and brilliantly written. I honestly could not put this book down.

I believe this book is really a work of science fiction, but I classify feudal courts and swordplay as fantasy, so I was torn about which category to put this in. However, as the series progressed, and we got technology in this series (and it looks like spaceflight might not be out of the question, either), it has definitely become SF.

The best part of this book was the way nothing was given in the form of explanation. By its use, the reader has to figure out what turns of phrasing, or even words, mean. Turns are obviously the years of Pern, for example. The backstory is not given in terms of a dramatic history, but as people talk and think in the present, or by people actually doing things. The book is, in this way, wonderfully subtle: the author asks the reader to accept the world of Pern as it is.

The characters of Lessa and F'lar were so very well-developed. I loved them both. F'lar, for his part, because of his ignorance of current affairs in the outside world, and his arrogance from being a special breed. It is an awesome combination. Lessa was conniving and extremely intelligent. She was correct when she said that nobody ever told her anything -so she took matters into her own hands. I liked the fact that her actions sometimes backfired.

Both of these characters, and the world of Pern, have a lot of undeveloped backstory, which makes it feel very real. Not everything is divulged in this book, just enough to keep us interested in learning more. It makes the world feel very real.

The people of Pern are quite ignorant of their world, as well. Originally, Pern was some sort of human colony, then, over the years, it was abandoned to fend for itself. The people reverted to a more primitive lifestyle, and even forgot about the dangers from the sky above. For another planet shared an eccentric orbit with Pern, and came close enough to cause global changes every 200 years. To combat this threat, the original colonists somehow created the dragons, which could sear the deadly Thread from the sky. Thread burrows deep underground, and consumes all organic life until it starves to death.

This time around, however, it has been 400 years since the Red Star last passed. I love the celestial mechanics involved. Sometimes the Red Star's orbit doesn't take it close enough to Pern to "excite the Threads". Over such a long time, the people have lost many of their fears over Thread, even to the point of thinking that the threat is gone forever. The head of the dragonriders thinks this way, too, and has allowed the dragons to nearly die out, and the people to lower their regard for the "obsolete" dragonmen.

The first part of the book was by far the most interesting. It is here that we meet Lessa, the last of the formerly powerful clan of Ruatha. F'lar, rider of a bronze dragon, comes looking for a weyr-woman, because a new queen dragon is about to be born, and needs a rider. F'lar learns very quickly about the low regard the dragonmen have in the common Holds. Fax, the tyrant who murdered all the Ruathans, was amazingly hateable, and I love every moment where he was manipulated or made to look like a fool. Lessa gets her revenge on Fax, as she manipulates F'lar into a duel, which he wins. She doesn't get to rule Ruatha, however, as she goes to Benden Weyr to be Impressed by the dragon queen. Instead, the heir to Fax, born as F'lar killed Fax, is given rulership, while a former dragonman, Lytol (whose dragon was killed), becomes warder in his stead.

I loved Lessa's first contact with the new dragon queen. As it hatched, the other contending women shrieked and ran away, while Lessa took control of it. Ha! The whole thing did make me wonder about the role of women in this world. If they came originally from a technological society, millennia ago, why are the women so subservient now? Why did they have to go on a Search to find an appropriately-powerful woman? If most of the men come from the Weyr, shouldn't there be women, as well? If Ruathan women were so powerful, I'd think a child of F'nor, for example, would be powerful, as well. Finally, if the green dragons could lay eggs, meaning at least some of them are female (I assume), shouldn't they be paired with female riders, and why didn't Lessa's name get shortened with an apostrophe, like the men's names?

The second part of the book familiarizes us with life in the Weyr, as opposed to the outside world. I shared Lessa's frustrations at the stagnation in the Weyr, and looked forward to her plans and subterfuges to make the place subtly better. I found it unfortunate that circumstances forced her to stop so soon, but I liked that her impatience led to near-disaster for the Weyr, as the Hold lords assembled an army against them.

However, I liked F'lar as Weyr leader, and the way he took charge. He became Weyr leader when his dragon mated with the queen. I liked the way Lessa experienced a dragon orgasm through her link with Ramoth, as she mated with Mnementh. I, too, wished F'lar would tell Lessa the reasons behind some traditions, however, instead of just asking her to follow him blindly.

The Ballads that the Harpers sang had instructional meaning, but they were hidden in the songs. R'gul had no understanding of the ballads, but Lessa should have been able to go to F'lar for some more information.

F'lar deflects the army of the Hold Lords by telling them that Thread is imminent, and he takes advantage of the dragon fear people have.

The third and fourth part of the story were less interesting than the first two parts, but that doesn't mean they were dull. By no means, for they contained some actual preparation and fighting of Thread, and had a lot of surprises. I suppose it stems from the fact that these parts were wrapping up the mysteries from the earlier sections.

F'lar teaches Lessa how to go between, which is how a dragon travels across great distances in only a few seconds. Sort of like hyperspace! Only Lessa goes between time instead of just space, something that had been unknown before! F'lar uses this to great advantage when they are late discovering that Thread is already falling, going back in time to counter the threat. They manage to destroy the vast majority of the Thread, but some managed to burrow their way into the rain forests.

F'Lar gathers the Hold lords and the Master craftsmen to the Weyr, and they discuss ways to destroy the burrows, and catch more Thread before it hits the ground, or injures or kills dragons or dragonriders. They have some great discussion, with the best lines going to the Master Harper, who has been nearly ostracized by this time, as nobody has wanted to hear about dragons in his ballads for a long time. He gets to criticize the Lords without worrying about his life. F'lar also sets up a new Weyr in the far south, ten years in the past! What a way to create new dragons! However, it appears that being in two times at once is too much of a strain on humans, though it doesn't affect dragons. As the Weyr is "understaffed" to fight all the Thread that will fall in the next fifty years, they are able to add many new dragons to the fight.

They keep lamenting the fact that five out of six Weyrs on Pern were abandoned suddenly so long ago, and that their Weyr was allowed to degenerate so much. Through a cool series of clues, Lessa figures out that somebody went back in time by 400 years and brought the populations of the five abandoned Weyrs to help with this fight! I figured this out long before Lessa did, but only because Lessa wasn't given all of the clues until much later than the reader was. As usual, against F'lar's judgement and express orders, Lessa goes back in time to get them.

If there is anything I have to complain about in this book, this is the part. The five Weyrs were convinced way too easily, and it took much less time to set everything up than I would have expected. In defence of this, however, how could they doubt the visions Ramoth was able to communicate to the other dragons? And a quick and hasty exit is the only way to allay suspicion on the part of those not involved. I thought Lessa and F'lar kept track of all the time shifts too easily, as well. As in the latest Harry Potter movie, and other shows I've seen, all of the time travel is paradoxical and cyclic -there is no "first time" for anything. The Weyrs were abandoned because Lessa brought them forward in time, but Lessa went forward in time only because the Weyrs were abandoned. I love this way of doing things. But Lessa and the other Weyr-people seemed to go about things too simplistically, as telling the Master Harper to write a song, only because that's what she used to figure out the paradox, along with the tapestry.

Everyone is happy and shocked with the appearance of 1800 more dragons to fight Thread, and Pern seems safe. The people brought forward in time are also able to clear up some misinterpretations of the traditions of the present time, and bring devices like flame-throwers to use against Thread.

There are things which are not explained, however, which undoubtedly links us to the sequels and prequels. I wonder if there is some significance to Lessa's mistake in timing the arrival in the present time. Also, who made the Timing charts to help fight Thread, if the people from the past didn't have them?

Although several significant events take place over the course of this novel, the most interesting parts are the characters. They are so well-developed, and they have plans for their future. Most of the time, the plans turn out differently from how they intended. Lessa, for example, never planned her life beyond Fax's death, so she could take control of Ruatha Hold. How different is her life now! Many of the secondary characters also get good development, especially F'nor (F'lar's half-brother), and the Master Harper and Smith.

The world itself is a fascinating place. I am particularly drawn to the southern continent, abandoned to the Threads every time the Red Star makes a pass. Now that they have set up a Weyr in the south, will they protect it from the Threads? This could mean doubling or tripling the forces required. If Thread reaches a remote area, will it continue to spread through vegetative areas until it reaches the Southern Weyr? F'lar also says that Thread falls harmlessly into the ocean. How certain is he of this? There is green vegetation in the ocean as well -they eat fish through the course of the story. As there is a novel with Dolphins in the title, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Thread has some impact there, too.

In all, this book has so many possibilities that it is a surety I will read another book in the series, if not all of the books! The characters, and the paradoxes that occur were amazing to read. The author's style was paramount to making this work, however. Given the creatures and people that inhabit Pern, it would have been easier for the author to use familiar terms. Instead, she makes us think about what we are reading, and gives us enough references to figure it out for ourselves, like the "crawlers". Amazing!

I do hope that future books, written in the last twenty years, do not fill out with meaningless filler, the way some authors have done, most notably Asimov. On the other hand, some hearty discussion among the Weyrs from the past would have been welcome, and might have been included if the book was written today. We'll see!

 
   

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