Science-Fiction

So Awesome, Then Churned Out by a Factory

Time-travelling dragons fight a menace from outer space!This has been the biggie: I’ve started re-reading the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Wow, talk about a trip! I had almost completely forgotten the series and its impact on me years ago. I think this was due to the excessive sequels that tarnished the creativity of the project.

But now that I’ve re-read Dragonflight, the book that started the whole Pern deal way back in 1968, I feel like I’ve discovered a lost chunk of my brain. The first book is completely crazed – it’s got dozens of science fiction ideas thrown into a wild mix of melodrama, and it explodes in six different directions at once.

Here is a quick list of the main concepts that McCaffrey jams into one 250-page book:

  • Dragons – they fly, they teleport, they belch flame
  • Time travel – I won’t add any other spoilers, but McCaffrey gets pretty heavily into paradoxes and timelines
  • Colony world in decay – Pern is a planet that was colonized by an advanced society long ago but that has now fallen into primitive times (this one has been used hundreds of times in science fiction but seldom so effectively)
  • Interstellar menace – spores from outer space, the “Red Star” to be more specific, fall as “Threads” from the sky for fifty years, followed by a two hundred year gap – a “Thread” will kill all organic life that it touches
  • Weird implications of all of the above – McCaffrey is quite adept at figuring out the social consequences of all these things and creating an interesting story, which is very difficult!

It’s this last point which probably makes the whole book so vivid. For example, the colonists genetically engineered dragons to burn Threads from the sky, but the gaps between the passes of the Red Star are long enough that ordinary people resent supporting the dragonmen. In Dragonflight, these kinds of details are worked out with extraordinary flair.

McCaffrey also throws in a ton of melodrama, and I see this as a large part of the appeal of visiting Pern. There’s always some kind of personal conflict going on – I think McCaffrey’s cast of characters was my introduction to people who just don’t get along. The first book also adapted a large part of its plot structure from romance: strong-willed young girl, authoritative older man… throw them together with some peril and watch the fireworks.

Best of all, the dragons and time travel and interstellar spores are just background for the tumultuous lives of people we soon care about or dislike intensely. I’m not saying that the wacky SF ideas are superfluous – more that we learn about them as part of the trials and tribulations of interesting characters.

Dragonflight displays quite a florid writing style on McCaffrey’s part. It’s a bit hard to pin down precisely, but I think it might be in the use of adverbs. Everyone is either “lounging indolently” or “drawling sardonically” or some such thing. McCaffrey doesn’t seem able to turn down any rhetorical trick that would amp up the immediate impact of the story.

Time-travelling dragons fight a menace from outer space!I loved the Pern books, but I kind of lost interest in the series as the “churned out by a factory” quotient went up and not much new was going on. Sequels are always dicey propositions to me. I like “more of the same” just like everyone else, but it gets boring after a while. If a book is just coasting on its predecessors, it gets obvious fast. Prequels are much worse, since there’s often no hope of anything new at all. In that sense, I’m a novelty junkie – I actually don’t want to know how the Pernese dragons were developed, or how the Threads first hit Pern. That stuff is great as backstory. Front and centre, it’s just a drag.

But now that I’ve re-read Dragonflight, I can see where the various sequels and prequels came from – they’re all in this book already. The second book, Dragonquest, deals with tensions with a group called the “oldtimers” and they first arrive on the scene here, while the third book, The White Dragon, has a protagonist who had a very dramatic birth in this book. Durable characters – like Robinton the masterharper – were here, and a whole framework of craftholder life sets up the Dragondrums trilogy. The legend of Moreta, queen dragon-rider of the ancient past, is mentioned with reverence, and sure enough, she gets her own book later too.

That’s about where I lost interest in the series – quite a few books followed.
I take the point that McCaffrey is painting on a broad canvas of thousands of years, but after a such a mind-numbing quantity of sequels, everything compelling and unique has long been done. I knew that part, but I was glad to be reminded of the superb quality of Dragonflight. I wasn’t crazy to be enthused about the series in the first place!

Parts of this article are based on a column I recently wrote for Strange Horizons, From the Formative Years, where I summarized my whole revisiting-childhood-books project.

4 replies »

  1. i had a little trouble with all the pern novels when i first read them. i was an adolescent and just discovering that when people wrote disparaging things about women and girls, that meant me too. so i found mccaffrey’s portrayal of sexism painful. maybe i should reread them and see what i think of them now.

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  2. Hey Carol,
    Well, I’m about halfway through the second book and the roles for females are getting worse – so far we have two women with slightly active roles, and all the rest are either slaves (“drudges” as McCaffrey calls them) or slutty troublemakers or basically non-existent. I understand the whole “medieval analogue” argument, but I’ve read lots of fantasies where writers have managed to have some equality. It’s not just what the women are given to do, but the way that McCaffrey writes about them that is problematic. As I said, McCaffrey has a knack for the melodramatic and the SF idea-fest, but this other stuff is starting to grate on me.

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  3. that’s too bad. i actually had been hoping i was wrong remembering the books that way. the “drudge” thing really stuck with me. it seemed almost gleefully pointed. like she was arguing with other female sf writers about accurate portrayals of women.

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  4. I had forgotten how interesting (and, yes, very melodramatic) this series was. I think I originally got ahold of these books from my grandmother. I had thought I was going to read some fantasy novels, and was surprised to find they were actually fantasy-like novels set in a science fiction universe.
    I agree with your point about backstory – it adds life to a novel but often makes pretty boring reading. My architypal example of this is Tolkien, where the backstory makes Lord of the Rings amazingly vivid. I have tried to read The Silmarillion a couple of times, but I just can’t get into it. Of course, it’s probably not a fair comparison, as Tolkien never really finished polishing that work.
    I think the only way to really make a backstory interesting is to come up with a new backstory for that backstory. After all, there’s always something else that must have happened before any given story…
    The other problem with series is that the first book introduces you to an entire new world, full of new concepts, history, characters, and creativity. It’s hard to bring so much new into a sequel – you can’t invent a new world with new rules and new characters, you have to work with what you have.
    That’s when I think the author’s ability to write and tell stories really has to come into play. It’s like the difference between getting a new toy (say, for example, you have just been introduced to lego) and finding new ways to use that toy (say, you’ve had that lego for a year – what interesting new things can you do with it?) As I recall, Anne McCaffrey did manage to write at least a couple of interesting sequels. But maybe I should see if I can find those old books and re-read one or two of them again. The last time I read them was as a teenager and I wonder how they will seem to me now as an adult.

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