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.
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.