Dragonflight: (The Dragonriders of Pern #1) by Anne McCaffrey

It’s about humans who leave Earth for a new planet, shun existing technology, adopt feudalism, breed lizards into genetically enhanced dragons, and even figure out teleportation and time-travel (by way of the fire-belching dragons).

And beat their women.

Unfortunately, I read these books out of order. I tend to do this a lot, normally by accident. Other times, I think I can get away with reading the meat of the series, without the appetizer. In this case, I really thought that Dragonflight, born of McCaffrey’s Hugo Award winning novellas, was an appetizer and would be absorbed into the follow-up novel Dragonquest. I was correct in my assumption, sort of, but it was bland and unsatisfying, so I went back and read the first novel, and I’m so glad I did. Dragonflight is time-jumps more enjoyable than its sequel, the 1972 Hugo Award Best Novel nominee, Dragonquest.

DragonflightDragonflight is a combination of the 1968 Hugo Award winning novella “Weyr Search” and the 1969 Hugo Award nominated novella “Dragonrider.” In the far distant future, humans leave Earth for a new planet called Pern. They adopt an agrarian, feudal society and, after many passing centuries, all advanced technology is completely forgotten. (Where are the science rebels? Surely some surly teen, angry at his/her old-fashioned parents, might dig up an old spaceship artifact and start asking questions. Or uncover steam technology or penicillin, something…) Shortly after settlement, the strange phenomena of Thread, silver strands that fall from the erratically orbiting Red Star (a planet, not a star, dammit) pummel the land and destroy all organic material. For defense against the Thread, the Pernese decide to breed dragons from lizards, to whom they feed firestone, which gives the dragons indigestion and makes them belch fire, which burns the harmful Threads.

Dragonflight is about Lessa, a young woman who is discovered on a weyr search (sort of like “American Idol” for dragon riders, but with possible bodily injury). We learn that she can communicate with all dragons and related animals, and can even psychically manipulate humans into doing her bidding. (Why not just use this power to make the evil overlord kill himself and get her kingdom back?) She impresses the newborn queen dragon, Ramoth, and her spunk and sass bemuse the macho dragonriders. While she is settling in at her new home with the dragonriders, the first Thread attacks in four hundred years become a looming threat, but forgotten knowledge and a dwindling dragon population cause the dragonriders to scramble for ideas to defend their planet. Oh, and there’s time-travel!*

I poke fun at this story, but it was an enjoyable read. Lessa is a fun character, and her antics distracted me from the constantly occurring writing mistakes. This novel is flooded with clunky dialogue, jarring perspective changes within chapters, misused words (bemused, ahem), and an overuse of adverbs. McCaffrey often ruins the flow of dialogue by interrupting sentences in awkward places to give directional cues. But, the concept is intriguing, the action is strong, and the plot moves smoothly enough. The characters were likable, albeit the supporting cast was a little 2-dimensional, but I liked Lessa enough to overlook it.

However, I did take issues with a few things. Sensitive readers need to beware of the archaic male/female relationship behaviors, which I attribute to the feudal structure of Pern. In Dragonflight, we see domestic violence, references to forced sex, and sexual double standards. There is, however, a strong feminist element in Lessa’s character that I hope will result in some progressive changes throughout the series. (Unfortunately, the second novel, Dragonquest, seems to take a few steps back in this regard.)

I was also bothered by the mobster-like tactics among the dragonriders in their demand for tithes, while they contributed nothing to society. They stood by while Fax ransacked Lessa’s home of Ruatha and murdered her entire family. I couldn’t blame the lords for balking at the tithe requirement, when there had not been Thread to fight for over four hundred years. In fact, I most identified with the lords who lacked the blind faith to believe in the absent threat of space spores. Four hundred years is a long time to financially support a gang of dragon dudes who do nothing but warn of a vague, impending apocalypse. Couldn’t the dragonriders implement some sort of security task force, or offer labor services during the non-Thread years? Hell, my lawn guys are off-call firefighters.

But my main issue with the whole story: I just don’t buy the concept of a society that successfully purges itself of technology and scientific knowledge.  Science is too resilient, and no society is impervious to the birth of willful scientists. Some curious, rebellious mind is going to be born and turn the world upside down. I hope this is addressed somewhere in the sprawling Pern series. It would make some for interesting, and necessary, conflict.

Regardless of these major problems with the story, Dragonflight is a pleasurable read, with its interesting take on dragon lore, and a fun main character. And it is much better than its successor, Dragonquest. I’m actually sorry that it’s over, and I look forward to reading more about the Pern world.

*Interesting tidbit: The time-travel element was actually a suggestion by the editor, and not part of McCaffrey’s original idea. In 1967, it was probably brilliant, but it might seem a bit hackneyed to modern readers. Still, it helped to give the story a neat and tidy ending, with a few WTF twists, which sort of reminded me of the TV series Lost. (And, considering the poor writing style, I’m shocked an editor was involved at all. Apparently, ALL he cared about was the time-travel.)

**Avoid the Kindle ebook version of this novel. It is riddled with errors. Half the periods are missing and even Pern is misspelled in some places.

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13 thoughts on “Dragonflight: (The Dragonriders of Pern #1) by Anne McCaffrey

  1. Widdershins says:

    The Pern books are definitely a series that needs to be read in order. Most of the questions/points you raised are answered along the way.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Okay, I probably asked for that.

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      • I’m surprised a mistake so obvious wasn’t corrected during the editing process. After reading your review of the second book, I’m beginning to suspect I haven’t been missing anything with the Pern titles.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I really don’t think you are. And that mistake occurred in both books, and at least twice in the second book. But I’ve noticed it in other books I’ve read, too, and I wonder, “Okay, so is the character amused, or confused, or both?” It’s quite bemusing!

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  2. […] Dragonflight: (The Dragonriders of Pern #1) by Anne McCaffrey (couchtomoon.wordpress.com) […]

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  3. […] This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon. […]

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  4. comixminx says:

    (Here via SF Mistressworks)

    I am a fan of McCaffrey’s Pern books, but that is partly the happenstance of having come to them at the right time, ie (in my case) in my teens. They are certainly not free of problematic aspects, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying them. The later books address a number of the points you raise – particularly the questions about how a society ends up quite as devoid of scientific knowledge as the quasi-medieval Pern of the first few books does. Some of the resolutions in this area may well feel a bit deus ex machina, but she does treat them quite thoroughly.

    There’s some good Pern fanfic out there which looks at some of the most problematic bits in McCaffrey’s worldbuilding, especially around the very dodgy sexual politics. At the same time, I do give McCaffrey some props for allowing women to enjoy sex, to regulate their own fertility, and for her inclusion of same-sex couples (none of which is unproblematic either but it is *there*).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I think if I had come to Pern at the right time, I’d be an undying fan, too 🙂

    It’s been pointed out to me that the later books address some of my issues (I’ve read some since I first wrote this and will be reading others), but that doesn’t resolve the fact that the original novella probably did not plan for those later books, which tells me that McCaffrey initially just went with the aesthetics she liked, without awareness of any of these issues. Above all: “space spores” “falling” from another planet? Huh?

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    • comixminx says:

      Oh yeah, in the first coupla books McCaffrey clearly is just going for it – feudal society, telepathy, nearly-magical big beasts. It has echoes of Andre Norton and maybe of Marianne Zimmer Bradbury too. For me, it starts to really get going with the two Menolly books (Dragonsong / Dragonsinger), which are considerably more character-based and which have more solid world-building.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Yeah, it does resemble Norton in that way. And Zimmer Bradley was my big teen go-to (unaware of her disturbing family issues), so I really need to revisit her Avalon books to see if they stand the test of time. I think the pseudo-historical basis provides for much of the world-building and probably doesn’t have the gap/reconcilation issues like Norton and McCaffrey.

        I have been well-warned off the Todd books, so I’m safe from that. I’ll look out for Dragonsong/Dragonsinger. Thanks for the rec! 🙂

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    • comixminx says:

      PS don’t read Todd McCaffrey’s continuation books. Seriously, there’s a lot of Pern fanfic which is so much better written that if I wanted to read more Pern books I would definitely not turn to his works, which are really clunky.

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