Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
When Anne McCaffrey passed away in 2011, I was saddened, as many people in the sf community were. I was also seized by a sudden urge to go back and read The Dragonriders of Pern. Well, go back… I distinctly remember reading a Pern novel featuring a tall, dark villainess in middle school, but, looking back, I definitely could have just imagined that. In any case, 2011 was when I determined to read Dragonflight and get a toehold back in the series, to see if I wanted to continue or not. Naturally, it took me two years to finally sit down with it. Yeesh.
Dragonflight takes place on the planet of Pern, an abandoned human colony so distant from its spacefaring past that it now resembles something more medieval. When Pern is threatened with the deadly spores from space known as the Thread, the dragonriders of Pern, telepathically connected to their steeds, fight it off, again and again. But the Thread haven’t landed in four centuries, leading many to believe they don’t exist. When Lessa, the sole surviving heir of Ruatha Hold, finally completes her decade-long quest for vengeance against Fax, she finds her destiny diverted when she is recruited by F’lar, a dragonman of the last remaining Hold, to be their Weyrwoman for the coming Thread fall, connecting her with the only Queen dragon. But even with Lessa, their numbers are simply too low to fight against the oncoming Thread… at least, for now.
Dragonflight, as I learned prepping this post, began life as two novellas originally published in Analog—“Weyr Search”, which details Lessa’s journey from heir-in-disguise to Weyrwoman, and the two-parter “Dragonrider”, about her training and the growth of her queen dragon, Ramoth. Such a composition is known as a fix-up. (The more you know!) This accounts for Dragonflight’s peculiar, half-melted structure. While it’s nominally split into three parts, it lacks chapters, so you often get the feeling you’re speeding up and slowing down irregularly. That might be an interesting thing to play with, given the fact that this novel eventually explores time travel, but here, it really only serves to flatten the narrative and distance the reader.
Case in point: the characterization. While it took me a little longer than usual than I expected to get my bearings, I was happy to get invested in Lessa: she’s morally ambiguous (she’s killed a lot of people in her quest for revenge, which spans her entire adolescence), she’s powerful, she’s spiteful, and F’lar sees greatness in her. I liked her for the same reasons I like Princess Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time—when your situation is that bad, what would you do? (Lessa lies in wait for ten years; Zelda breaks time itself in half, you know, no big.) But despite her potential, I never felt like I connected with Lessa, or F’lar, or any number of characters whose perspective the narrative skips into like a giddy child. (It’s dizzying.) The very thing I had been excited by—the dragons of Pern’s only hope is a ruthless, cunning murderer!—is not explored or addressed at all. She’s headstrong and clever when the plot requires it, emotional (despite her upbringing and the text itself) when the plot requires it. It’s hard to get a read on characters who are so fluid.
Pern’s worldbuilding was always an interesting nugget for me to chew on during the Wombat Years—it was fantasy but it was also sci-fi! While I only read that one half-remembered novel in middle school, I think it may have helped me see how interconnected sci-fi and fantasy can be and, in fact, are, allowing me to roam freely in the speculative fiction plains. There’s plenty of infodumping right and left here, especially when time travel gets involved. It feels like McCaffrey is just so excited about her brand new world that she just wants to tell everyone. There’s a reason we discourage that in our young, but here, it’s almost charming to get to see her like this after her passing, excitable and young. It’s the magic of prose, the telepathy Stephen King talks about.
And that’s why, even though it’s not very good and it’s already slipping off my mind already, I still enjoyed reading it.
Bottom line: Dragonflight was compiled from two novellas and it shows. Even if there’s something charming about seeing an excitable young author after her own passing, it’s still opaque and impossible to get a hold on. Pass.
I rented this book from the public library.