Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dragony Goodness

Ah dragons!  By far, one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy character types.  I recently decided to revisit a well-loved novel from my early teens:  Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. This book was one of my earliest introductions into the science fiction and fantasy genres.  I loved it very much at the age of 13 when my library escape was so important to me. It was nice to revisit it from a fresh and much different viewpoint, and I have to say that I find it as lovable and addictive as ever.

The Basics
McCaffrey, Anne. Dragonflight.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2005. Print.

Don't let the copyright date in the above entry fool you. This book was first published in 1968, and is, in my opinion, a classic in its genre.  Anne McCaffrey (gosh, where should I start?) is an extremely prolific and accomplished author.  McCaffrey has written nearly 100 books, coauthoring 30, and was the first woman to earn both the Nebula and Hugo awards.  She also became the first author (period) to have a science fiction book on the New York Times Best Seller list.  I could go on, but suffice it to say McCaffrey has long suffered repeated bouts of awesomeness and been well-recognized for it.  Really, if you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and haven't read at least one of her novels you need to reevaluate your reading practices.

Of all the books in the series (and I've read most), Dragonflight is my favorite, perhaps because it represents both my initiation into the genre as well as the beginning of the planet Pern.  Set on a planet once colonized but long forgotten by Earth, the book follows the story of Lessa and F'lar, dragonriders and leaders who struggle to unite their planet and face a parasitic threat from space. (duh duhn duhnnnnn).

The Book
Dragonflight is a fantastic mixture of the science fiction and fantasy genres, blending the two in a way that will please fans of either genre.  On the one hand the book holds elements that pull it towards science fiction. The setting is a faraway planet once colonized by Earth. The characters face routine invasions by an alien species: the parasitic, spore-like Threads.  And, without revealing too much, let's not forget about the time travel.  Meanwhile, we also find fantasy elements.  Hello, dragons!  The setting is also vaguely medieval with most people living in Holds and governed by Lords.  There's also a crafthold set up frequently encountered in other fantasy novels. Dragonflight blends all these elements of genre (and many others) into one cohesive whole that's all its own.  Some of the best books defy easy categorization.

McCaffrey's characters are also rather delightful.  They feel very human and real (except the dragons, since, you know, they're dragons) with human motivations and flaws. Lessa, for example, is initially motivated by vengeance and over the course of the book has to learn to move away from that and become a leader.  The book successfully pulls her along on this journey, but she does keep a small spiteful streak that occassionally rears up and makes you want to slap her silly. Lessa, like many heroes, is also prone to spontaneous fits of vision and leaps to put such vision into action as soon as possible.  However, unlike many heroes, McCaffrey does not allow this to shape Lessa into an inhumanly successful heroine.  Instead, Lessa occasionally fails, or succeeds but at a cost to herself that teaches her to think ahead a little.  Rather than letting Lessa's vision be a superhuman strength, McCaffrey allows to be a flaw as well. (I appreciate this a lot more now than I did at 13, too).

The dragons are also rather interestingly crafted.  This was one of the first novels I read where the humans bond telepathically with their animal companions, a common enough theme now in the fantasy genre. In Dragonflight the dragons' characterization depends very much on their interactions with their humans, since dragons typically only communicate with their chosen human.  This could doom the dragons to one dimensionality, but McCaffrey skirts the issue in a number of ways.  Lessa has the ability to communicate with all dragons, which makes readers party to much more of the dragon's thoughts than they would be otherwise. Also, McCaffrey is very good at describing dragon body language (from their sarcastic tail twitches to their hungry bellies), creating a second level of communication from which readers can get to know the dragons further.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is one that bleeds into the entire series: McCaffrey's affinity for worldbuilding.  I love novels that allow readers, not just to discover a great new story, but to uncover an entire new and complex world. Think about it; this is inevitably a marker of some of the best fantasy fiction out there (Tolkein, Rowling).  Pern is well crafted, featuring a system of government, a rich cultural history, and behaviors unique to the world's situation.  Nor does McCaffrey neglect the little details, such as naming traditions, cursing, common occupations, the essentials of dragoncare, etc.  What results is a well developed new world for readers to explore that goes much deeper than the surface. And while some of the elements found in McCaffrey's Pern are now fairly common in fantasy worlds created by other authors, we have to remember that Pern started in 1967 and McCaffrey likely pioneered some of this stuff!

McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series is well worth dipping into, but first let me warn you that it is massive.  But, don't let that scare you off, cause you'll love it!

  • First, you can visit Anne McCaffrey's website, which features a blog and biographical information about the author.
  • You can also check out the fansite, The Pern Museum and Archives, which houses some in depth information on the series.
  • And for some visual dragony goodness, visit Michael Whelan's art site, which features many of the illustrations he originally did for the Pern series.


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