DragonFlight Group-Read, Week One

As part of the fun for the Sci Fi Experience, I’m participating in the group-read of DragonFlight by Anne McCaffrey.  This was just the push I needed to revisit Pern…which I’ve been meaning to do for far too long.

First, a little context for those not reading along: DragonFlight is set on the planet Pern, where society is centered around small holds, traditionally guarded by the Weyrs, where the dragonriders live.  The dragonriders are a race apart, each one bound for life to his or her dragon.  The dragons’ mission is to protect Pern from deadly Threads, parasites which fall from the neighboring planet of the Red Star and burn everything in their path.  They’ve fallen at regular intervals for millenia, but 400 years ago the last pass of the Red Star ended, leading to a Long Interval; five Weyrs of dragonriders mysteriously disappeared, leaving only Benden Weyr to survive to the present.  Now the Red Star is looming in the sky again, and F’lar of Benden is looking for a woman to Impress the new queen dragon about to hatch.  Meanwhile, Lessa of Ruatha has been hiding in her ancestral hold, the only one of her family to survive slaughter ten years before when Fax invaded and took control–and her long quest for revenge is coming to a head.

DragonFlight is one of those books that I read several times as a kid or young teenager, but somehow haven’t touched in the last ten years.  It was very interesting coming back to it again.  Like my experience with The Giver, there’s a lot more to be disturbed by than I remember…  There are some undertones and details that are more worrying than my younger self perceived.  On the other hand, it’s still an exciting adventure on a fascinating world, with deeply engaging characters.

But perhaps I ought to get into Carl’s questions for the discussion…

1.   What are your thoughts on McCaffrey’s handling of the male and female characters in Dragonflight?

2.  F’Lar and Lessa are an interesting pair of protagonists.  What do you like and/or dislike about their interactions thus far?  What things stand out for you as particularly engaging about each character (if anything)?

I want to take these first two questions together, because they feel very interrelated–and related to my complex feelings mentioned above.  It’s an odd thing about women in this book.  There’s a definite feeling that women don’t have much power in society, that there’s a clear delineation between the genders, and that women cook and have babies.

In the Weyrs, the Weyrleader is the man whose dragon mates with the queen dragon.  First, that is a strange way to choose a leader for society.  Second, it is a far more disturbing prospect to consider that the queen rider’s mate is based on which dragon flies the fastest.  I’ve read many other Pern books and I know others end up suggesting that the rider’s preference has a lot to do with which dragon has a successful flight.  But that’s not in this book, so I’m not sure it’s a valid defense…

So all in all…not really liking the treatment of women.

But on the other hand–Lessa is amazing!  The one major female character is certainly as smart as any of the men, and stronger and more determined too.  But–she also spends a lot of the book trapped in a role, and when she breaks out there’s some sense that she’s declaring her independence…but there’s also a sense that she’s an impetuous child who’s rebelling.

In some ways F’lar acknowledges Lessa’s intellect and strength–he certainly sees it.  But he doesn’t treat her as an equal, and there are some very troubling aspects to their relationship.  I feel like if I really wrap my head around some of it, I’m going to end up hating F’lar and I don’t want to do that–so I am very curious to see how other people respond to this question!

3.  How do you feel about Pern to this point in the story?  What are your thoughts on McCaffrey’s world-building?

I already covered some disturbing aspects of Pernese society, but really I’m fascinated by it.  I actually don’t feel like this is a very good book to analyze Pern and McCaffrey’s world-building, because in large ways Pern here is in a crisis of society.  They’re going to figure things out in subsequent books.  I find Pern a more interesting place when it’s thriving, because then you get to find out more about different craft halls, how the Holds interrelate, how dragons fit into the mix…and women don’t seem quite as marginalized in other books.  All in all, a picture emerges of a society that is quite different from our own, marvelously intricate, and just seems to work and fit together in a wonderful fashion.

4.  For those who have already read Dragonflight how do you feel about  your return to Pern?  What stands out in your revisit?

I felt SO nostalgic when I opened to the Introduction and found “Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star.”  I think every Pern book has the paragraph that follows, and at the height of my Pern-fandom, I could have recited it.

It’s true that sometimes we can go back to books and find them different–although we’re the ones who changed.  I already touched on some of the parts that disturb me, that went right past me before.

But on the other hand, some parts are still the same.  Lessa is such a strong figure.  Dragons–I mean, they’re awesome.  That goes without saying.  I’m fascinated by…I guess I have to call it the shape of the world.  Pern is just an interesting place.

I think that wraps up a discussion of the first half of the book.  More to come next week!  In the meantime, read everyone else’s thoughts.

22 thoughts on “DragonFlight Group-Read, Week One

  1. suecccp

    I can understand why you find the general attitude to women fairly offensive, and I agree with you. However, I don’t think it helps that we have mostly seen Fax’s attitude to women at this point. The way in which the Weyrwoman is protected suggests that females are very valuable because of their importance for continuing the population. I find it very telling that it is four hundred years since the last Thread fall, and yet the Weyr can be supplied fairly easily by all the Holds: this suggests that the population is tiny and has not managed to spread very far geographically. In this situation, women would be much more important individually than men, but would also be kept away from dangerous situations at all costs. As you say, women are far more equally treated in the later books and I like the fact that this society, which seems so familiar has actually developed because of very different pressures from those on Earth.

    1. They may view women as valuable…but to be seen as valuable only as a breeder is not really a positive… You make a good point about the small population, though, and I also appreciate the point that society has evolved with different pressures. I’m usually pretty able to dismiss sexism in much older books as a product of their time–it’s harder in a sci fi book, even though it is meant to be a different society governed by different rules. But I know the author is in this society!

  2. Cheryl, we definitely share a lot of the same concerns about the treatment of women, F’lar and even Lessa. I was put off not only by how the men treat the women, but by how most of the women are portrayed — with the exception of Gemma and Lessa. That “mating” scene didn’t make sense to me either.

    On the other hand, I can’t wait to read about Pern when it’s thriving. You make it sound like a beautiful place!

    1. I would highly recommend the Harper Hall trilogy–Menolly is also constrained by what a girl’s role is supposed to be, but the story is ultimately about how she breaks out of it. It’s also a great look at other parts of Pern’s society, and makes it seem like a much more appealing place!

  3. It’s really interesting to read from other people who this is a reread for. I think if I’d read this a number of years ago I probably wouldn’t have noticed as much about the inequalities. I don’t know whether this is a change in me or a change in times as well?
    Lynn 😀

    1. A bit of both, perhaps? I think there are some things we’re more conscious of as a society than we used to be…and for me, I’m such a different age now, I know my understanding of some things is different.

      1. suecccp

        It is strange, but I am more offended by the sexism than I used to be . . . I must be getting less tolerant in my old age! 😀

  4. Great to read your thoughts on this given it is a return for you after several years. It is odd for me, frankly, to even be assessing the way women are treated in this book the way I did in my response but it was born partially out of the fact that with these old sf classics we tend to talk about that anyway and also because I was wondering this time if a female author would change that pattern or if it was still too early in the process of both male and female authors breaking out of that golden age mode of storytelling to see a significant difference. And what we get, I believe, is somewhere in between.

    It is unrealistic to think that some people in society wouldn’t be marginalized in some way. That is a perfect world dream but doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction. And I do think McCaffrey does with Lessa much of what I was expecting her to do. She is a strong character but she isn’t so far removed from the politics of the way women are treated in Pern society that she is a complete aberration.

    I don’t dislike F’lar but that is in large part because many of my favorite classic novels have these rugged, handsome heroes who can be very sweet and loving to women but also have a bit of this He-Man aspect to them. It was the way things were written in those days and I try to be forgiving of that when reading a story without condoning it as a way stories should be told. I often wonder how I would view story if I wasn’t a white male. Would I feel the same connection with stories if my sex or culture or race wasn’t the main one represented or would I just not even notice?

    I’m really liking this visit to Pern and have no doubt that I’ll want to read the other books (sans the later ones with her son, possibly) at some point.

    1. I appreciate your observation that Lessa is strong but not removed from the context of her society–which I think is realistic. I don’t object to the depiction of marginalized groups in a sci fi setting, but perhaps it bothers me more that McCaffrey seems to reduce most of the female characters to no more than their marginalized roles–not only Fax’s women, but what brief references we get to other women as well. But then, it may come down to the prejudices of the narrating characters too…

      As to F’lar, I’m fine with a He-Man character who is considerate of women–I have a major soft spot for guys who claim to be tough but really have hearts of gold, which I think is a related character-type. But I don’t see F’lar treating Lessa well. There’s a certain amount of brutality to their interactions, and he keeps Lessa in the dark on important matters almost as much as R’gul. The situation does improve in the second half of the book (and even more in later ones), but I’m trying to confine myself to the beginning… However, some of this may come down to character growth that he’s in the process of developing. But rather like the gender roles, it’s at times hard to tell what is an intended character/society flaw, and what is being validated by the author.

      Whew. Loving the in-depth discussion here!

      1. I’m wondering if part of McCaffrey’s thinking was that she needed to make sure to set Lessa apart by having such a disparity between the way she is presented vs. the rest of the women. It is also important to remember that these were two novellas in their first life and given word limits for magazine stories it would make sense that she went with the easiest (in terms of number of words) method of showing that chasm between the two types of women vs. the amount of time one would have to establish that in the longer novels that are common today.

        I certainly notice F’lar’s treatment of Lessa and don’t in any way condone it but I see it as part of the growth of a character who is most likely used to only dealing with and being in the company of males. I also see him as a chip off the Conan block, again being one of those “types” of characters that is this aloof and somewhat cruel male who is also strong and thus exudes not only a sexual attraction but an attraction based on the security and strength that would be a part of a relationship with said character. Again, not condoning it but as someone else pointed out it does seem to fit very well with the long time tried and true fantasy stories that had been being told for decades.

        1. Interesting point on McCaffrey’s limited space…which could easily lead to some rather flat secondary characters. I think you’re probably right that she wanted a divide between Lessa and the others (and she certainly got it!) And to be fair, Manora is there as another female character who has more intelligence and independence. So it’s not entirely Lessa as the extraordinary one among a lot of pathetic women.

          I want to believe that F’lar’s more difficult aspects are part of growth–and I do think that the later series bears that out.

  5. I wonder if McCaffrey wrote the treatment of women as a way to show how society had lost it’s noble edge in 400 years – as the threat of Thread faded, did women become less and less important to the continuity of humanity (except as baby chutes). I read several Pern books as kids, and have vague memories, but I don’t think I ever got around to the books set earlier in the time line, like Moreta’s Ride. Perhaps I should bump that up on the TBR mountain pile.

    1. GREAT insight! I do feel like women in this book are faring worse than I remember in Pern, and I think you hit a great point that this may all be part of Pern’s degeneration. They don’t tithe, they let grass grow, and they mistreat their women… I think this all plays into how it’s hard to talk about the worldbuilding in this book–because in many ways it’s an anomaly compared to the rest of the series!

      Moreta, by the way, is great!

    2. That is such an interesting point – a bit like women in times of war, went out to work, making things and doing things that would never have been tolerated without the ‘threat’ aspect. Then peace and the women go back to their roles. Maybe AMcC was making some such point?
      Lynn 😀

      1. Totally!!! Like my granma worked in the dock yards during WWII, but war’s over, she went back to making house, raising kids, and later working in a realty office wearing nice clothes and behaving ladylike. She still thinks I should take my husband’s last name and that my tattoo is a sign of some dark spotted soul! OK, thanks. (walks away with soap box in tow…)

    3. “I wonder if McCaffrey wrote the treatment of women as a way to show how society had lost it’s noble edge in 400 years – as the threat of Thread faded, did women become less and less important to the continuity of humanity (except as baby chutes).”

      By the way, I love this theory!

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