Next up: The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey (and lately, Todd McCaffrey).
An older series spanning a great number of books; since Anne died, her son Todd has taken over writing the newer installations. Since there are still quite a few books, I am going to write a general series review here, and then have a reading guide that breaks down the series into individual books on my ‘book recommendations’ page.
The Dragonriders of Pern series all take place on the planet Pern (or P.E.R.N. – Parallel Earth, Resources Negligible). It is a mix of scifi and fantasy, in that the history of the world comes from a scifi background but the books are (at first) more fantasy. This is essentially explained in the prologue of each book, so it’s not entirely necessary to read the books in order.
Pern was colonized by space-flight-capable humans. But when they surveyed it, they didn’t take much notice of a small planet that had an erratic orbit in the same system. This proved a serious oversight. There was an indigenous lifeform on this wandering planet that jumped the space to Pern, when the erratic orbit brought the planets close enough together. The lifeform, Thread, devoured any organic substance it came into contact with, burrowing through crops, through flesh, through anything except solid stone or metal. The very first Threadfall blasted the unsuspecting colonists back into near-medieval technological levels. They lost their connection to their parent world, and the Thread destroyed much of their society and technology, and decimated their numbers.
However, they were not entirely helpless. Before their technology was entirely lost, with their advanced genetics and biology, they crafted ‘dragons’ out of the Pernese native ‘fire lizards’. These great animals bonded telepathically with colonists who rated high enough in empathy and latent telepathic ability, forming partnerships that lasted unto death, allowing the colonists to direct and teach the dragons in utilizing the animals’ ability to breathe fire, to scour the Thread from the sky with fire.
In the end, after decades and decades, Pern became something of a medieval feudal society. People couldn’t live off on their own because of the threat of Thread, and so gathered into Holds, which were overseen by Lords. Dragons and their riders lived in Weyrs according to the need of space and specific geography/topography for the dragons. The Weyrs are not, however, self-sufficient, and the Holds cannot protect themselves from Thread, and so Holds tithe resources to Weyrs in return for the promise of protection. In addition, the Holds are required to make their children available for Search, where Weyrs can take likely candidates to see if newly hatched dragons will Impress and bond with them.
Of course, with any human society, there are politics and tensions. Thread doesn’t always fall, and so in the intervening years, people often wonder why they’re having to give so much to the dragonriders. Lord-holders get arrogant, dragonriders get arrogant… There are hierarchies among the dragons and their riders… The plots for some of the books lead from these things.
As the series continues, more elements of scifi filter back into the world.
My introduction to this world was actually a short story that made it into my language textbook in, I think, third grade. It detailed the story of a runt of a boy being Searched, and eventually Impressing a dragon despite his being small and scrawny and weak. I remember it caught my imagination (I mean, these people rode dragons). Eventually, when I was 10 or 12, I found “Dragonsong” in the YA section of the library. It set me off on the Harper Hall Trilogy, a set of Pern books written for young adults. Then I started on the adult installations of the series.
I like the idea of Pern; a lost colony that lost most of its high-tech history and had to restart society… but with dragons! McCaffrey had also created an interesting web of politics with the world. The execution of the idea, however, was hit-or-miss. Sometimes I really enjoyed the book. Sometimes I liked the characters and the story. Sometimes I really did not. There are sometimes really strange character interactions, like people just acting like complete idiots for no reason (except perhaps narrative tension). I generally didn’t like Lessa (main character for “Dragonflight”), because she just acted like a brat about her situation, whining about how she was supposed to be the heir of Ruatha Hold. Girl, you’re a freaking gold rider and the co-leader of the last weyr on Pern. Suck it up, because the whole damn world is depending on you. I really liked Moreta (main character of the book named for her: “Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern”), though. She was practical and didn’t let anyone dissuade her from doing what was right, what was needed. Not even her dumbass of a Weyrleader, during whose temper tantrums you could practically sense her doing a ‘stare into the camera like you’re on the Office’ sort of thing. So even if you don’t like one book, don’t give up on the series, as the next might be more to taste (though I think the later books are bad and poorly written).
The biggest thing I had a problem with was the weird treatment of sex. Because of their very close telepathic connection to their dragon, dragonriders are also affected by dragon mating flights. The riders of mating bronze/brown and gold dragons also have sex when their dragons mate, overcome by the feelings they are getting from their dragons. This introduces some weird consent dynamics. The riders know that it’ll happen, but they have no choice which dragon will mate with theirs, and therefor have no choice who they’ll sleep with during a mating flight. When their dragons mate, they are overcome by the telepathic connection, and they have sex. It’s weird and kind of uncomfortable and I don’t really know why it had to be part of the worldbuilding. In-book it’s an excuse for the dragonriders to have a very sexually open society (riders sleep with whomever they want, without judgement), but honestly that openness could have just been part of the worldbuilding without forcing it with weird brain rape vibes. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen much – maybe once in a book, if that.
There is also a strange thread of sexism that pops up randomly; it’s not in every book, but it does rear its ugly head once in a while. It’s a little strange, too, because in the dragon hierarchy, golden queen dragons are the bosses, and thus their riders (women) are ostensibly the ‘most powerful people’ in the Weyr. But that’s not really always the case. I did read a review on Goodreads, however, that brought up a thought that McCaffrey, as a woman writer during a generally male-dominated era in scifi (“Dragonflight” was published in the late 60s), created a very patriarchal and male-dominated world with the intention of subverting it and depicting the society turning more equitable over the course of the series. But, since I read most of the books more than 10 years ago, and only recently started rereading them, I don’t really remember whether that holds true. Suffice to say, for now, that some books have sexist undertones and some don’t.
Wildly varies among books, but generally the world is interesting. 5/7
Depending on the book, weird consent problems, violence, sexism, homophobia.