Monday, July 26, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Dragonflight

In my old age, I have become very set in my ways, particularly when it comes to literature. My tastes have hardened and it's rare that I'm willing to give something new a try – and rarer still when I enjoy something new. Such was not always the case, though. In my long ago youth, my prejudices were fewer and I devoured almost any book I came across with a dragon or a spaceship on its cover. 

This was especially the case after I discovered Dungeons & Dragons more than four decades ago. I was so enthralled with D&D that I looked everywhere I could for ideas to incorporate into my games. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time haunting the local public libraries, checking out any fantasy or science fiction book I could get my hands on. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of them and, over the course of a couple of years, I found myself reading books by authors whose names I recognized as well as those I hadn't. 

In the latter category was Anne McCaffrey, whose name I first came across in the "Inspirational Source Material" section of Tom Moldvay's Basic Rules. By this time – late 1981 or early '82 – McCaffrey had already published quite a few books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series, so I figured the best place to start was at the very beginning, the novel Dragonflight.

Dragonflight was first published in 1968, but portions of it had appeared as novellas in the pages of Analog the previous year. The version my library had was a hardcover edition with cover art by Michael Whelan, but I liked the original paperback cover so much that I included it in this post instead. That said, what I most remember about Dragonflight is the reaction I had to reading its introduction, which begins as follows:

When is a legend a legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category "Fairy-tale?" And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?

Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star. It had five planets, and one stray it had attracted and held in recent millennia. Its third planet was enveloped by air man could breathe, boasted water he could drink, and possessed a gravity that permitted man to walk confidently erect. Men discovered it and promptly colonized it. They did that to every habitable planet, and then – whether callously or through collapse of empire, the colonists never discovered and eventually forgot to ask – left the colonies to fend for themselves.

When I read this, I was, if not exactly dumbfounded, I was at least surprised. There was a dragon the cover, wasn't there? The book was called Dragonflight, after all, and part of a larger series that had come to be known as "the Dragonriders of Pern." What was going on?

I've mentioned in other contexts that, at this time in my life, I often disliked fantasy that included science fiction elements and vice versa. In the years since, my stance on the matter has changed considerably, but, when I first read McCaffrey's introduction, I wasn't sure what to think about it. My confusion was amplified once I started to read the novel, which, on the face of it, very much seems like a fantasy novel. Nowadays, I'd call it a "secret sci-fi" novel – one where the characters don't realize the science fictional underpinnings of the world they inhabit.

Dragonflight tells the tale of Lessa, the daughter of the rulers of Ruatha Hold, whose parents were killed in a coup led by a usurper called Fax. Lessa had escaped death after experiencing a premonition of danger and now lives as a menial laborer, plotting the downfall of the man who slew her family. Meanwhile, F'lar, a dragonrider, travels to the court of Fax at High Reaches Hold, seeking a woman who could "impress" – mentally bond – with the soon-to-be-born queen dragon. Without such a "weyrwoman," the queen will die and, with her, the dragons themselves. 

This is a terrible fate, because dragonriders, we learn, exist to fight against the Thread, an alien enemy that descends from the sky every couple of centuries to bedevil the inhabitants of Pern. Fax, however, does not believe the Thread will return and thus he sees little cause for concern when F'lar discovers that there's no woman in High Reaches Hold. F'lar then wonders if perhaps he might have more success if he were to travel to Ruatha Hold, whose inhabitants were once reputed to have had families with "Weyr blood." Unsurprisingly, the former ruling family of the hold, believed to be extinct, had such blood. Believed to be extinct, since Lessa still lives …

My brief synopsis, I hope, isn't unfair to the overall story of Dragonflight, because I certainly don't mean it to be. Rather, my intention is simply to highlight the ways in which its plot resembles many of the elements common to fantasy literature: a usurper, the last survivor of a royal family living in obscurity, the imminent arrival of an ancient enemy, ancestral powers, and of course dragons. In its form and presentation, Dragonflight is largely indistinguishable from many of the stories I write about in this series. Again, that's not a criticism, merely an observation and one I bring up because of the way that "fantasy" and "science fiction" are so often set at odds with one another. 

In any case, I enjoyed Dragonflight at the time, though I never read any further books in the Pern series, though I occasionally considered doing so. If any readers have any thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.


  1. The second and third novels are worth the time, I think.

  2. I never encountered these books in my childhood as a voracious reader of fantasy and sci-fi, but acquired the first trilogy recently at a used bookstore. The bits about the usurper are more or less finished in the first part of the first book, and after that it's all about Lessa and the other dragonriders making discoveries about the dragons, their world, and their forgotten history, plus dealing with a lot of intrigue. Definitely it starts with an emphasis on fantasy, but as it progresses it becomes more sci-fi. I enjoyed the trilogy, but not enough to read the pile of subsequent books.

    (I've been lurking as a reader for a few months, and I love what you do here. Keep it up!)

  3. I didn’t first read Dragonflight till 2011 (though I read many of McCaffrey’s short stories in middle school…back in the mid-80s). Dragonflight is a fantastic read, and great fantasy…however, it’s a fairly poor inspiration for a D&D game, other than a relatively awesome PA-style setting.

    Elements of the world, however, are well worth stealing.

    I haven’t read the later books of the trilogy, only because I haven’t found them (or spent the time to search them down on the internet). But the first one is well worth the read. It’s lighter (and more “fun”) than Bradley’s Darkover novels, though it shares similar fictional elements (stranded Terran colonists, developed psychic powers, hostile planetary environment, elaborate social structures, etc.).

  4. I read the original trilogy, and liked it enough to read the next trilogy the Harper Hall series. But, at some point I realized I was being tricked, they were really YA romance novels. Something my younger self considered to be "for girls".

    The White Dragon was my favorite, but I haven't read them since I was a teen so I have no idea if they hold up.

  5. I think Pern is a subgenre of its own, and something of an acquired taste.
    I typically prefer fantasy and SF that is a little more action intensive, while Pern books are more centered on characters and relationships.
    I liked the original trilogy,
    and liked it even more after reading "Renegades of Pern" and "All the weyrs of Pern" (especially the second, no spoilers but, oh my!)
    Pern is not only "secret sci-fi", but its own brand of sci-fi.
    I had a harder time with the Harpers' books, which I think I never managed to read in the complete.
    So, while I never read the 20+ books complete opus, I think the original 3 plus "Renegades" & "All the weyrs of Pern" makea for a very interesting read.

  6. " My tastes have hardened and it's rare that I'm willing to give something new a try – and rarer still when I enjoy something new. "

    This. I only have a few years left, I figure, and I am not going to waste it reading stuff I can tell I am not going to enjoy. it should not be work to read a book for pleasure.

  7. I've read many of the Pern books and some of them have aged better than others. there's some sexual aspects that wouldn't play very well today (borderline rape?) but it's a really interesting world and society that McCaffrey has created. The White Dragon feels a bit disconnected from Dragonflight/Dragonquest, almost more of a standalone book.

    The Harper Hall books are a bit more YA, but are enjoyable reads for anyone who likes a good coming-of-age story, IMHO, and have actually aged a bit better over all. I'm still very fond of the middle book (Dragonsinger), though some people may find Menolly a bit too good.

    The remaining books are a bit hit or miss: Dragondawn really brings in more of the sci-fi aspects and I like a lot. Some of the later books are less interesting and keep too many of the early characters in play for too long.

    I do find Pern's dragons themselves to be an interesting and enjoyable depiction.

  8. I love this series though I haven't read the more recent ones by (or co-written by) her son.

    Another "secret sci-fi" series I love is Merovingen Nights by C.J. Cherryh. It would appear to be a non-magic pre-modern fantasy novel, but it's set in her big SF universe.

  9. I always felt Dragonflight had taken a certain amount of inspiration from Jack Vance's Dragon Masters, also well worth a read and adapted in an article in White Dwarf

  10. I enjoyed the first book and here and there read some more from Pern. I remember thinking that it wasn't really my thing, but I could clearly see why it had such a strong and devoted fan base. I've been thinking of giving it another look, but my reading list is so long and I have been eschewing long series.

    I've been wondering if Pern still looms large in the world of fandom. I know other mainstays from the 70's through the 90's have faded, as is the nature of such things.

  11. I remember really liking the first couple, and them trailing off from there. I wouldn’t be against picking the rest up again, if comments on the latter books were more encouraging here.