I’m sure I own a copy of this, and I definitely read it when I was a young fella, but, since rooting it out would be a hassle, I borrowed a copy from the library. It’s a first UK edition from 1969 with a truly horrendous cover: super dodgy gothic font, and an ugly yellow print of a dragon. It was published by Rapp and Whiting. A quick search tells me that they were responsible for publishing just about every major fantasy and sci-fi writer of the late 60s, but not what I’m really curious about. What happened to them? What publishing giant were they (presumably) swallowed up by?
The novel was a huge success for McCaffrey and was followed up by many more set in the same world. Pern is a planet colonised by people from Earth at some point in the future. Communication with other planets wanes and soon Pern regresses to a mediaeval state of affairs. So, a fantasy setting in a science fiction universe. Every couple of hundred years, a wandering red planet comes close enough to Pern for pern-icious (see what I did there) swarms of devouring spores (called threads) to travel from one to the other. To fight off these invaders, the Pernites take advantage of some local dragon-like wildlife (hereforth just “dragons”). They breed them to be larger, feed them phosphorous stones to enable them to breathe fire, and ride them into battle, burning the threads from the air before they get a chance to burrow into the earth. They also have the ability to teleport from one place to another. Because.
The book consists of four acts. In the first, a dragonrider searches for potential candidates to bond with a soon to be hatched gold (queen) dragon. This dragon will be responsible for spawning future generations of dragons, and her rider will have a place of power within the dragonrider community. F’lar (all male dragon riders abbreviate their names through the use of apostrophes), eventually finds Lessa staging a one-woman rebellion against the brutal lord who conquered her home a decade ago. After fixing things there, the two return to the dragon weyr. In the second act, Lessa successfully bonds with Ramoth (the newly-hatched gold dragon). She learns to fly and gets used to her responsibilities as weyr-mistress. She also falls in love with F’lar, who rides a bronze dragon. Bronzes are the alpha male dragons (lording it over browns, blues, and greens) who mate with the gold. In a slightly weird turn of events, when dragons mate the empathic bond between rider and dragon generates an uncontrollable need to fuck each other in the riders too. This seems like something that could be very awkward if the riders weren’t in to each other.
At the last conjunction of planets, 200 years ago, the distance had been too great for threads to appear. As a result, people are starting to suspect that threads are a myth and that tithing to support the dragonriders (who don’t grow their own food) might not be worthwhile. In the third act, F’lar does some nifty martial maneuverings to convince the unruly lords that it’s in their interests to continue sending supplies, and is proven correct when threads turn up right on schedule. The dragonriders, none of whom have actually had to fight the threads before, take a beating and realise that there simply aren’t enough of them to protect the planet. Around this time, Lessa realises that not only can dragons teleport from one place to another they can also travel through time. Again, because. In the fourth act, the dragon riders start to use these heretofore unknown time-travelling powers to successfully combat the threads.
Lessa is a pretty strong character (though a bit one-dimensionally feisty), but Dragonflight is hardly a paragon of feminist literature. F’lar, for example, has this to say about some women he encounters while searching for Lessa: “overworked, underfed, scarred by lash and disease, they were just what they were — drudges, fit only for hard menial labour”. Right on.
It’s a fantasy classic for a few reasons. It’s certainly got an easy to read and engaging plot, and I’m sure many of its ingredients were quite original at the time. I suspect it was a real breath of fresh-air, even if not a game changer, when it came out. It also has a few flaws, which are perhaps more obvious now than they would have been at the time. We’re used to richer psychological drama in our fantasy and science fiction books now, but the characters here are fairly flat, and things happen without their implications (social or otherwise) really being thought out. I guess there’s scope for this side of things to be explored further in Dragonflight‘s many sequels, but it felt a little odd here. And what is with those absurdly overpowered dragons?