Anne McCaffrey: popular, prolific, Nebula Grand Master, all told a very successful career. For me, McCaffrey represents both everything that is right about science fiction and everything that is wrong. Consider the following list of attributes for her Pern series:
- Crazy mish-mash of ideas
- Melodramatic and addictive plots
- Tons of material
When I first started reading Pern (see comments below on Dragonflight, the very first volume in the series), these elements were all enormously attractive. Fire-breathing dragons that teleport and team up with humans to fight an interplanetary menace? Bizarre, but strangely compelling. The melodrama and constant friction between characters was also a source of near-hapless fascination, while I loved having volume after volume to read, following the florid storylines and science fiction developments with great avidity. The more books with such stuff in them the better!
But those same elements are also entirely susceptible to backlash. How? Mostly with a lack of fresh material. Anything, even the fabulous fictional ecosystem of dragons and Thread and feuding personalities, can begin to pall after enough repetition. Item number three in my list, the lavish application of sequels, is a fine line—it can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Me . . . my tolerance for such things used to be much higher. McCaffrey clearly has fans who enjoy all the latest waves of Pern material, even though opinion seems to be more split over it than the generally favorable reception for her earlier work. If I stop and think about it a bit, this kind of a career move makes perfect sense: follow up original success with similar books? Of course! But I'm not the same completist that I once was, so my view of that fine line has changed significantly.
Last year I also wrote about revisiting the books that marked my reading development as a child, and the works of Anne McCaffrey were a key part of that process. I spent the better part of the year since listening to various books by McCaffrey in audiobook format while walking to and from work every day. I must say, I'm done now! I admit to some curiosity about the new Pern books but not an overwhelming amount. Nostalgia was a good reason to revisit the books, but I'm happy to move on.
In this report on months and months of a daily auditory dose of McCaffrey, I'll take a look at the Pern series first of all, and then examine some other, less famous series that I nonetheless had some fond memories of from the old days. Lots of spoilers!
Dragonflight is the book that kickstarted McCaffrey's career, and generated hundreds of thousands of words of sequels. I loved the experience of reading the book back then, and it definitely held up for me when I came back to it. It has all the aforementioned mish-mash, idea-wise, and it has plenty of melodrama in the foreground.
Lessa is the heir of Ruatha, and, done out of her inheritance by the evil Fax, she sees the arrival of the dragonmen as the opportunity to get her revenge. Little does she know that the dragonriders hold a much different fate for her than the return of her land and title. She will be the rider of a queen dragon and go on an even stranger journey once she discovers the secret powers that accompany the dragon's teleportation abilities.
What stands out for me about Dragonflight: the twists and turns along the way. In the absence of 40 years of expectations of what the Pern series means, it's a shocking read. Is it a feudal setting? Sure. Is it science fiction? Pretty clearly, all the way back at the beginning. There's not really much like it.
This sequel picks up seven years after Dragonflight. It's a neat continuation of the story and it immediately establishes its own logic: Lessa, famous throughout Pern for her heroic actions at the end of the previous book, could not have imagined the consequences of those actions. The so-called Oldtimers, dragonriders from another time, are having an enormous amount of trouble settling into new ways. McCaffrey seems to love this kind of sociological conflict, and she always shows how difficult any kind of reconciliation might be. The heroes never get to wave a magic wand and force the antagonists to play nice—especially since the conflict is usually embedded deeply in some kind of cultural dichotomy.
Dragonquest also has a particularly vivid sequence where one of the secondary dragonriders, a man with a thoroughly medieval view of astronomy and interplanetary conditions, takes his dragon on a teleportation-based trip to the source of the evil Thread, the so-called Red Planet. He survives, but it's a close call.
Harper Hall Trilogy: Dragonsong (1976), Dragonsinger (1977), Dragondrums (1979)
Weaving in and out of the main story, this trilogy takes the focus away from the charismatic dragonriders and moves it to the harpers of Pern. This guild is something like a band of teachers, entertainers, and secret ruling cabal of spies all rolled into one. The Masterharper of Pern, Robinton, was a breakout secondary character in the first two books; now we get a peek into the world of his profession.
Dragonsong is the story of Menolly, a girl who grows up in an isolated fishing hold. The entire book is an exercise in frustration, since she's an excellent harper but she is forced to follow the fishing tradition. At one point, her mother even deliberately heals Menolly's wounded hand in such a way that she will not be able to harp again. So we go along with the story, aching to see Menolly's ambition redeemed in some way. And it's through what looks like a side trip in the narration that the overall Pern storyline gets a big nudge forward: Menolly runs away from home, and she discovers a previously untamed lifeform, the fire lizard, a kind of miniature dragon. Menolly gets her recognition, and much more, in an ending that, unfortunately, takes most of its emotional punch from a recreation of the climactic events of Dragonquest.
Dragonsinger is the second book about Menolly, and the larger events of the book again fall in the shadow of Dragonquest. She now lives in the Harper Hall—and the entire book is taken up by a week at the Hall! It's essentially a boarding school novel, complete with a clique of bullies and a pint-sized friend who rebels against the system. Menolly's troubles were definitely not over when she was finally accepted as a harper apprentice.
Dragondrums picks up the tale of Menolly's first harper friend, a boy named Piemur. He was a singer until his voice broke, and he was forced to take up the harper's drumming specialization of the title. He's good at signalling with the drums, but his quick mind soon gets him into more trouble than any of his superiors ever thought possible. Piemur's story ties into some events from The White Dragon (see next entry), but it's mainly about him growing up, proving how awesome and righteous he really is despite all of the opposition by family or peers, just like happened to Menolly twice in a row. The Harper Hall trilogy definitely wore out its rite-of-passage formula by this point.
One regrettable side effect of this side trilogy: the subsequent books sprawled out to an unmanageable degree, since McCaffrey used these "beloved" characters in almost every story that followed.
The White Dragon (1978)
Things are starting to get complicated! This is a fat novel, and it follows a ton of characters. Everyone from the first two dragonrider books and all three of the harper books has at least some part to play. Thankfully, The White Dragon has a specific main character, Jaxom, the young nobleman, and he is accompanied on various adventures by his unusual albino dragon. Jaxom is generally sympathetic as a person but he's not necessarily very intriguing; the non-sparkling nature of his character is compensated for by a series of interesting things that happen to him.
In the first half of the book, Jaxom helps in the fight against the Oldtimers in an unusual way; I was a bit flummoxed to see this storyline largely resolved and the book essentially switching to a different main narrative. The second half of the book follows Jaxom in the exploration of the southern continent, specifically the area of Pern where the original colonists of the planet landed their ships many centuries before. A big discovery closes out the book; we'll get more details of that later on.
The White Dragon would be the last "main sequence" Pern novel for quite a few years.
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983)
Pern #7! Not many writers can put together two or three sequels, but McCaffrey managed to keep up the pace for six books. The young-adult-ish Harper Hall trilogy got repetitive, and The White Dragon sank dangerously low under its own weight—but all in all, still memorable material. Moreta is the first real drop-off in quality. Way back in Dragonflight, the characters threw in a few casual mentions of the legendary Moreta and the ballad of her famous, fatal ride: a plague was sweeping Pern and she drove herself and her dragon to the point of death to spread a new vaccine. So, in this book, a plague is sweeping Pern and the character of Moreta drives herself and what turns out to be the dragon of the former queen of her weyr to the point of death. No surprises. But weirdly, if you didn't know the end of the story as revealed way back in the first books, you might even miss what happens! The tragic moment is glossed over with scarcely a fanfare. A gloomy book, and a distinct low point in the series.
Another prequel! Again with a foreordained end! Thankfully, Dragonsdawn is a lot more interesting than Moreta. It's a giant retcon of sorts, as McCaffrey creates and massages the story of the colonization in such way as to lead directly into future of Pern as we know it from the other books. Some variety or unexpected moments would have been nice. All the same, Dragonsdawn fits together more smoothly than expected, and works better as a book than it has any right to. And it sets up some crucial points for All the Weyrs of Pern.
A group of colonists land on Pern and establish themselves. They've picked a perfect landing spot, but as we know from the events at the end of The White Dragon, they were chased away from this original spot by a giant volcano. On top of that, they are completely unprepared for the arrival of that interplanetary menace, Thread. Well, not completely, since they've already befriended the tiny fire lizards, who seem to know something about it (thus answering the puzzle of how anyone could have survived first Threadfall without foreknowledge).
I had the strongest feeling while listening to Dragonsdawn that it was the book version of a video game. You're the one in charge and you have to land on an alien planet, face new challenges with limited resources, manage the time and activity of your heroic scientist characters, etc. The whole process of genetically engineering the dragons could be a mini-game, and then when they are ready, you've unlocked the portion of the game where you can fly the not-so-friendly skies yourself. Or is that just my imagination?
The Renegades of Pern (1989)
This one is a waste of time! I was about halfway through the book before I remembered that, yes, I had actually read it, and the only clue was that the description of the wandering folk (the renegades of the title) brought the Michael Whelan cover to mind! The Renegades of Pern is a mish-mash, but not in a good way: the story crosses years confusingly, the character focus switches willy-nilly, and then it ends. The book is essentially a bridge to the next volume, since our heroes—Jaxom and co. (who show up in the storyline much later)—make a discovery in the final pages that leads directly to the next sequel.
All the Weyrs of Pern (1991)
After a dozen years, we finally get some action on the main storyline, notwithstanding the hodge-podge in the previous book. All the energies of the people of Pern are focused on one thing: the artificial intelligence known as AIVAS, the same one that helped the colonists in Dragonsdawn and was rediscovered at the end of Renegades, has a plan to destroy Thread forever. That's always been an impossible dream, but AIVAS can teach Pernese society the ways of industry and science, a kind of Lest Darkness Fall for the dragonrider set. There's not a whole lot to this story, since AIVAS comes up with a lesson, the people learn it, and then it all comes to fruition. The book does have a surprisingly emotional ending, though, probably the most moving scene of the series for me.
I admire McCaffrey for her willingness to destroy the basis for the series! With Thread out of the picture, one of the distinguishing marks of the Pern books, a reliable way of generating conflict and tension, is gone. Unfortunately, this moment of bravery did not prevent McCaffrey from returning to this fictional world again and again. One book, The Dolphins of Pern, happens concurrently with All the Weyrs, and only one book comes after, The Skies of Pern. I'm curious to try these two novels, since the old template for the books is wiped out, but otherwise I'm quite happy to leave All the Weyrs of Pern as the capping achievement of the series. All of the subsequent Pern books—many of the later ones written with her son, Todd McCaffrey—take place in earlier points in the chronology and McCaffrey was already hit-or-miss with her prequels.
So I came to the end of my venture to Pern, but there were a few other McCaffrey books that I remembered from the old days and that I managed to track down in audiobook format. These were all short and most of them were quite fun.
Decision at Doona (1969)
This is classic B-list stuff—it's a short novel about first contact, with a few crowded-Earth-back-home tropes and a rebellious kid as a link between species. In a way, I prefer this kind of unpretentious adventure story, no matter its simple nature, compared to yet another Pern entry. And while I had forgotten almost everything about the story (I probably hadn't read the book in twenty years), little details came rushing back and reminded me of the pleasure I once had in this book. The Darrell K. Sweet cover upset my family, which was an added bonus when you're 11 years old.
Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984)
I bought Dinosaur Planet Survivors when I was a kid at a school book fair. It was mind-blowing stuff back then, especially since it's the direct continuation of a storyline that's started in the previous book and McCaffrey doesn't do a lot to ease the reader along! Oddly, I wish I had done it the same way this time around too, since Dinosaur Planet, the original, has a really rough opening. Say what you like about McCaffrey, but she usually has a smooth storyline (The Renegades of Pern to the contrary) and likable characters that grab your attention from the start. Not so with Dinosaur Planet. The second book is definitely the more entertaining of the two.
Crystal Singer (1982) and Killashandra (1986)
It's probably the Michael Whelan covers that I remembered most about these books! Killashandra features on the cover of both (see the Whelan covers here, among many), and both are very dramatic! The two books themselves are not that great, and I'll probably forget them just as fast this time around as I did back then. But they are certainly competent stories with an adventure flavour and they don't overstay their welcome.
I also like the way that McCaffrey, an old-school science fiction writer, throws in one or two unexplained sociological wrinkles in each book. For Decision at Doona, the characters had to overcome some psychological consequences from growing up in a crowded society. The leaders of the expedition in the Dinosaur Planet books have something called "discipline" which is a cross between martial arts and some kind of advanced biofeedback. And for the Crystal Singer series, it's "Privacy," the sense that the personal space around each character is an absolute, only broken as the greatest taboo. Admittedly, these are all small things, but McCaffrey embellishes some relatively simple plots with nifty little flourishes like these. Good stuff.
Since wrapping up McCaffrey, I've loaded up my iPod with some Orson Scott Card. That's already been an eye-opening experience: Ender's Game is much more of a full book, contrary to my recollection of it as somewhat of a toy narrative, while Speaker of the Dead has a pretty severe case of the too-perfect hero. Interesting stuff.
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