Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

moretaMoreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1983)
Review by Megan AM

As a kid who devoured Nancy Drew and Baby-sitters Club novels, then Kurt Vonnegut and Marion Zimmer Bradley as a teen, I can’t quite place where Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would go on the recommended reads for child development chart. Its style and content seem ideal for the ages 3 to 7 crowd, yet there are some sexy moments that seem a little too sophisticated for young kiddos. But I’m not sure an older child or young teen would buy the whole space-dragon on a medieval future world premise. I know I wouldn’t have.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is the prequel to McCaffrey’s extensive Dragonrider series, which serves to explain the legendary tale of the famous dragonrider, Moreta, who is often referenced in the earlier-published, but later-occurring novels. Moreta is a dragonrider/dragonhealer/weyrleader who lived 1000 years prior to the events of the first published Pern novel. Little is known about her because the Pernese suck at recording history (they do this on purpose, sometimes), but her adventures and tragedies are immortalized in song and poetry. Basically, it’s a story about a story from the story.

So what do you do when your people settle a planet and abandon all mechanized technology, only to discover your new planet is bombarded by sizzling thread every 100 turns? You genetically-engineer dragons to combat the thread, and (quietly) discover time travel via said dragons. Obviously. And everything works out perfectly until… FLU PANDEMIC!

Moreta and her golden queen dragon, Orlith, are eagerly awaiting the end of the current thread cycle, eight years away. Both are in the prime of their lives and their careers, important to their weyr community and throughout Pern. They go to a gathering at Ruatha Hold, and Moreta enjoys racing and dancing with the hot Lord Holder Alessan. But when a runner and a rider fall mysteriously ill, Pern is faced with a problem that dragonriding can’t solve. Moreta is swept into the crisis as her Weyrleader Sh’gall and Masterhealer Capiam become bedridden, and many of Pern’s holds are wiped out by the virus. Moreta must use her skills as a rider, a dragonhealer, and a leader to stop the crisis… all while Orlith is pregnant with Pern’s most important clutch of eggs!

Although Pern is praised for its undercurrents of feminism, the first two novels in the series didn’t meet my expectations, mostly due to Pern’s paternal feudal society led by grumbling male Weyrleaders and Lord Holders, a vain female side character, and only one standout female lead who breaks all the rules, yet remains the exception. By Moreta, seven books into the series, that feminism is well-established, giving the Weyrwoman unquestioned authority and independence, including freedom of sexual relations without implications, even within a Weyr partnership in which her dragon chooses a mate whose rider does not appeal to Moreta. Her relaxed attitude toward relationships demonstrates an overt criticism of the possessive nature of romance in our society.

McCaffrey’s version of motherhood is also rather progressive, even by today’s standards. Moreta has had an unaccounted for number of children with several different men, all of whom are fostered to other weyrs and holds, yet she is neither viewed as a slut, nor as a neglectful mother. It can be assumed based on an interaction with one of her children that the relationships between Moreta and her fostered children are warm and loving, with no bitterness about the situation. The Pernese idea of child-rearing is almost more like the crèche style exhibited in other SF novels, where the community raises the children, allowing parents more time and energy to devote to their skills and personal development. In Pern, however, this option seems to be only available to the very important dragonladies – elitist in nature, but very unique, especially in a society that seems backward in so many other ways (feudalism, atavism, etc.)

Despite Moreta’s inhuman feats of dragonriding, followed by dragonhealing, followed by time-jumping to collect the ingredients for a vaccine, followed by more time-jumping to vaccinate the entire planet within the incubation window, the story feels rather insubstantial. Considering the impact of a major pandemic, the emotionality of so many deaths is not conveyed well. After all, it is a children’s book, and the pacing matches a child’s imagination and comprehension. Even fans of the series complain of the book’s lackluster plot, seemingly wedged into the series when McCaffrey ran out of fresh ideas but publishing pressures forced her to mine her own work. I was bored, to the point where I desperately hoped someone important would die – I often do this – forgetting that this is a story about a legend.

Legends always have a tragic end. And THAT’S when this book gets good!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey

dragonquestDragonquest, Anne McCaffrey (1971)
Review by Megan AM

How can two consecutive books from the same series be so vastly different? Despite the fact that Dragonflight and Dragonquest share weak writing, clunky dialogue, plot holes, the former is considerably more enjoyable than the latter. Dragonflight is an interesting story, with some writing mistakes. Dragonquest is just a boring story, written poorly.

F’lar, the weyrleader of the dragonriders of Pern, is facing unrest among his people. Although the fight against the Thread phenomena has resumed after four hundred years, the Pernese are far from cohesive. The traditional old-timers resist progress, and the grouchy lord holders bristle at any dragonrider authority. F’lar must unify these groups in order to maintain his position as weyrleader and protect his planet. At the same time, F’lar is also entertaining the possibilities of dragon travel into outer space.

The pleasurability of the first novel, Dragonflight, is partly due to its tight structure as combined novellas. In Dragonquest, McCaffrey has more space to amble and dally, and we see that loss of structure in pointless dialogue and dropped plot threads. In Dragonquest, there is a lot of standing around and talking. We experience boring meetings, in which people argue, and perspectives change jarringly, in order to inform the reader of each characters’ motivations. In some cases, characters abandon their argument a few chapters later, with no explanation. There is no action or context to develop or explain conflict. The reader is simply told through expository dialogue or subtextual narration. It’s poor storytelling at its worst.

One of two things happened here: Either the success of the Pern novellas spawned the need for a sequel so rapidly that McCaffrey had little chance for the fleshing out and editing of a good story, or McCaffrey is a weak writer who just got lucky on her first Pern novellas.

Aside from the amateurish writing style, the focus on dialogue as a plot-moving device is downright boring. Writers: I attend enough boring faculty meetings at work, so please don’t make me read about them in your stories. (Only Susanna Clarke can get away with that, and that’s just because she’s perfect and writes boring so well, and with such purpose, in that tongue-in-cheek, British fashion of hers.) It’s also irritating that the dragons know everything, yet share so little without prompting, but no one invites them to these big important meetings. It seems to me that the lead bronze, Mnemorth, should be running the meetings.

Also, the strong, rebellious character of Lessa, who drove the action of the first novel, withers into a shadow of herself in this novel. She devolves into a boring housewife with little to contribute, while the rest of the characters lose the few dimensions afforded them from the first novel. The mean and grumpy lord holders behave like sniveling children, and F’lar and F’nor fumble around as bullies and elitists. To top it off, we see the introduction of fire lizards as pets, a plot thread that had promise of a good conflict, but fizzled like a Thread sprayed by agenothree. The fire lizards are essentially the Ewoks of Pern – cute, but unnecessary, but maybe that will change in later Pern stories.

Dragonquest touched upon some promising themes: tradition vs. progress, arrogance vs. honor, dragons vs. fire lizards, but none of these themes were elaborated in any satisfying way. The emphasis on petty dialogue made me feel as if I skipped the page with the action that caused the arguments. In some ways, Dragonquest feels like it was produced as a response to critics of the first novel. We see more attempts at scientific explanations and a meek effort to plug up previous plot holes (“If dragons can jump space and time, why not destroy the Thread at its source? Because oxygen!”) In other ways, Dragonquest feels like it might be a bridge novel paving the way for a later, and hopefully better, story. Despite my dissatisfaction with this book, I have hope that the next book will be better.

My advice to potential readers of the Dragonriders of Pern series: read Dragonflight, but skip Dragonquest.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

DragonflightDragonflight, Anne McCaffrey (1968)
Review by Megan AM

It’s about humans who leave Earth for a new planet, shun existing technology, adopt feudalism, breed lizards into genetically enhanced dragons, and even figure out teleportation and time-travel (by way of the fire-belching dragons).

And beat their women.

Unfortunately, I read these books out of order. I tend to do this a lot, normally by accident. Other times, I think I can get away with reading the meat of the series, without the appetizer. In this case, I really thought that Dragonflight, born of McCaffrey’s Hugo Award winning novellas, was an appetizer and would be absorbed into the follow-up novel Dragonquest. I was correct in my assumption, sort of, but it was bland and unsatisfying, so I went back and read the first novel, and I’m so glad I did. Dragonflight is time-jumps more enjoyable than its sequel, the 1972 Hugo Award Best Novel nominee, Dragonquest.

Dragonflight is a combination of the 1968 Hugo Award winning novella ‘Weyr Search’ and the 1969 Hugo Award nominated novella ‘Dragonrider’. In the far distant future, humans leave Earth for a new planet called Pern. They adopt an agrarian, feudal society and, after many passing centuries, all advanced technology is completely forgotten. (Where are the science rebels? Surely some surly teen, angry at his/her old-fashioned parents, might dig up an old spaceship artifact and start asking questions. Or uncover steam technology or penicillin, something…) Shortly after settlement, the strange phenomena of Thread, silver strands that fall from the erratically orbiting Red Star (a planet, not a star, dammit) pummel the land and destroy all organic material. For defense against the Thread, the Pernese decide to breed dragons from lizards, to whom they feed firestone, which gives the dragons indigestion and makes them belch fire, which burns the harmful Threads.

Dragonflight is about Lessa, a young woman who is discovered on a weyr search (sort of like American Idol for dragon riders, but with possible bodily injury). We learn that she can communicate with all dragons and related animals, and can even psychically manipulate humans into doing her bidding. (Why not just use this power to make the evil overlord kill himself and get her kingdom back?) She impresses the newborn queen dragon, Ramoth, and her spunk and sass bemuse the macho dragonriders. While she is settling in at her new home with the dragonriders, the first Thread attacks in four hundred years become a looming threat, but forgotten knowledge and a dwindling dragon population cause the dragonriders to scramble for ideas to defend their planet. Oh, and there’s time-travel!*

I poke fun at this story, but it was an enjoyable read. Lessa is a fun character, and her antics distracted me from the constantly occurring writing mistakes. This novel is flooded with clunky dialogue, jarring perspective changes within chapters, misused words (bemused, ahem), and an overuse of adverbs. McCaffrey often ruins the flow of dialogue by interrupting sentences in awkward places to give directional cues. But, the concept is intriguing, the action is strong, and the plot moves smoothly enough. The characters were likable, albeit the supporting cast was a little 2-dimensional, but I liked Lessa enough to overlook it.

However, I did take issues with a few things. Sensitive readers need to beware of the archaic male/female relationship behaviors, which I attribute to the feudal structure of Pern. In Dragonflight, we see domestic violence, references to forced sex, and sexual double standards. There is, however, a strong feminist element in Lessa’s character that I hope will result in some progressive changes throughout the series. (Unfortunately, the second novel, Dragonquest, seems to take a few steps back in this regard.)

I was also bothered by the mobster-like tactics among the dragonriders in their demand for tithes, while they contributed nothing to society. They stood by while Fax ransacked Lessa’s home of Ruatha and murdered her entire family. I couldn’t blame the lords for balking at the tithe requirement, when there had not been Thread to fight for over four hundred years. In fact, I most identified with the lords who lacked the blind faith to believe in the absent threat of space spores. Four hundred years is a long time to financially support a gang of dragon dudes who do nothing but warn of a vague, impending apocalypse. Couldn’t the dragonriders implement some sort of security task force, or offer labor services during the non-Thread years? Hell, my lawn guys are off-call firefighters.

But my main issue with the whole story: I just don’t buy the concept of a society that successfully purges itself of technology and scientific knowledge. Science is too resilient, and no society is impervious to the birth of willful scientists. Some curious, rebellious mind is going to be born and turn the world upside down. I hope this is addressed somewhere in the sprawling Pern series. It would make some for interesting, and necessary, conflict.

Regardless of these major problems with the story, Dragonflight is a pleasurable read, with its interesting take on dragon lore, and a fun main character. And it is much better than its successor, Dragonquest. I’m actually sorry that it’s over, and I look forward to reading more about the Pern world.

*Interesting tidbit: The time-travel element was actually a suggestion by the editor, and not part of McCaffrey’s original idea. In 1967, it was probably brilliant, but it might seem a bit hackneyed to modern readers. Still, it helped to give the story a neat and tidy ending, with a few WTF twists, which sort of reminded me of the TV series Lost. (And, considering the poor writing style, I’m shocked an editor was involved at all. Apparently, all he cared about was the time-travel.)

This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon.

The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

80531-masterharper.coverThe Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1998)
Review by Adam Roberts

A series that multiplied with tribble-like pertinacity, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (1968-present) is a planetary romance in which certain special individuals (like you, trufan! and me!) have a telepathic bond with a breed of marvellous magical gigantic purring cats, sorry, fire-breathing dragons. Together, trufan and dracono-moggy defend the world of Pern against nasty ‘threads’ which periodically (the period being 50 years) rain down out of the sky from a nearby ‘red star’, threatening to devour all Pernian life. The initial idea, according to McCaffrey’s son, was for a ‘technologically regressed survival planet’ whose inhabitants are united against a external threat in a way that wasn’t true of America during the Vietnam War. ‘The dragons became the biologically renewable air force, and their riders “the few” who, like the RAF pilots in World War Two, fought against incredible odds day in, day out—and won.’

As you can see from the cover, up there, this instalment in the series is ‘The Story of Pern’s Greatest Harpo’, Robinton by name. Like all great Harpos, Robinton plays the harp. He also plays the flute, the ‘gitar’ (an instrument exactly like a ‘guitar’ although, obviously, without the ‘u’) and lots of other instruments too. He is, the novel tells us over and over again, a musical genius. He is, in point of fact, Amadeus:

He began to make a copy of the sonata … he looked back over the score, to be sure he had annotated it properly. He paced back and forth, paused to pour himself a glass of wine, and then went back to the table and proceeded to copy out his Kasia songs. He finished those, drinking as he worked, and rolled up the music with a neat ribbon tying the packet. He had a final glass of wine, realizing dawn was not far away. (p 260)

You may be thinking: this doesn’t sound much like the Tolkien-plus-a-few-ancient-technological-artefacts worldbuilding idiom familiar from other Pern novels. And you would be right so to think. Robinton is sometimes presented as in effect a scop, scald or rhapsode, going from castle to castle, hall to hall, literally singing for his supper. But when it suits the novel’s fancy he is a eighteenth-century genius composer, writing staves fluently upon an endless supply of animal hides, composing melodies that make people weep instantly. We have to take this latter much-repeated fact on trust, since no actual music is included. I assume Robinton composes in D-minor which is, as is well known, the saddest of all keys. His musical ability also gives him a special bond with the giant telepathic feline dragons, because everything that happens in these novels must relate to the dragons, because, you know. Duh. What else are the novels for?

The Masterharper of Pern tells Robinton’s life story from his birth; his distant, disapproving father; his music training; his falling in love with beautiful green-eyed Kasia; their marriage; a disastrous boat trip after which Kasia catches a chill of which she subsequently dies. Robinton is made sad by this, although he’s soon engaging in no-strings-attached shagging with slinky Silvana. Then, in an odd move, he has a brain-damaged son with Silvana. Then things heat up, fight-wise, as we near the end. Most of the fixtures and fittings are castles, potions, bejewelled daggers, swords, bows, arrows and the like; although McCaffrey also says things like “the main Hall had excellent acoustics” (p 353), which isn’t the sort of line you tend to find in Chaucer; and her characters wear “heavy woollen socks” (p 276), items of clothing which aren’t anachronistic yet somehow sound as if they should be. Plus her people are forever drinking cups of tea coffee, here called “klah”. Sometimes on its own. Sometimes with Canderel (“”You are related to MasterSinger Merelan?” Silvina asked as she poured klah and passed around the sweetener”, p 335)

The novel itself is 400-pages of meh, lifted a little from time to time by a few less-feeble-than-the-rest set-pieces (Robinton and Kasia in the boat on the storm isn’t bad; and some of the fighting near the end is readable). Mostly the problem is one of style. From time to time, McCaffrey remembers that she’s writing a cod-medieval dragon-packed planetary adventure and wrenches her style into inelegances of the “many of the capping slabs were athwart the expanse” (p 294) or “he asked for conveyance a-dragonback” (p 336) kind. But the bulk of the novel is written in a could-not-be-blander grey contemporary prose, stitched together almost entirely out of cliché. Cliché is everything in this novel: the characters, the settings, the events, nothing is here to make you see things freshly or to startle you out of your comfortable familiarity. Hardly a page goes by when the author does not fall back, consciously or otherwise, on an inert, clogging, conventionalised phrase. This character finds himself “between a rock and a hard place” (p 51); that other has “a vice-like grip” (p 91). If there is a silence it must be “a stunned silence” (p 109), or indeed “an awful, stunned silence” (p 345). Characters “rue the day” (p 172), “stifle a laugh” (p 195), promise to “show him the error of his ways” (p 222). Men have “rugged good looks” (p 231) and everybody “cocks their head” at things. Actually, people in this novel are forever cocking their heads (“he cocked his head at Robinton, a sly grin on his rugged, weathered face”, p 236; “cocking her head”, p 256; “Nip cocked his head”, p 357; “Tick cocked his head hopefully”, p 375). Rather than leave, people “steal away” (p 272); storms have exactly the properties you would expect them to have (“in the teeth of the gale … driving rain” p 273); coughs are ‘hacking coughs’ [304] and people “refuse to dignify that question with an answer” (p 287). Martin Amis once declared that the primary business of a writer was to wage war on cliché. Stylistically speaking, McCaffrey evidently preferred, as far as that went, to give peace a chance. A slack, underwhelming novel.