Epic Bookshot #3: The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy
I can't remember how old I was when I first read these books, but I remember that my parents had an omnibus version of all three books that I think between my sisters and I (mostly me, though) read until it about fell apart- which I think it did at some point. But what I do know is that these books were the first sci-fi/fantasy books that I think I read on my own. My parents read us The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings* and, weirdly, The Hunt for Red October- but Pern was something I got swept away by all by myself.
That first line of Dragonflight, "Lessa woke cold" was probably the first book that taught me the power of the first line of any book. To me- in my personal canon- that line probably ranks right up there next to "Call me Ishmael" and "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." (I know that's really shooting the moon when compared to all the great first lines in literature out there in the world, but it's my personal canon and this is one that's always stuck in my head.)
It's really the escapism of it all that appealed to me as a kid. I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular in school and Pern was the perfect place to get away from it all. I dreamed of having a dragon of my own and flying through the air wherever we wanted too. I dreamed of having a partner like Lessa (to kid me, I was obviously the main hero F'lar. Obviously.) I didn't stop with these three books of course- I read every Pern book I could get my hands on and it still ranks as one of my favorite places to visit- even if I don't get back there as much as I did when I was a kid.
Re-reading these books as an adult combines the pleasure of returning to my old literary haunts with a new appreciation for the world building and maybe some of the more problematic shortfalls in McCaffery's writing- at least from the perspective of a reader looking at these books today. So, let's break down the original trilogy, shall we?
They're all great books. But if you want to start with Dragonflight, I think it's important to note that the first part of the book, 'Weyr Search' was the novella that won McCaffery the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella. (The second Pern story- 'Dragonrider' won the 1969 Nebula Award, which made McCaffery the first woman to win both awards.) So, if you're all about hitting the touchstones of science fiction, you've got to at least read Dragonflight. I love this book way too much to be able to find anything major to pick at- but I would say, when compared to the next two books in the trilogy, it feels way more like an origin story and can stand alone all by itself. Dragonquest and The White Dragon sort of feel more like sequels- though again, weirdly, I think The White Dragon could probably function fairly well as a stand alone novel.
If Dragonflight is your origin story, Dragonquest deepens the world and ups the conflict a bit- as all good sequels probably should (and usually do.) I think I like the explorations of culture clash, as Pern has to come to grips with the dragonriders from the past who are having plenty of trouble acclimating to four hundred years worth of changes in the planet. The tensions between the three main prongs of Pernese society are explored and the tension ratchets up to and an explosive climax ensues.
The White Dragon rounds out the trilogy and it might be- well, shit. I can't claim it as my favorite, because all of them are really my favorites. But there's something unique about this one- and it was actually McCaffery's first entry onto the best seller list. The story of Jaxom, who is introduced as a baby in Dragonflight and impresses/bonds with a unique white dragon, Ruth in Dragonquest- he finally moves to center stage for this book and it's an amazing turn. Not a new character, but a minor character we've already met. I love that. It's so organic. It's so natural and it works really really well.
So, does McCaffery seem 'problematic' by today's standards? I hadn't actually heard a lot of mention or critiques of her out in the world, as it were- but I did hear a random grumble on a podcast once about her female characters always seeming to need a man. In the context of another one of her series' that might be true- but I don't think it's necessarily true here. She doesn't feel dated. She doesn't feel problematic. (In contrast to say, Flannery O'Connor, because GOD DAMN does she use the n-word a lot.) It'd actually be interesting to find more criticisms of her writing out there- but she doesn't feel controversial at all and a lot of her books- including these, feature strong female characters and it's not like there's a shortage of female characters anywhere to be found.
Look, if you're into science fiction/fantasy/dragons you've probably already read these books. But if you haven't- they're worth a read. Dragonflight feels more unique and probably the most fantasy-like of the three, but The White Dragon feels like a classic of blend of science fiction/fantasy that should land in a 'must read' list somewhere. These three books are always going to have a special place on my bookshelf because Pern is one of my favorite places I've ever explored. A touchstone of my youth, these three books started me on my way into Pern and a lot of other places beyond.