Thursday, 2 February 2012

Revisiting Pern

It’s appropriate that, as the Year of the Dragon approached, I was re-reading Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey.  I have many fond memories of the dragons and the Planet of Pern and I know that I bought several of McCaffrey’s books through a science fiction book club that I belonged to back in the 80s.  The books are long gone at this point, turned loose to join other households during one of my periodic purges.  [BTW, my bookshelves have become overcrowded and another purge seems to be in the offing].
            McCaffrey is an engaging storyteller and I was magically returned to one of my favourite planets.  I still enjoy the series and I had forgotten enough of the details to make it fresh for me once again.  It was my “airplane reading” on my way out to Victoria to see my sister. 
            But, as with so many things in life, returning to Pern at age 50 has changed my viewpoint considerably.  I was struck by the youth of the protagonists:  twenty to twenty five years old.  I was probably in the same age bracket when I first picked up The White Dragon, which I believe was my introduction to McCaffrey’s writing.  No wonder I identified with it so strongly!  There has been 25 years of water under the bridge, and I now find it strange that McCaffrey would choose to make her star characters so young.  I’ve done a little bit of checking, and I believe that she was in her early 40s when she was writing these adventures.  Was this some longing for youth on her part?  [Personally, I would never willingly choose to be younger than 40 again.  Life is just so much more enjoyable and sane now than it ever was in my twenties].  To her credit, the characters do behave like twenty-somethings—plenty of drama, not great interpersonal communication and a certain contempt for older people [that is people of the age that McCaffrey was when she wrote the books!] 
            I know she had no access to contemporary research, but its interesting to me that neuroscience is revealing the plasticity and the major changes which happen in the adolescent and young adult brain.  During that phase of development, the brain is quite literally being remodelled, many neurons being pruned and many others being reinforced.  It’s a confusing time of life and not surprising that young people are confused about their role in the world, their romantic relationships and their political and social views.
            Perhaps McCaffrey believed the adage of the 60s, to not trust anyone over 30.  Perhaps she was trying to attract a younger audience [although that seems like a more contemporary worry—was that a concern in the 70s?]  Perhaps the characters’ shallowness is a reflection on her writing and not on the age bracket that she chose to assign to them.  This time around, I did find myself impatient with Lessa and F’lar’s communication or lack thereof.  The structure of the novel demands that they be a couple, but they pout, make assumptions and generally refuse to tell each other what they expect or need.  I guess I have reached the stage that Andy Rooney talked about—a woman over forty, who is “forthright and honest.  They tell you right off if you are a jerk or if you are acting like one.  You don’t ever have wonder where you stand with her.”  Now that I have reached this age and stage its frustrating to read about less-than-adult behaviour as if it was the norm.
            I do realize that their miscommunication does add to the suspense of the plot, that if they acted like reasonable adults, the romantic tension wouldn’t be nearly so effective.  So many television programs have discovered, to the writers’ chagrin, that bringing to two leads together romantically ends the show.  Sexual tension was what kept the show alive and a quick death follows the consummation of the relationship [think Who’s the Boss?, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Remington Steele, Cheers, etc.—sorry, I’m not watcher of current TV].   
            I also find it a bit offensive now to see people younger than me, i.e. R’gul the former Weyrleader, pushed out of the way and characterized as rigid and hidebound in McCaffrey’s plot.  I know that some of us do get that way, but aren’t more of us willing to think and to change?  Maybe this is my blind spot, but I think of how much I have changed in the last 15 years and I can’t help but wonder what led McCaffrey to make her older characters, the ones her own age, so unbending and oblivious.
            While researching McCaffrey, I found that she was trying to provide strong female characters, to combat what she saw as weak women in the science fiction of the day.  And I guess Lessa is strong, in her own way, but to me it looks more like intractable stubbornness and refusal to communicate.  I know I lived through the seventies, but I was in junior high and high school—I don’t remember a great deal about the relationship between the sexes or the nature of what was considered strength at the time.  Those issues really didn’t impinge on me much as a teenager.  Its been my observation as I’ve read the science fiction of the 60s and 70s, that women were more likely to be absent, rather than weak.  Or they were given roles that had potential to be authoritative, but those roles remained unexplored.  Token women mostly.  Were stubbornness and silence were considered strong, male traits?  Was it the era of The Strong Silent Type?  Trust me, I know a thing or two about being stubborn—I’m a professional at it.  And I hate to accept assistance and will persevere without requesting help for a long time.  Hmm….maybe Lessa and I are more alike than I care to admit! 
            Having criticized a fair bit, I think its important to explore why I really do still enjoy these books—and I think that is the bond between dragon and rider.  I haven’t owned a horse for decades, but I always wished for a telepathic bond with my animals like McCaffrey describes with dragons.  Even with average cats and dogs, life could be so much easier if we actually knew what went on in their heads.  [Mind you, the downside would be that they know what’s going on in ours too and vet visits might become much more difficult].  Being able to talk with the animals has been a secret desire of many people and it is an alluring prospect.  Perhaps this is why the Pernese men and women have such a hard time communicating—they are used to the telepathic union with their dragon partners!
            The other wonderful aspect of the dragon-human relationship is the sense of being “chosen.”  The candidates waited on the hatching grounds and the young dragons staggered out of the egg shells towards their destined rider.  Do we ever lose this desire to be the chosen one?  To have an extra-special relationship and to only be parted by death?  In many ways, the human-dragon dynamic is like an ideal marriage, to which regular life and relationships just can’t measure up.
            To a young farm girl like me, enamoured with her horses and in that early “scared to death” phase of dealing with relationships, no wonder the world of Pern felt like home.  I’m sure it’s why many young women choose horses over boys during the teenage years—horses are much less threatening and much easier to understand.  But I do have to admit that I’m grateful at 50 to look back and realize how much I’ve grown up and how happy that makes me!


  1. Hi Wanda

    I have been falling behind. I read and enjoyed the Pern books but found mine a new home with a co-worker’s daughter during a recent United Way booksale. I think my first introduction was Weyr Search which came in a book from the SF Bookclub. The one I have the most vivid memory of is The White Dragon I know I bought it in a drugstore, I think it was when I came to Alberta to work on an archaeological site by Elk Point during University. I bet the Whelan cover sold a ton of copies. I am not sure if I had read Draogonflight at the time. So I may possibility have been a bit older then most people who read them. I am not sure whether SF books really had a target audience by then. Andre Norton’s books were initially marketed for teens and ended up being read by “adults”. Many were also similar in plot, were a young person from a disadvantaged class
    through cool powers, strength of character or links with animals Catseye, Storm over Warlock or alien/animals X-Factor etc. found their place in society. Sounds a bit like Bleak House which I loved but which sadly had no cool animals, come to think of it. I have wondered if writers find the child/teen characters easier to write about, everything is black and white, close to the surface with none of the ambiguities of age. As I said to a friend in another blog (we were discussing Ray Bradbury’s All in a Summers Day), even after all these years I can still recall the pangs of childhood so clearly while other decades are a blur. One thing I did find disconcerting was how the whole dragon human connection worked out when it came time for them to breed. Then it seemed the joy of flight was tempered by the other responsibilities that came as part of the Dragonriders role and fit somewhat with the Medieval character of the rest of Pern society with its arranged marriages and rigid class structure.

    PS I still do not trust adults.


    1. Guy,

      As usual, good points. You're right, the books certainly do have a Medieval flavour--one of the reasons that they appeal to me, I think. And the youth and black&white nature of the characters certainly are easier to write.

      I am constantly amazed, as I re-read these books, at how many memories I can recapture of my life at the time I first read them! The pangs of childhood or young-adulthood as the case may be! Its like a time machine, taking me back there!

      Thanks for visiting!