Friday 27 February 2009

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

I first read this book when the UK paperback came out in 1970 and was blown away by it. I read it at least a couple more times over the next few years, but not since. Having recently reviewed Naomi Novik's Temeraire, which borrows heavily from Dragonflight in its concept of dragons, I thought it was time to give the original work a re-read.

I'm not sure who first invented the idea of intelligent dragons. There was of course Smaug, the wonderfully evil beast in Tolkien's The Hobbit, but he was hardly friendly. As far as I know (although I'll be happy to be corrected), McCaffrey was the first to come up with the idea of a life-long bond (in this case, telepathic) being formed between a newly hatched dragon and one particular human. It's a compelling idea which has been copied since, by others before Novik.

Dragonflight is ostensibly a science-fiction story which has far more of the feel of a fantasy. It is set on another planet, Pern, a long time in the future, where human settlers have for some reason been abandoned to their fate. A very long time later, they have reverted to a medieval level of existence with one difference – dragons. Smaller flying reptiles were native to the planet, but were genetically engineered into different and much larger forms when the original settlers discovered a major problem. A neighbouring planet had an irregular orbit which from time to time brought it very close to Pern. When that happened, masses of strings of spores, called threads, were ejected from it and fell onto Pern. Where they fell, they killed all living things. The best way of destroying them was by fire, preferably in mid-air before they reached the ground. The newly created dragons could breathe fire and were big enough to carry a human rider, so the dragonriders formed an aerial cavalry, flying to the rescue of places threatened by threadfall. They were helped in this by the dragons' ability to teleport instantly to anywhere on the planet. However, at the time of the story there had been no threadfall for centuries and the population was becoming tired of supporting the dragons and their riders, who lived apart in remote weyrs.

The tale follows the fortunes of Lessa, a girl who we first meet living a drudge's life, and F'lar, a male dragonrider. It would be unfair to reveal any of the plot and thereby deprive new readers of the pleasure of discovering this book, but suffice to say it is a beautifully-crafted gem of a story which, not surprisingly, won both Hugo and Nebula awards. It's packed with so many themes and incidents that it seems incredible that it's only 250 pages long; it would almost certainly be far longer if written today. Despite the brevity, the reader is far from short-changed. The characters (human and dragon) are clearly drawn and the reader comes to care about them. There is political intrigue, adventure, mystery, dramatic developments, romance, believable domestic details, terrible dangers to be faced, and lots and lots about dragons. The twist in the tail of the tale is well-conceived and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

By current fashions the structure and writing would probably be criticised by an editor. There is an introduction to set the scene (nowadays writers are supposed to plunge straight into the action) and there's lots of description – the short first chapter contains not a word of dialogue – whereas the modern mantra is "show don't tell". As far as this reviewer is concerned, that reflects badly on the current fashions rather than on this book. Dragonflight is one of those rare stories which is like a comforting duvet that you wrap around yourself and just love being inside – it's a wrench to leave. For this reason I am reluctant to nit-pick the few story details which prompted question marks in my mind.

Dragonflight is a stand-alone story, complete in itself (unlike Temeraire, which is obviously the first part of a longer tale). However, the world McCaffrey created became so popular that many other novels set in it eventually appeared. I read a few of them but I've kept only the first two for a possible re-read sometime (Dragonquest and The White Dragon). None of them has the freshness, originality and charm of the original and the quality declined steadily. This should not detract from Dragonflight, which is a true classic and one of the most enjoyable SFF novels ever written.


Fred said...

I had read the short story which started the Pern series and thought it was quite good.

I got an SFBC edition which contained the first three novels, _Dragonflight was one of them and _White Dragon_ was another, and enjoyed the first one the most. The others became progressively less interesting. I never read any of the various sequels.

The other other "Pern" work that I read was the tale of the origin of the human settlement on Pern. I thought that was also quite interesting.

Tolkien also has one or two short works which feature intelligent and somewhat friendly dragons.

I don't know about the timing here, but Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea Trilogy" features intelligent dragons, if I'm not mistaken.

Bill Garthright said...

One minor nitpick, Tony: I don't think that Dragonflight itself won the Hugo Award, but rather the novella "Weyr Search." I imagine the book was written from that (it makes up the first part of the book).

But yes, I loved the novella, and I thought the whole book was great fun. I enjoyed a few of the sequels, too, but the series went on much too long - far past the point at which McCaffrey had anything new to add.

I did enjoy Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, the third and fourth books in the series, because they focused on completely new characters, though still in the same setting. That gave them a freshness the series needed by then. But after that, it really went downhill.

Someone recommended one of the later books, All the Weyrs of Pern, and that wasn't as bad as the previous book. But it would have been much better as a standalone story in a different setting entirely. The idea was great, but putting it in the Pern series was a huge drag on the book (though not on its sales, I imagine).

Anthony G Williams said...

You could well be right about the Hugo, Bill - I suspect that the publishers were doing the usual trick of listing the Hugo and Nebula awards on the cover as applying to the author rather than that particular book...

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Edstock said...

Serialized in Analog, bought by John Campbell.