Thursday, January 10, 2013
Book Discussion: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (Parts I & II)
Hi everyone! This month I have joined the SFF 2013 Group Read of Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, the first installment of the Pern series. This is the first part of the book discussion being hosted by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings. To begin our discussion of Parts I & II, below you will see the questions provided by Carl V. If you have not read the book, please note that there are spoilers within my answers.
1. I have hosted SFF-related group reads for books by Asimov, Herbert, Sanderson and Gaiman. This is our first group read by a female author. What are your thoughts on McCaffrey's handling of the male and female characters in Dragonflight? Feel free to compare and contrast male and female characters and/or discuss various male and female characters in relations to others in the book of the same sex.
Parts I and II of Dragonflight were first published as a novella under the title "Weyr Search" in 1967 when the whole "sexual revolution" was happening, so I am more than a bit disappointed when it comes to how women are characterized in this first part of the story. I expected that contemporary times (late 1960's) would be better reflected or incorporated into this science fiction piece. However, to be fair, I suspect that for the times it was a step in the right direction.
Let's begin with a bit of information about the story and general idea of how men treat women and how women are characterized in the first half of this story. Think of Holds as being patterned after the old Scottish Keeps and the Weyr and dragonmen as being their protectors. In this case from silver Threads coming off the Red Planet that orbits close to Pern every 200 Turns or years. Dragonmen collect tithes from the Holders in the form of goods and food, but the Holds also provide the women who will hopefully become Weyrwomen. Holders are portrayed as treating their women like property to be used, impregnated and disposed of at will. The dragonmen are not necessarily better in how they conduct themselves while searching for females to take back to the Weyr, although in some cases they make a show of outward politeness.
The women for their part act like sniveling fools with the exception of two female characters. One of those characters is Lord Fax's long suffering wife Lady Gemma. There is a quiet, traditional strength in Gemma, but in the end McCaffrey portrays her as a sacrificial lamb, which was not very encouraging. Then there is McCaffrey's main female character, Lessa. Lessa is proactive in seeking revenge against the man who stole her birthright and single minded when it comes to getting it back. Lessa is powerful, cunning and daring, but she is also impulsive, manipulative, stubborn and immature which leads to serious lack of judgment. However, the most important aspect of this female character is that she fights back.
Not surprising, the men are portrayed as either authoritarian and/or paternalistic in nature. This includes both the men in the Holds and the dragonmen of the Weyr. In both worlds, the males take care of important matters and women serve them as servants, for pleasure, to give them children, or to advance their position of power, and to their way of thinking women are to be kept in the dark and away from really important matters or dangerous situations.
This authoritarian or paternalistic attitude, although found across the board, fluctuates between characters. For example: the Weyrleader R'gul is extremely condescending and paternalistic with Lessa while tutoring her in the ways of the Weyr. And while F'lar seems to be tolerant of Lessa, he is also authoritarian, and both R'gul and F'lar keep Lessa in the dark about important matters. The exception is F'nor. He is the one male character portrayed as neither paternalistic nor authoritarian, but as all-around brotherly.
2. F'Lar and Lessa are an interesting pair of protagonists. What do you like and/or dislike about their interactions thus far? What things stand out for you as particularly engaging about each character (if anything)?
After Lessa and F'lar meet, it is quickly evident that there is an attraction of sorts between them. It is an antagonistic, if not hostile, and reluctant attraction with a competitive edge on Lessa's part. Their interactions are frustrating, partly because McCraffrey maintains F'lar wrapped up in the 'Dragonmen of the Wyr' mysticism. That combined with a lack of real warmth and/or emotion to F'lar's personality makes it tough to connect with his character for most of this section. Lessa's single minded pursuit of revenge is admirable and her power astonishing, yet once she makes the decision to become Weyrwoman, Lessa misuses her power and her arrogance becomes almost like that of a spoiled child who can't see past wants or needs of the moment.
What stands out most for me about F'lar is his absolute belief and faith, plus his qualities as a powerful and cunning leader of the Weyr. What stands out most for me about Lessa includes some of the same qualities that frustrate me about her. She's willing to go the extra mile to get what she wants, fights back for what she believes should be done, digs until she finds the answers to her questions, and is not afraid to use her powers to achieve all of the above. Lessa is no doormat.
3. How do you feel about Pern to this point in the story? For those new to Pern, you may want to discuss your speculations/thoughts on the Red Star and on the between here. What are your thoughts on McCaffrey's world-building?
Frankly? I'm not impressed with how this science fiction series begins. The first section of the first part of story is front-loaded with world-building information that makes little to no sense to the reader. It does not flow in a cohesive manner and becomes clunky and confusing. It does become better after a few chapters. However, as far as the world-building is concerned, I don't believe that the beginning of the series might be indicative of the rest. At least I hope not because I've heard some great things about the trilogy.
My other thought is that I kept feeling as if I were reading a fantasy instead of science fiction. Was I the only one? Perhaps that has a lot to do with the fact that men and dragon lore are the central focus, and the Red Planet and Threads seem far away and more of a "boogey man" than a reality at this point.
We are at the mid-point in the story, so we are still in the dark about many aspects of the story. What are Threads? Is it a life form or a parasitic, life sucking vine that keeps the Red Planet going? Besides giving the Weyr and Dragonkind a reason for existing, is there another way Pern benefits from the Red Planet and the Threads? Why hasn't the Red Planet come close to Pern for 400 Turns, instead of the usual 200 Turns? Isn't that an anomaly in how planets orbit each other? How will that work into McCaffrey's world-building?
4. For those new to Dragonflight, was there anything that particularly surprised you with the narrative choices, etc. thus far? For those who have already read Dragonflight, how do you feel about your return to Pern? What stands out in your revisit?
I was surprised at how bare bones McCaffrey's narrative turned out to be in Dragonflight. It is possible that has something to do with the fact that these first two parts of the story were initially edited as a novella. Her depth of characterization is limited throughout the story so far, as is her world-building. The story is action driven with the main characters' inner dialog giving the reader limited insight into what might lie ahead. It is intriguing that once past that first chapter which was front loaded with some incomprehensible world-building information that was slowly cleared up in subsequent chapters, I became engrossed by the story and didn't want to stop after reading Part II.
5. Discuss anything else that you feel passionate to discuss that wasn't included in your responses to the above questions.
The dragons! The dragons made this story fun and enjoyable for me. They provide the sense of humor and light moments that the readers don't get from F'lar and/or Lessa. Also, there is a sense that these beautiful creatures are wiser than shown in this first part of the story since they seem to be born with knowledge. I'm hoping that McCaffrey will explore the dragons and give us some real insight into them, if not in the second part of this book, maybe later on in book 2 or 3 of the Pern trilogy.
The 2013 Science Fiction Experience and The Vintage Science Fiction Month