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.

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Read as part of The 2013 Science Fiction Experience and The Vintage Science Fiction Month

22 comments:

  1. I have always thought of Anne McCaffrey's Pern world as fantasy, but I was never a huge fan and it's been a very long time since I've read one, so maybe it is SF!

    I had forgotten all the names with apostrophes :-) I agree with the treatment of women - a rather misogynist world, IIRC.

    Li

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    1. Li, I'm new to Pern and McCaffrey, and I've only read the first half of this book. But yes, so far it has that
      "fantasy" feel. I'm waiting to see if that changes in the second half of the book.

      RE: Treatment of women. I was looking for that angle when I began reading this book, and the fact that McCaffrey was a female writer had a lot to do with my point of view. However as I said above, we have to take into consideration the time this book(s) was/were written. For some reason portraying women as intelligent individuals and not as mindless sheep or sexual objects or receptacles took a while within genre literature. Look at romance! We're still fighting that in some circles. :) So I think that Lessa, although a flawed character so far and used as a contrast to the other women in this particular story, must have seem as a good beginning toward a positive change at the time. I AM hoping for more! ;P

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    2. The apostrophes are explained at some point, but I still find them rather unnecessary.

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    3. I will have to look for that! I do notice that the brothers' names begin with the same letter and then the apostrophes.

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  2. Great analysis of the treatment of women. Good to know someone else saw all the troubling things I saw too!

    The world-building is a really difficult question here. I feel like I'm not a fair judge because I've read so much other Pern, all that knowledge informs what I'm reading here. I guess all I can really say is that the world-building becomes clearer in the larger series.

    As for the sci fi/fantasy aspect, I've always felt like Pern sits right in between the two. Some books feel completely like fantasies. Other books in the series bring the sci fi element in far more strongly. There is a science fiction origin to life on Pern, but that aspect is almost ignored in some books, while it's a primary focus in others.

    It's actually a rather fascinating example of the blurring of lines between the two genres!

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    1. Oh, I'm glad we shared some of the same views. Some of them were quite troubling... and I didn't even go into that "mating" ritual!

      I think the world-building was eventually clear enough for this first part, although sketchy/patchy. I do wonder if it becomes dense/meatier? I am glad to hear that it becomes a lot clearer in the larger series. :) AND, I also love series that straddle sci fi and fantasy. It's good to know to expect both! Thank you!

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    2. It is a rather odd mix of Sci Fi and Fantasy, with a lot of the Sci Fi elements used to build a world that reads very much like a Fantasy one . . . if that makes sense! :D

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    3. Your statement makes sense. But, I will have to wait to read the second half to make up my mind about this point.

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  3. I have to say that the world building was a little bit thin and so I know what you mean! I can't help thinking that the author was saving something. Lulling the reader into a sense of security, thinking it's a fantasy novel and then she's going to pull the rabbit out of the hat.
    I guess I had parts about both characters that troubled me. I didn't like F'lar at the start - very sexist! Not to mention arrogant. But, I've sort of got used to his arrogance a bit more and also he does come across as reasonable in his actions. Lessa, I liked from the start and yet she has a bit of snide to her. Like talking down to people and being a bit showy. Again, I sort of don't mind this because she's in a very male dominated world and she's not going to get anywhere by acting like a shrinking violet - except trodden underfoot.
    Will have to see how the sci fi element unfolds. I'm looking forward to it.
    Lynn :D

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    1. Lynn, thin is the perfect word for the world-building. Like you, I am hoping that she adds some meat to the bones during the second part of the book.

      As far as the characters, I think I'm not crazy about either character yet. I feel the same way about F'lar: arrogant and sexist, but with potential for more. Lessa has a lot of positive in her because she fights back, but ends up making great strides by taking foolish chances and making mistakes that a "man" wouldn't make. In other words, her accomplishments don't come through the use of logic or smart thinking so far. She acts like a rebellious child... not cunning like a smart woman who thinks ahead. That bugs me!

      I'm also really looking forward to the introduction of the sci fi elements into this story!

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    2. I would like to be generous and say that Ms McCaffrey restricted herself to giving us almost a typical Fantasy at first so that we become as complacent about the Thread as the people of Pern.

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  4. I think I connected with F'Nor the easiest in Parts I & II. Perhaps it is because he comes off as brotherly, as you say, or perhaps it is because he is competent but nonthreatening. I get the impression he is everyone's friend and confidante.

    I read this book ~20 years ago in my teens and I have some impressions still from that time. One of them is that I really liked the female characters. But as you so well sum up in your post, so far we have Lessa and Lady Gemma, and the rest are pretty worthless. I want to say that McCaffrey is setting us up to have strong women like Lessa reset the balance of male/female roles in society. But, I will have to finish my reread before I can say that with a certainty.

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    1. You know? F'nor is just the most likable of all the male characters in this story. Even when he was trading talk about women with F'lar at the beginning of the story, F'lar is the one who bugged me, not F'nor. Later, he was just soothing when he was on the page. I hope he has a good role in the second part of the book!

      Thank you for reassuring me/us about the future role of women in McCaffrey's world. I can't wait to get there to see how it is all accomplished!

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    2. It is so difficult to judge how much F'Nor's behavior is influenced by the role that he can hope to achieve (as a brown rider he will never be a wing-leader or Weyrleader) or if he Impressed a brown because he did not have the driving personality needed to get a bronze. Argghh!

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    3. Hah! F'nor's character seems like a simple one, but turns into a conundrum. :)

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  5. You make a great point about F'Nor, who possibly is heavily influenced by his own mother. I always feel sorry for him because he is always in F'Lar's shadow: younger half-brother and chosen by a brown dragon instead of a bronze.

    I can understand your frustration at the lack of overtly science fiction elements so far. However, I think the gradual introduction to what makes Pern different from Medieval Earth is effective and reduces the deluge of info-dumping at the beginning. In the rest of the book we will see more of the Sci-Fi aspects, I promise! :)

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    1. Sue, I'm looking forward to reading the second half of the book to find that difference you mention and those sic fi details!

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  6. Sorry it took me a few days to get over here. I've been enjoying your feedback elsewhere on Dragonflight and its nice to get over here to read your thoughts.

    As you know I too was surprised by the mold in which McCaffrey cast many of the females in this opening part of the story. I do have to wonder if there was any pressure to conform to what was being published given she was a woman writing in what was seen as a "male" genre and I also wonder about how much of it was done in a way to easily develop a contrast between them and her strong female characters. Not excusing her but very curious about what her thought processes/motivations were.

    I'm really curious about F'lar's faith in the old prophecies, the old knowledge and I find it interesting that he seems devoted to that and yet hasn't yet been able to break out of this mold that he and the other male characters seem to be patterned after. I will be curious to see if either of the character grow in this second half or if more of that growth will happen over time with the other books (and I am not even sure they are in the other books).

    I agree with your thoughts on Pern. I only know about the science fictional aspects of the story because I've heard that over the years. If it was simply from the book I would assume it was ALL fantasy and that the between and the threads and the rest were all magic or fantastical phenomena. I personally really like the idea that this might be the ancestory of humanity going to the planet many, many eons ago and that the society has regressed to a more primitive one but the execution has flaws to this point.

    I too became very engrossed early on. Occasionally I would be taken out of that for brief moments but for the most part I've been really sucked in to McCaffrey's story. I can see why people are so fond of it still, all these years later.

    Your insights have been great, I really enjoyed your answers.

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    1. Carl, you make an excellent point about pressures from publishers to conform to what was acceptable AND more importantly, marketable at the time. It happens today in genre literature, I'm sure it happened then as well. It's a realistic view of the situation.

      F'lar's faith in old prophecies that have passed into "myth, legend and fairy tales" is curious. His information is limited to what was taught him by R'gul. Thinking about that little fact, it's no wonder F'lar is a contradictory character! Like you, I'm also hoping that both he and Lessa show some growth by the end of this story.

      You know? I began reading this book with a blank slate. I heard the original Pern trilogy was great, but I didn't read any details about it. I had absolutely no preconceived ideas! I think that's why the fact that it struck me as fantasy and not sci fi was a surprise. I DO think that this society has regressed since they have "forgotten" everything about history and what is important to their society and the future survival of Pern. That is evident by the decay in the Holds, the Wyr and indeed society at large. Fax being the worst that this society had to offer.

      It took me a bit to get past the beginning (past the introduction which I really liked), but once I did, I read straight on to the end of Part II. By the way, I really liked the way that ended! It left me with some hopes for F'lar. :)

      Thanks for coming by, Carl.

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  7. The end of the first part left me with a lot of hope too. I'm trying to finish another book I'm reading today and then I'll dive back in to Dragonflight and hope to be as sucked in as before. Look forward to our final thoughts next week. :)

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    1. I'm going to read this right before the discussion is due! :)

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