Deconstruction: Dragonflight (The Dragonriders of Pern #1): Introductions and Irregularities

(By Silver Adept)

The year is 1968. Vietnam rages on, a third high-profile assassination rocks the United States…no, wait, this is a fantasy novel. Context only if necessary.

Hi, I’m Silver Adept, and this is hopefully going to be an interesting journey to embark on exploring the world of Pern through its novelization. I don’t expect to make it all the way through to the current day’s material, especially if my pace isn’t going to be quick, but I think it’s worth looking at the series and its origins, considering Pern is often a stop along the way for many fantasy readers as they transition from books written for younger audiences into ones written for older audiences. It’s also an award-winning series written by an award-winning author, so there will be recommendations for it in addition to its placement on the transition spectrum.

I’m a junior deconstructor, at best, and I’m not always going to be able to spot everything, or even what may be the obvious thing to the reading audience. I will try to put content notes where I see their need. If I miss one, please let me know so I can add it back.

I wouldn’t be trying this were it not for the excellent deconstructions available at Ana Mardoll's Ramblings and Something Short and Snappy, so many thanks to them for showing the way.

My intention is to take the books in the order of their publication, so after the first two books of this apparent trilogy, we will depart for the Harper Hall trilogy before returning to finish The Dragonriders of Pern. Assuming things go that long. And the electronic copy I’m using has some interesting chapter designations, and is chock-full of typographic errors, so someone may have to backfill in where the actual chapter markers are in a paper copy, if there are any.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Dragonflight, Part I: Content Notes: animal abuse, domestic abuse, genocidal intent

There may be an Introduction with various editions and reprints of this novel. It contains future knowledge that hints at spoilers of later books, and also ties in the Pern novels into a larger canon and universe than originally intended. For those reasons, it will be skipped every time it is encountered until we reach the point where that knowledge is obtained in the story. (If we get there, someone remind me to go back and explain why the introduction is a horrible thing to have in front, please.)

The actual narrative begins with the literary equivalent of a Cold Open, where we are introduced to Lessa, and learn in short order the following:

  1. Lessa is a drudge, which is not a good place to be in, based on the description that the drudges are huddling together to try and get warm.
  2. Lessa is at least mildly telepathic, able to “touch the mind” of the watch-wehr, a sentry-like creature chained up and begging for freedom, and may also have some sort of precognitive ability, based on her danger sense going off.
  3. Whatever danger is on the way, it’s bigger than the immediate threat of Fax, the self-styled lord of the area.

I can see why this book is an award winner – it’s a pretty economical description and hints strongly that Lessa is living in a Crapsack World.

After that, we’re introduced to F’lar and Mnemeth, a rider and his dragon. F’lar is clearly a traditionalist with a strong sense that he is entitled to a certain standard of living and deference. F’lar enjoys instilling fear into the humans of the Hold, and thinks that those same humans need to have a healthy fear of dragons and dragon riders. His brother, F’nor, appears at first blush to be a bit more laid back, but usually plays straight man to F’lar’s continual insistence that he be treated according to each letter of the tradition regarding hospitality.

Then there’s Fax, who, in another comic property, might draw comparisons to the Kingpin. Except Fax is not nearly as richly dressed and is known to be both a womanizer and greedy. But F’lar notices that Fax has a fighter’s balance, and therefore is probably more dangerous than his appearance of dirty clothing lets on.

So F’lar and Fax trade veiled barbs at each other, and we learn that the dragon riders are here to find candidates to present to dragon eggs and see if they will pair-bond with the dragons inside when they hatch. There’s a dragon queen in the eggs, which apparently requires a strong woman to ride. F’lar’s definition of “strong”, however, is a bit off.

Adversity, uncertainty: those were the conditions that bred the qualities F’lar wanted in a Weyrwoman.

Given what we know of F’lar right now, it sounds like he really wants someone that he can dominate and cow on a regular basis, but that remains strong enough to keep control of the dragon.

F’lar looks “pleasantly” at the drudges as he passes by them, ostensibly considering them as possible candidates, but he sees them as unfit.

Overworked, underfed, scarred by lash and disease, they were just what they were – drudges, fit only for hard, menial labor.

Uh, F’lar? You’re never going to find anyone with your preferred characteristics if you’re going to dismiss entire classes of people, including the ones most likely to suffer adversity and uncertainty.

Exposition for this chapter comes from Lytol, who was a dragon rider until his dragon died in an accident. Lytol tells us that Fax abuses all his women, hurts any men that didn’t obey him immediately, killed an entire Hold that opposed him, men, women, and children all, and intends to have his wife die in childbirth, but most importantly, Fax thinks of himself as important as the dragon riders and doesn’t respect the traditions. So Lytol asks the two dragonriders to kill Fax.

Yeah. Let’s stay on F’lar for a second. Because if the narrative wasn’t smashing us over the head that Fax is the very worst person ever, based on actions of his past and the way he casually insults F’lar (whose perspective we see this chapter from), F’lar would qualify nicely as an antagonist. Maybe he will yet. His insistence that tradition be followed, his demands to be feted and his riders housed, and his assumption that he will be able to waltz through the population and pick out whatever women he wants to take back with him (but not any of those ugly drudges – there will be no class mobility on his watch) suggests to us that he’s hidebound to the point where when something unexpected arrives, he will be thrown for a giant loop and sputter a lot about tradition and how improper something is, while his brother pragmatically rolls with it.

So, as the chapter comes to a close, F’lar plans to kill Fax for disrespecting him and his way of life, and wonders openly how Fax could have come to power with the dragonriders right next door. The narrative says that Fax starved the area of resources, then led a mission to slaughter everyone there and salt the earth behind him. And tells us that Fax likely plans to kill the dragonriders, too. All while everyone is headed toward the place where the resistance to Fax was greatest.

Surely nothing could go wrong.

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17 thoughts on “Deconstruction: Dragonflight (The Dragonriders of Pern #1): Introductions and Irregularities

  1. depizan May 1, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I haven’t read a lot of older sci-fi or fantasy, but what I have read didn’t seem nearly as thick with values dissonance as this. Even if part of the story is F’lar becoming a better person, it seems really unwise to have him start out barely better than the villain. Or perhaps anti-heroes have been a thing for longer than I realized.

  2. redsixwing May 1, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Oh Dragonflight.

    I loved Pern when I was in middle school, and this and Tolkien and Lewis was the entire available set of fantasy books intended for people over the age of 8. (After that came Piers Anthony, which…. argh. Some of the awful in Pern and some of the awful in Xanth and Anthony’s other works reinforced themselves in weird ways and did bad things in the brains of a young Six, but I will not get onto that tangent today.)

    I loved Pern substantially less as I got a little older and started reading some much better fantasy with some much more modern ideas about heroic actions and gender roles.

    I will be interested to see where you go with this.

  3. froborr May 1, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Or perhaps anti-heroes have been a thing for longer than I realized.

    Paradise Lost comes immediately to mind.

  4. christhecynic May 1, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Paradise Lost comes immediately to mind.

    Cut Milton some slack (not a lot, just some.) It’s hard to write the story of an underdog who:
    a) takes on the whole universe
    b) leads from the front, and
    C) can keep people who just got their asses kicked by God from becoming demoralized
    without having the character come across as at least somewhat cool.

    In response to the actual post, I am interested and look forward to more, but I find I have nothing to say. Sorry.

  5. Silver Adept May 1, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    @ depizan –

    You’ll get a lot of mileage out of the values dissonance on display through the whole book. We’re just seeing the top of the iceberg right now.

  6. depizan May 1, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Silver Adept,

    oh no, is this going to be up there with the Ender’s series as books I want to fling at their authors?

    (Figures that a “hero” who should be eaten by dragons would be in a book where the dragons don’t eat people. *sigh*)

  7. Silver Adept May 1, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    @ depizan –

    There’s a good chance of it, because things only get better from here. And by better, I mean much, much worse.

  8. alexseanchai May 1, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    depizan: do not google ‘Anne McCaffrey tent peg’. ever. McCaffrey (like Card, actually) holds a beloved spot in my heart, but holy shit never opening a book with that name on the cover EVER AGAIN.

    …by which I mean (since one of my characters is apparently contemplating a line in Dragonflight while in a situation with superficial similarities to the situation that prompted Lessa to think the line), I will check the exact wording of the line in question and then never open the books again.

  9. avantgarbe May 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I’m excited about this! Pern was definitely one of my intros to fantasy/scifi, but perhaps as expected it really does not hold up well, and has a lot of cringe-inducing moments that younger me totally missed.. Let’s have at it!

  10. Silver Adept May 2, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    @ redsixwing –

    We have similar developments of sci-fi/fantasy reading, then. This should make for some interesting discussions.

    @ avantgarbe –

    The Suck Fairy has visited Pern some in the intervening time, so this will have some not so good bits. But it mght also have good bits that still stand up over time, so it’s not a total loss.

  11. Pebblerocker May 4, 2014 at 1:53 am

    I’ll be reading with interest! I look forward to and dread the Brekke bit; on the other hand I’m probably going to find out about all the things that are even worse than the Brekke bit and never registered at the time.

  12. Firedrake May 4, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    It’s possibly worth bearing in mind that this book like so many of McCaffrey’s early novels is a fixup; this first section was adapted from a novella published the previous year (“Weyr Search”), and “Dragonrider” came later that year.

    It’s also worth remembering that McCaffrey was born in 1926, and most people seem to stick to the attitudes they had fixed by the end of their adolescence. (I don’t think I’m trying to defend McCaffrey here, rather to understand where she was coming from.) At the time of writing, she was also in the closing years of an unhappy marriage.

  13. J. Random Scribbler May 6, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Glad I noticed this! (via Ana’s blogroll, in case you care.) I, too, started my SF/F reading life with Lewis, Tolkien, and McCaffrey, though Piers Anthony’s stuff didn’t cross my radar until a few years later.

    I’ve not read most of the later Pern books, but I went over and over the two trilogies and Moreta– both when I was young and after a gap of over a decade when Ms. Scribbler got me involved in an online Pern fan club.

    This club was all about “OK, how would this stuff actually *work*?” We touched on a lot of the justice issues, but I’m sure we missed some as that was not our main focus.

    So, thanks for taking this on! It’ll be interesting to look at these books again.

  14. Brenda A. May 9, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    I’ve been a big McCaffrey fan, especially of Pern, although the last few books are not my favorites – and I stopped bothering with the ones written by her son, Todd.

    I’m on two forums that discuss the books a lot, including one that used to be the forum on Anne’s website, so I’m used to both pointing out the flaws and attempting to make things make sense.

    annemccaffreyfans.org/forum and forums.srellim.org if anyone is interested…

  15. Spirit Wolf April 2, 2017 at 8:02 am

    To really dig Pern, you have to understand feudalism. (Fax here was akin to a regional king challenging the authority and privileges of the Church, who himself went around attacking and conquering neighbouring kingdoms.) And no, there wasn’t much class mobility in a feudalistic society. For as far as Pern went, by the time we are introduced to the planet, humans had spread all over the continent, leaving little room for the would-be upwardly mobile to found new Holds of their own … and in fact, at one point, population growth does seem to have become enough of a problem where miscreants can be casually expelled from civilization altogether, with little care about their fates. It always happens when there are too many individuals to fill too few spots.

    In fact, the whole process of their societal (de)evolution is what I find most fascinating about that – Pernese feudalism rose up quite naturally, and probably a lot more dramatically than it did IRL following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and it’s cultural/technological supports. About the only thing McCafffrey might have fallen down on some here, is not considering the possible bad genetic effects of the human population being bottlenecked _twice_ in only 2500 years.

  16. Spirit Wolf April 2, 2017 at 8:04 am

    And as an addendum, while she was quite progressive in her treatment of homosexuals, she missed the concept that, while a well-populated and occupationally-varied society can certainly tolerate homosexuals/dedicated homosexualtiy, that just is not so popular in times of low-population crisis .. and I doubt there’s any studies to tell us if Nature has some kind of regulatory system that even makes the incidence of homosexuality less in such crises.

  17. Silver Adept April 6, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Hello, Spirit Wolf! I hope that you’ll stick around for the rest of the series – a lot of the issues you’re talking about here get explored in depth and repetition as we go along, including the ways that Pern is pretty weird, even if you dig the feudal period (or have written theses on it, as some of the commenters have). The social mobility question gets a fuller look, too, including the pressures that build when you don’t have either a military or a Church to send younger sons off to for storage.

    Also, I don’t think we call the author progressive on her portrayal of gay men, as the best that she’s built here is an acknowledgement among the riders that sex urges happen. For that reason, I also find your position that population pressure produces less gay people not very applicable here. More generally, I find the implications that gay men and lesbians are aberrations or choices that Nature would correct for in times of a population crisis significantly offensive.

    I also want to say that “homosexual” is a very disfavored word here, because of the way it had been used to stigmatize, medicalize, and generally discriminate and harm lesbian women, gay men, and the entire trans* and bi communities. The Slacktiverse is an LGBTQAI*-inclusive space, so we’d like to not use words that are problematic, even when discussing characters and settings.

    I hope that you’ll continue to read and contribute to the discussions in helpful ways. Thanks for stopping by!

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