Dragonflight: Who Put These People In Charge, Again?

When we last left our anti-hero and the Control Freak, the puny humans had waved their swords and then been sent scurrying back to their castles so that the real heroes could be left alone to do their planet-saving preparations. F’lar has mentally threatened violence against Lessa (again), who continues to find joie de vivre in trying to establish herself as The Man Behind The Man in the Weyr. There’s no way this can end well.

Dragonflight: Part III: Content Notes: Rape, slut-shaming, PTSD

But! Petty politics must be put aside, for the signs are now clear that Pern is about to be visited by a menace from the past: Thread. Although the narrative has not actually done more than hint at what Thread is and does yet at this point. The Introduction and it’s spoiler-knowledge says exactly what Thread is and what was developed to fight it, which is clearly the result of what was spoilers then being considered common knowledge now. Leaving that aside, though, Dragonflight now is starting to take on the shape of a classic fantasy novel. “An ancient evil has arisen, after many years (Turns) of peace and prosperity, during which time most people forgot about the evil and turned themselves to more petty matters. To fight this evil, a band of adventurers have formed, consisting of a commoner (F’nor, for reasons of being F’lar’s half-brither and further down the chain of power than F’lar), a wizard (F’lar, regrettably), and hidden royalty (Lessa), along with some support muscle (the dragonriders) who will journey across the world, foiling evil plots and defeating the ancient evil along the way.” And possibly a bolted-on love plot or love triangle to break up the action. So, yeah, now we’re getting into the groove of the actual story that was intended, so hopefully there’s some meatier things to tear into here.

Part III opens with F’lar and the War Council having to deal with contrarianism from R’gul, who now has the part of being the voice of the line of inquiry the Lords Holder were pursuing, before their subjugation at the end of Part II. The narrative informs us that R’gul is jealous of F’lar taking away the Weyrleader position from him (which reminds me, there really does need to be a way of having older Weyrleaders on as Weyrleader Emeritus or Immediate Past Weyrleader or something to prevent this exact situation from happening), but also points out to us, perhaps unintentionally, that R’gul is an excellent judge of character:

Wasn’t F’lar’s pride sufficiently swollen by having bluffed the Lords of Pern into disbanding their army when they were all set to coerce the Weyr and dragonmen? Must F’lar dominate every dragonman, body and will, too?

Yes, yes he must.

And, in case we had forgotten, the narrative allows F’lar to be entirely correct yet again in interpreting ancient signs and rock formations, as well as being able to explain away why the ancient menace hasn’t been back in a while.

“There have been long Intervals before. The Red Star does not always pass close enough to drop Threads on Pern. Which is why our ingenious ancestors thought to position the Eye Rock and the Finger Rock as they did … to confirm when a Pass will be made.”

Wait, WHAT? Exactly when were we going to find out that the people of Pern have relatively advanced scientific knowledge, even though the world has fallen apart, even by their standards? That casual statement from F’lar indicates at least understanding the Copernican model of planetary bodies, at least a basic idea of gravity not just as “the thing that pulls us back to the planet” but “the thing that pulls things toward each other”, knowledge that the orbits of bodies may be elliptical or irregular (so there are Intervals instead of a constant yearly Threadfall), and the ability to interpret the ancient structures as being a calendar device for a particular astronomical event, like henges may have been, instead of as some other ritual item. What sort of stuff is being taught in the songs and legends that Lessa has had to memorize, recite, and scrawl many times over? It would be so nice to know.

Back to the narrative. F’lar insults R’gul’s skepticism, after giving him an ultimatum that he can accept F’lar as the Weyrleader and obey, or he can take his dragon and go somewhere else. Then, he distributes orders for fliers to go outside and look for more good candidates for dragonriders from the Holds, since he thinks there aren’t enough boys in the caverns at the Weyr to cover the likely egg spread, watch the weather, make sure the tributes arrive safely, go clean out satellite bases of operation, and retrieve any history records that might still be there (because it hasn’t already been collected before? What the fuck kind of operation is being run here?) and other such logistical matters involving dragonrider oversight. After dismissing the riders, F’lar returns to his chambers, where his thoughts turn to love.

That girl was going to scrub her hide off with this constant bathing. She’d had to live grimy in Ruath Hold, but bathing twice a day? He was beginning to wonder if this might be a subtle Lessa-variety insult to him personally. F’lar sighed. That girl. Would she never turn to him of her own accord? Would he ever touch that elusive inner core of Lessa? She had more warmth for his half-brother, Fnor, and K’net, the youngest of the bronze riders, than she did for F’lar, who shared her bed.

That would be because they aren’t controlling assholes, F’lar.

Also, that would be because they haven’t raped her, either. But F’lar has feels about that. That look remarkably like apologia.

He caught her arm and felt her body tense. He set his teeth, wishing, as he had a hundred times since Ramoth rose in her first mating flight, that Lessa had not been virgin, too. He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa’s first sexual experience had been violent. It had surprised him to be first, considering she had spent her adolescent years drudging for lascivious warders and soldier-types. Evidently, no one had bothered to penetrate the curtain of rags and the coat of filth she had carefully maintained as a disguise. He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape.

Yet he knew someday, somehow, he would coax her into responding wholeheartedly to his lovemaking. He had a certain pride in his skill, and he was in a position to persevere.

Cocowhat by depizan

So, Lessa tenses when he touches her, because he’s an abusive asshole. The rest of this, however, is rape apologia – he didn’t control himself when he could have, a detail conveniently left out in that mating flight from Lessa’s perspective, and again we are reminded that Lessa got no preparation for the feelings that came from a dragon in heat. He would have felt better about his own rape if she had already been raped beforehand. But he won’t actually call that first one rape, nor any of the times that he has had sex with her since, probably without her consent, because that would mean admitting he violated her without consent. And that he might not be able to win her over at all because of that, which would mean something was out of his control. And that he did something wrong. Neither of which his pride and nature will allow. Instead, he continues to believe that if he rapes Lessa enough, eventually she’ll fall in love with him. And considering the narrative has always given F’lar what he wanted, I have a sinking feeling that he’s going to be right.

F’lar casually insults the previous Weyrwoman, both in habits and in attractiveness, while marveling at Lessa’s insistence on cleanliness in the bedchamber (from her drudge past, she probably knows what happens to dirty dishes and bodies left out), and wonders why Lessa might be a bit acidic at him because of a woman he could have gotten pregnant (but has plausible denial on, and she seduced him, anyway, even though he was willing), meaning he’s also been having sex with others than his Weyrwoman, which may or may not be considered scandalous. Even though he slept with this other woman, he still calls her a slut (she has “the amorous tendencies of a green dragon”, which suggests that everyone in the Weyr thinks Green riders are easy).

Lest we think that F’lar is the only horrible person in this pairing, Lessa suggests murdering R’gul to silence his skepticism, a position with which F’lar privately agrees, but publically will put out on the front line against Thread, possibly hoping he will get killed that way, as David did to Bathsheba’s husband, which is a much easier position to be able to work with. And we are reminded that Lessa is forever scheming in some way, probably against F’lar, so we should hold them equally contemptuous. Except Lessa has only ever been thinking about such things – F’lar has done both rape and murder. I still have no real incentive to root for either of them, according to the narrative, anyway.

And then, while discussing signs and portents, Lessa has a flashback to when Fax invaded.

Her voice was a barely articulated whisper. Her eyes were wide and staring. Her hands clenched the edge of the table. She said nothing for such a long interval that F’lar became concerned. This was an unexpectedly violent reaction to as casual question.

So Lessa starts to recount the tale, clearly disassociating from the events, and F’lar…has empathy, although he doesn’t act on it (much to the great snark of Mnementh). Lessa doesn’t get very far before Ramoth wakes up, providing a clear distraction.

And now the narrative has given enough proof to substantiate what more senior deconstructors have probably suspected for a long time – Lessa hasn’t been able to recover from her trauma because she doesn’t have a supportive environment, a partner that is actually willing to listen to get feelings and not rape her, nor any sort of way of excluding F’lar from her life until she’s recovered. They’re all traumatic still because the trauma keeps being inflicted. And F’lar is a big enough asshole that even when Lessa is demonstrating that things are not okay with her, he continues on as if everything were just fine. Fuck you, F’lar, you rapist ass.

And on that traumatic note, we’ll leave off for next time, where we learn the secrets of dragon teleportation.

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13 thoughts on “Dragonflight: Who Put These People In Charge, Again?

  1. Only Some Stardust June 12, 2014 at 9:04 am

    yuck.

    Maybe she bathes so often to get away from him. And of course, he takes it as personal insult.

  2. J. Random Scribbler June 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    @Only Some Stardust: He’d probably take it personally even if it had nothing to do with him.

    Seriously, though, I wonder how much of his behavior is affected by the alien predator that is basically sharing his mind. Clearly it doesn’t excuse his actions; if he could have controlled himself even during a mating flight, he can make his own decisions in everyday life. I just wonder what he was like before spending all those Turns bonded with Mnementh.

    Put another way, did he get this way because he Impressed an alpha-male dragon, or did he Impress said dragon because he was already that way?

    Re the mating flight, I had a rather chilling thought a couple nights ago. Since the whole “you have to keep her from going between” thing is never mentioned as an issue in any other routine mating flights (hopefully that’s not too spoilery) could it be that Ramoth only did that because she was picking up Lessa’s trauma? If so, F’lar nearly doomed all of Pern to Thread because he couldn’t be arsed to give Lessa any advance warning, or do anything at all to make the experience easier on her.

  3. Only Some Stardust June 12, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    That could have been a cool alternate horror story; you are promised a cool mind bond with a dragon buddy, but you noticed, slowly, that people who impress dragons are just a bit — off — afterward…

    The humans think they are in control, but really, it is the alien dragon horror-beasts who are the masterminds behind everything. And that it is whyyyy those uppity holds can’t have anything; the dragons are afraid of humans unbonded to dragons.

    If only there were any evidence whatsoever to support that. Ah well.

  4. depizan June 12, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Was that the Moral Event Horizon that F’lar just went speeding past? Why, yes, I think it was. The “hero” of this book just did an impressive double loop into the black hole of villainy. I mean, he was rapidly accumulating villain points anyway, but holy hell what was McCaffrey thinking with that steaming pile of wrong?

    On top of everything else you pointed out, what in flying fuck is this?

    He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa’s first sexual experience had been violent. It had surprised him to be first, considering she had spent her adolescent years drudging for lascivious warders and soldier-types.

    In two sentences we learn that A) dragon-induced sex is violent (or is this his subtle way of acknowledging that it’s rape?) and B) that he thinks it would some how be better if she’d been raped before. Worse, he didn’t warn her about the dragon-induced sex despite having assumed she’d already been raped once if not many times. He fucking raped someone he believed was a rape victim and is trying to rape her into loving him.

    I could make an entire list of villains who are less vile than this guy. A list.

    No fucking wonder she keeps bathing.

    This monstrosity does at least make Lessa a sympathetic villain. At the expense of making F’lar utterly unsalvageable. He’s a murderer, a tyrant, a knowing rapist, a misogynistic asshole who apparently can’t keep his dick out of anything, but won’t take responsibility for it… what’s he going to do next? Start having bowls of babies for breakfast? He could save the damn universe at this point and I’d still be in favor of him being fed to a tank of piranha, starting with his favorite body part.

    And this doesn’t get to skate on the idea that this was written in a different time. I’ve read other sci-fi novels from the sixties and they did not feature F’lar-like heroes.

  5. Firedrake June 13, 2014 at 5:29 am

    I think that what McCaffrey is trying for in that passage is: if you’re brought up in a Weyr, you know all about what happens during mating flights and so by the time it happens to you it’s not traumatic, but that wasn’t the case for Lessa. The trauma is even worse because it was her first experience of sex.

    But yeah, this was written in the era when a rape was considered an acceptable first act of a romance novel, and for that matter when husbands could legitimately rape their wives in real life; and we don’t live there any more.

  6. Silver Adept June 13, 2014 at 11:54 am

    @ Only Some Stardust –

    It will be a long time before we get to see bathing from a woman’s point of view again, but I think we’re supposed to believe that Lessa bathes so much because she spent ten years of her life in filth and is now finally able to maintain her preferred appearance. Plus, running water that doesn’t require effort to use. It’s actually surprising that this doesn’t get narratively played into some sort of vanity thing. Bathing, when mentioned, doesn’t tend to attract narrative ire.

    @ J Random Scribbler –

    I don’t think there’s a lot of influence from the dragons backward – they’re pretty consistently described as not thinking too much and mostly running on instincts and being very present in the moment. Weyr culture seems to be the main culprit – they’re looking for people of particular dispositions to pair up with dragons, so I think it’s people already being that way. As we meet more dragonriders, it’ll sort out a bit more. And Lessa is the only queenrider we’ll meet that hasn’t spent significant time in the Weyr before her queen goes to mate, so the extra instruction might have been just for her because it was common knowledge to others. I think the discussions of mating flight’s in the next book gives support to this idea.

    @ depizan –

    Yep, that would be the Moral Event Horizon rapidly receding in the distance. The way I read that passage is that F’lar isn’t admitting to rape, but that he expected Lessa to have already had violent sex and rape done to her by lecherous Holders and others who would think nothing of raping a kitchen drudge, and so she would just accept it, and possibly enjoy it more because dragon-link. Even so, he expects Lessa to come to love him because he’s such an excellent rapist. Piranhas are too good for F’lar.

    Regrettably, he’s still the narrative’s favorite, so the things that he richly deserves will not be coming to him.

    @ Firedrake –

    No, sorry, that excuse does not fly. Not just for the link Ana posted, but any fig leaf of “it was that way back then” vanished at the first mention of a fantastic element. Remember the open thread we had a little while ago?

    Dragons.

  7. depizan June 13, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Yeah, F’lar wouldn’t think of himself as a rapist, but that’s because the denial is strong with him. He’s basically pulling the equivalent of “sure I got him to sign his life savings over to me in exchange for something that doesn’t exist, but I didn’t con him” or “sure I entered the bank vault through the wall and took all the money inside, but I didn’t steal it.”

    I find myself wondering if someone actually did point out the fact that he’s a rapist to McCaffrey, and this paragraph of horror was her attempt to spackle over the problem. It’s this weird mixture of acknowledging the issue and trying to ignore it at the same time.

  8. Firedrake June 14, 2014 at 4:40 am

    I’m trying to reconstruct the thought processes of the author in 1967-1968, which include influences from the culture in which she was living. Acts which we (or at least many of us) now regard unambiguously as rape were widely regarded as acceptable at least in the context of a story, and all too often in real life too, so McCaffrey would have had to be a rather better writer than she was to get it right. I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody or anything.

  9. Silver Adept June 14, 2014 at 9:58 am

    @ Firedrake –

    The first part of this book won a Hugo for Best Novella in 1966. The next part won a Nebula in 1968. Someone thought the writing was pretty good as it was. So glibly saying “needed to be a better writer” overlooks what the opinion of her writing already was.

    I would also suggest that in addition to considering Ana’s Shakesville link as representative of many more stories like it and orders of magnitude more that never get to a trial phase, that the TvTropes index of harassment and rape tropes suggests that there are plenty of people calling it rape then, too, including, but not limited to Double Standard: Rape, Sci-Fi and Rape As Drama. And calling it out as such, even though the barriers to publishing feminist work were higher then than they are now, and there aren’t as many people working to preserve that work as other works. So no, it’s not acceptable to just state that people thought it was okay then.

    More importantly, though, the “wider context” arguments need an “and?” Stopping at “this exists because cultural influences” robs the author of their autonomy and agency in the decisions they made. And there are clear decisions made here. For whatever reason, at some point in the writing of the novel, a concern came up that the acts performed in the mating flight might be considered rape by the reading audience. Anne McCaffery chose to address those concerns by having the rapist ruminate on whether his rape was rape or not, and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t. There is no further thought on the matter – we do not get Lessa’s perspective at any point in this exchange, nor do we hear what she thought about it afterward. The authorial decision made was to not let the victim speak about their own assault. That is the important part, and it stays important regardless of context. Because we’re supposed to see F’lar as the good guy, even as he does all these things that proclaim quite loudly that he isn’t.

  10. hf July 3, 2014 at 11:57 am

    That casual statement from F’lar indicates at least understanding the Copernican model of planetary bodies

    Does it? I’m not familiar with the series; the part you quoted seems consistent with a geocentric Ptolemy-style cosmology in which stars and wandering stars orbit the Earth. That would still indicate advanced knowledge in a sense – the ancient Greeks had it going on in some ways. But it would allow for both loss of knowledge (Middle Ages) and a wildly inaccurate world-model (everyone before Newton).

  11. hf July 3, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Meanwhile, I was already seeing Lord F’lar and Lady Lessa as particularly arrogant Sith’ari. Now I’m torn as to whether or not she should turn against him when he starts a traditionalist rebellion against Darth Nox and company.

  12. Silver Adept July 4, 2014 at 1:50 am

    @ hf –

    What I got out of it was that F’lar understands that some bodies have irregular orbits that are caused by their various gravitational pulls on each other, which suggests that he understands the planet is not the center of the universe and pulling all things toward itself. If the Ptolemaic model has that baked in, then maybe it’s not a Copernican necessity.

    Lessa would likely go along until she can either betray him to Darth Nox, or she can kill him herself and take over. Unless it’s really true that he’s been able to influence her mind with the Force and his abuse.

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