CALL IT SIGH-FI – The Dragonriders of Pern, or the Geek Girl’s Gateway Drug
Looking back at a time when Anne McCaffrey’s Thread-defeating dragons were the only way to fly.
by Kate Nagy
If you were a thirteen-year-old girl in 1980 (as some of us, um, may have been), science fiction was by and large a man’s world. Oh, there was Princess Leia, who (to her credit) proved remarkably clever and able with a light saber, but a) her first name was “Princess” (or it might as well have been; no one referred to her as Leia Organa – she was always “Princess Leia”); b) her most iconic scene involved wearing a teeny golden bikini while chained to Jabba the Hutt; and c) she macked on her own brother, which was just EWWWW. There were a few other exceptions (yeah, Wonder Woman, okay), but mostly, women were sidekicks, prizes, pneumatically ta-ta’ed love interests for Captain Kirk, cheerleaders, or bystanders.
The picture wasn’t that much brighter in other geek-friendly sub-genres. Sure, Tolkien wrote a couple of kick-ass female characters, and you ran across the odd strong female heroine elsewhere, but still. There was no Twilight, and anyway vampires were weird and gross. Marion Zimmer Bradley was three years out from publishing The Mists of Avalon, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was more than five years away. Suzanne Collins was a teenager. Cassandra Clare was in grade school. If you were a teenaged female geek, you were reading mostly about dudes.
Until, of course, you found the dragons.
The dragons of Pern first flew in 1967 when a struggling writer named Anne McCaffrey published a novella called “Weyr Search” in Analog magazine. In this story, two men fly around on their telepathic dragons to visit the weyrs, or districts, of their technology-challenged world looking for an appropriate human partner for a soon-to-be-hatched Queen dragon. They get rather more than they bargained for when they stumble upon a pissed-off kitchen drudge named Lessa. A follow-up novella, “Dragonrider,” described Lessa’s adventures in her new life, and the two stories proved so successful – “Weyr Search” won the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novella, and “Dragonrider” won the Nebula Award – that they were stitched together in 1968 as the full-length novel Dragonflight.
A few years later, Lessa and the gang returned in Dragonquest, a novel that was most notable for giving readers the heartwarming love story of handsome dragonrider F’nor and tragic Brekke, whose dragon had died, to swoon over. But then – speaking of swooning – in 1978: The White Dragon.
My friends and I were obsessed with the many thrilling exploits of Jaxom, hereditary Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold and accidental Rider of Ruth, the titular White Dragon. Ruth was a genetic anomaly – dragons on Pern are gold, bronze, brown, blue, and green, but not white – and Jaxom was lonely and friendless; their bond of misfits sustained them both as they came of age together. We spent hours poring over the cover art, which depicted stalwart, high-cheekboned Jaxom on dragonback, and we dreamed of climbing aboard the snow-white dragon, snuggling up against Jaxom’s broad back, laying our cheeks against the smooth leather of his jacket, and then holding on tight as Ruth launched us into the clear blue somewhere, high above our unfeeling parents and bad hair and stupid clothes and general thirteen-year-old awkwardness. The boys in our class may have been a species from another world altogether, but Jaxom got us. Jaxom understood. (Jaxom also had a girlfriend, a Healer named Sharra, but she was only in the book a little bit, and easy enough to ignore.)
Around that time, Anne McCaffrey turned her hand to young adult fiction and produced the classic Harper Hall trilogy. Young Menolly, daughter of a fisherman, is a gifted musician; her parents don’t support her pursuit of her gifts (to put it mildly), so she runs away, ending up at Harper Hall and eventually, over the course of several subsequent books, becoming a Harper of considerable renown. In a parallel storyline, her friend Piemur is the best singer at the Hall until puberty strikes and his voice starts to change, and he’s forced to wrestle with a dilemma with which much older people struggle: What do you do when the thing that defines you… doesn’t anymore? We devoured these books, empathizing with Menolly when she fought with her parents, laughing and crying with Piemur, and always imagining, with awe, riding on those magnificent dragons.
We didn’t realize that we were reading science fiction – but we were. Lessa and her dragon, Ramoth, are time-travelers, after all! It didn’t even occur to us to wonder about the atmospheric phenomenon that was Thread (deadly spores that fall from the sky over Pern, thus necessitating the existence of fire-breathing, Thread-frying dragons), or where it came from. However, appendices to some of the earlier Pern books helpfully explained that Rukbat – Pern’s sun – is a golden G-type star (whatever that is) and got altogether technical and scientific. When, at the end of The White Dragon, Jaxom discovered the remains of the spaceship that brought the first settlers to Pern, we realized that what we thought we were reading was something else altogether. It was sci-fi with a “feminine” twist – lots of relationships and love and family and self-actualization. Call it sigh-fi! But it was the real deal, and we girls gobbled that stuff up.
And slowly, the world caught up with us.
Thirty-odd years later, women can enjoy a vast genre buffet prepared with us in mind and McCaffrey’s ground-breaking saga is still going strong, with the twenty-fourth Pern novel, Sky Dragons, released just last month. After Harper Hall, she went on to fill in Pern’s back story, extended her heroes’ tales into the future, and started collaborating with her son, Todd. She introduced new elements to the Pernese lore – dolphins, dragons who can move things with their minds, and so forth. She wrote about Pernese heroes and heroines such as Moreta and Robinton (yes, the Masterharper, whatever). Her Pern stories may not constitute the longest-running space opera in the world, but I’ll bet they’re one of the longest. When she died last year, one of science fiction’s giants left us behind.
Alas: To quote another poet who was quoted in another novel beloved of thirteen-year-olds in 1980 (bet you can’t guess which one!), nothing gold can stay. [Okay, we'll take pity: its The Outsiders. - Ed.] I recently revisited some of McCaffrey’s older books, and the stories that used to enchant me so completely… well, didn’t. I was unpleasantly surprised by the amount of violence toward women, Lessa in particular (I never did like that F’lar). When F’nor and Brekke make love for the first time? That’s pretty much a forced seduction right there. (“He wasn’t gentle, but he was thorough.” What does that even mean? On second thought, maybe I don’t need the details, kthanx.) Jaxom is a bit of a whiner, Brekke’s insipid, F’lar’s a dick, and even Menolly, after crushing hard on her teacher, Robinton (yawn), ends up with a Harper named Sebell who is and was and probably ever shall be 100 percent personality free.
The books are the same, but I’ve changed; probably all of us have changed. (Nothing gold can stay!) Those of us who may have been thirteen in 1980 might be middle-aged now, with families, jobs, and triumphs and troubles of our own that couldn’t be farther away from the weyrs of Pern. But friends, as any thirteen-year-old girl can tell you, are forever. Menolly is still out there, and while we secretly think she could have done better than boring old Sebell, she remains so awesome and pretty and talented that we can’t quite comprehend how she ever befriended us to begin with. And Jaxom has grown solid and dependable, the kind of guy who picks up the dry cleaning and shovels the snow out of the driveway without being reminded. He still wears his leather jacket, though, and when he invites us to fly, even though we need a little extra help climbing onto Ruth’s back these days, we always say yes. We wrap our arms around his waist, smiling contentedly as Ruth looks over his shoulder at us with those wise, whirling eyes, and fearlessly follow him into the limitless sky.
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