Have you ever played a fantasy or science-fiction role-playing game on a computer? I’m thinking of things like the Mass Effect series. If so, you may have noticed that many of these games come with some form of ‘codex’, a pack of documents explaining the backstory behind the characters and the world, generally parcelled out to you in small, unthreatening dribbles as you go through the game. You typically don’t actually have to read the codex to complete the game, but it can be a fun, interesting read.
Have you ever wanted to just read an entire codex from start to finish, but restructured around the experiences of a couple of protagonist characters? If so, Dragonsdawn might appeal to you…
Oh, how much I wanted to love this book. Pern was never one of my core reading worlds as a boy – it was clearly far too girly – but later on I did get into it and made my way through almost all the books. This was one of my favourites. And reading it again, I can absolutely see why.
The Pern cycle started off as Hugo- and Nebula-winning short stories, which grew into two trilogies of novels in the 1970s, and then a number of connected novels beyond them. They were fantasy novels set in a pseudo-mediaeval world of trade guilds and feudalism… and dragons. Massive, empathically-bonding, teleporting, time-travelling dragons. But at the end of the trilogies, people started discovering some strange, ancient artifacts…
…and here we are, thousands of years earlier (but ten years later in terms of publication), as spaceships arrive at the planet of Pern to begin colonisation… not knowing, as the readers of the series know, that the planet is periodically bombarded by a voracious space-fungus that consumes all organic matter to fuel its insatiable growth. Fortunately, the planet also comes equipped with some little teleporting, fire-breathing native ‘fire lizards’, and the spaceships come equipped with some very clever geneticists…
Dragonsdawn therefore has an immense vista of possibilities to work with. The plot, it’s clear from the outside, will involve three distinct phases, all of them narratively and thematically promising: the initial colonisation of a virgin world; the devastating arrival of Thread and the immediate response to it; and the attempt to fight back. Which, as the title rather suggests, will involve dragons. Alongside these three central stories, we also have the opportunity to explore the backstory and the wider universe beyond the Rukbat system, and we get the rare chance to completely re-evaluate and recontextualise everything we have seen in earlier novels through the new perspective of a high-technology, spacefaring society.
You could make an entire series out of this material. At the very least you could make a trilogy. What you can’t really do, it seems, is make one novel.
Anne McCaffrey, unfortunately, is not a great writer, in the technical sense. My impression of her writing is that it’s the sort of stuff that might work in a short story – where a certain amount of sketchiness is to be expected within the time constraints – but that comes under real pressure bearing the weight of a 500-page novel. Characterisation is generally flat and sketchy and sometimes inconsistent: I’m left with clear impressions of the two heroines, who are bland but pleasant, but very little real sense of anybody else. Characters either have no features beyond a job description, or else (particularly in the case of villains) are dominated by exaggerated single features. Prose varies between unremarkable and downright godawful, but thankfully the latter isn’t too common, being mostly confined to the dialogue of a couple of characters whose distinctive manner of speaking sets the writing a higher degree of difficulty, which McCaffrey doesn’t have the skills to meet.
Worldbuilding is more successful: it’s frustrating, but often intentionally so. The author recognises that she doesn’t have enough time to fully explain the backstory of who these people are and why they’re colonising a virgin planet in the arse end of nowhere, so hits on it by tangents instead; her elliptical mentions of the devastating Nathi War, the mysterious Beltrae, the differences between Old Earth and First Centauri, the bureaucratic and corporate complexities of the Federation of Sentient Planets that the colonists have had to navigate, all are more effective, I think, in piquing the reader’s curiosity and creating the sense of a further world ‘out there’ (or in this case ‘back there’) than a fuller exploration would have been (for instance by including earlier chapters, or flashbacks, detailing the experiences of the characters in the War, or the process of creating this colonisation effort in the first place). Likewise, the author for the most part doesn’t forget that the readers know more about Pern (by now) than the characters do. They approach their world with mildly inspiring curiosity, turning into realistic paranoia after the arrival of Thread. That paranoia has a satisfying ironic tinge at times – when the reader knows that they are looking in the wrong direction – but also an engagingly frustrating dimension, as the author flaunts how little even the readers know, not being afraid to engage in lengthy red herrings and mysteries that will never be resolved. In some books that would work contrary to the story, but here it is entirely appropriate: the novel is ultimately about the first encounter with Thread, and one of its challenges is trying to recreate that confusion and horror for readers who first encountered Thread themselves up to twenty years before. At the same time, the author accepts that one of the functions of the novel is to act as worldbuilding, as a kind of just-so story for the later Pern that we have come to know, and I feel that she’s quite successful in imbuing the story with an effective air of mythology – including, again, a few red herrings and mysteries. There are times and places where I’m not wholly convinced that the continuity with the later (/earlier) books is rock-solid – but as this plays into the general air of confusion, it doesn’t damage things too badly for me.
The plot also has much to commend it. She is telling powerful stories here, and she competently weaves together personal and planetary narratives. She creates ongoing interest within the lengthy novel not only by breaking it into parts but also by allowing some personal drama to operate independently of the main story, creating a sort of beguiling narrative hemiola. However, the plotting does have some serious hurdles to overcome. In particular, the first, colonial section, while strong in its inherent thematic attractions (who doesn’t like a story about discovery?) suffers from the fact that it is also inherently open-ended and unstructured (discovery does not follow an easy plotlines). McCaffrey, to her credit, has realised this and attempts to use personal drama to impart structure to this section, but as this is of an unconvincing and romantic nature I found myself unconvinced. And in the final section she makes the less damaging but less understandable (and hence more annoying) decision to add an unnecessary element of personal dramatic motivation: not satisfied that the new dragons and their dragonriders (hey, not really a spoiler – the novel is ‘Dragonsdawn’ and the series is ‘The Dragonriders of Pern’; yes, they genetically engineer themselves some dragons) are going to save the world, McCaffrey also has to make them arseholes motivated by anger over the fact they have been made to do vital life-saving work ferrying refugees and transporting essential supplies, rather than being recognised as the pampered elite they ought to be. Rather “will they save the world?”, the dramatic question becomes “will these oppressed, arbitrarily privileged teenagers prove they deserve even more privileges?” which, for me personally, was less gripping. It sets up the rest of the series (in which the dragonriders are an arbitrarily pampered and privileged ruling elite of arseholes we’re meant to always sympathise with no matter how much they’re screwing over the common working man), but it didn’t help the story. To be fair, though, McCaffrey may have felt forced into that by the unstated problem in the world-saving story: we know they don’t. I mean, we go into this book knowing that it will be followed by thousands of years of things kind of being shit, the complete technological regression of society and the emergence of oppressive feudalism, etc… So we kind of know that on the one hand they will survive, and on the other hand they won’t thrive. Like many prequels, this one is hemmed in somewhat by the established facts, and that’s probably why McCaffrey tries to make the stakes more personal, and specific. It just doesn’t really work on the terms she sets. It doesn’t even feel like a natural extension of the characterisation, such as it is, established earlier in the novel.
In fact, there’s a lot that doesn’t really work. Or perhaps it would be better to say: there’s a lot that the book doesn’t do. We never really get as sweeping a recontextualisation as we might have hoped for. With the exception of one plotline and a couple of chapters, we never really get the personal stories that we might have wanted. That’s largely because there are so many characters, and they’re so thin.
The lack of recontextualisation, as I’ve called it, stems from the big problem with the worldbuilding: the failure to give the colonists sufficient specific character. Again, this is an understandable issue, both because time constraints limit the amount of worldbuilding possible, and because the author probably feels that the protagonists need to be familiar and understandable – and because their very ordinariness is an effective contrast with the pseudo-mediaevalism of the earlier books in the series. You may also be confused by my apparent contradiction here, given that I earlier approved of the teasing approach to their backgrounds. But there are two different things here. We don’t need to know that much about the world these people came from, or their experiences prior to their arrival on Pern – but we do need to know what that world, and those experiences, have made these people into.
Unfortunately so far as we are shown, it’s mostly made them into 20th century Americans. Which, OK, maybe a far future society might look like that, why not. Sometimes culture goes in cycles… except that from everything we’re told, everything should be very different.
What we told is that Pern is basically a utopia, before the serpents come. Imagine the John Lennon song, no pun intended. Religion and ideology are things of the past, of the ridiculed ancient ‘Age of Religion’ (though its odd how much they talk about the things of the Age of Religion, and how little about what came after…). There is commerce on Earth, but on Pern everyone just gets given everything they want from the general stores, no money needed. It’s OK, there are no freeriders and nobody asks for more than their fair share, and everyone respects the severely limited resources. There is violence and threat on Earth, but on Pern everyone is instantly confident that serious crimes are unthinkable. Children can wonder freely and converse with strangers, and even go on lengthy boat journeys with them, thinking to themselves about how horribly dangerous it was even in rural farms on earth but now they don’t need to be afraid of anybody ever again. Government isn’t needed on Pern, everyone can organise themselves more or less. The colonists are to be completely independent and autonomous on their own “stakes” – because nobody, clearly, is going to want to do anything on their own stake that people would find morally unacceptable, or that might endanger others. Everything is awesome on Pern.
The thing is, there’s none of this that McCaffrey couldn’t sell me. She does mention, for instance, how many of the colonists are descended from the original colonists of First Centauri, who themselves were descended from the colonists of the asteroid belt and the Moon – perhaps certain social mores and honour codes suitable to these colonial situations have been passed down. She mentions how eager the colonists are to avoid all that was bad about Earth (and First Centauri) – maybe they have a strong shared ideology. We know that their civilisation has just survived an existential war against a merciless alien threat, and that many colonists are war veterans. That must do something to the psyche. And we know that there was a screening programme for colonists, so maybe they have some sure-fire way to weed out the wrong’uns? Utopias can work, after all – at least in the short term.
The problem is, we’re not shown any of that. We’re not shown people who are shaped by libertarian obsessions, who are formed by generations of pioneer myth, who are hardened and sharpened by the vicissitudes of war. We have to imagine that ourselves. We’re just shown ordinary 20th century Americans. As a result, their society doesn’t really make sense. What is lost does not feel real, and consequently the loss loses its force. Their perspectives are difficult to really comprehend. [And those screening programmes? They have to be weak to let the small number of wrong’uns necessary for plot reasons creep through, and the author even goes so far as to have a character comment on how ineffective the tests are].
And that makes the interpersonal stories less powerful too. Sure, romance – Pern is never far from ‘romance’ – has a certain universal quality. But so much of the story would be strengthened by richer characterisation of individuals and of society. There is, for instance, criminally little focus on the similarities and differences between the Thread and the Nathi, and how that makes these survivors feel. There is even less sense of how those who did not serve in the war now feel, alongside those who did. Even the romance would be strengthened if we really had the strong sense of one of the heroines as a war veteran (who missed most of the war) trying to settle down! (come to think of it… that actually makes all that subplot make more sense, as well as making it more powerful)
But the big problem… the really big problem… is that this just shouldn’t be one book.
It’s three big plots, plus two big romance plots (and more in the background), plus a big sideplot, oh and another sideplot, or two I guess, plus lots of background plots and so many more hints at things never really explored. It covers… what, ten years? Twelve? And it could have been more (elsewhere there are a pair of short stories that could easily have served as prologue and epilogue, and that’s without filling in any of the big gaps that easily could have interesting material in them; there’s also an entire short story elsewhere about events that take up a couple of sentences in this novel). It is just too much. And McCaffrey responds to that by barrelling through the material at breakneck pace. Unfortunately this is also breakplot, breakcharacter and breakprose pace. This is what gives the novel that “computer game codex” feel that I mentioned at the beginning: not only is there a vast amount of background material to be infodumped, but the pace means that much of what ought to be foreground material is also infodumped, and even the main events of the plot themselves kind of feel fast-forwarded, with a surprising amount happening off-screen. McCaffrey does better than you might expect at packing information in without it being too blatently expositionary – certainly it would be eyeopening for some epic fantasy authors (there’s more plot and worldbuilding in this one novel than in some million-word sagas) – but ‘better than you might expect’ is not the same as ‘good enough’. A grasp of prose style, and in particular of dialogue, that are workmanlike at best just can’t bear the strain she puts on them. Most of the time, the failure is not instantly visible – most of the time, the writing itself is not groan-worthy. But the long-term consequence is that it’s very hard to build up any sense of atmosphere, or personality, when the writing just doesn’t have the time to breathe. There’s not enough time for us to just look at the scenery; not enough time for us to guess at things before we’re told them, not enough time for characters to feel and react, and to show how they feel and react, before we have to be told, before we have to move on to the next point. It makes the handful of not-strictly-plot-necessary deviations in conversation or in authorial description seem even more out-of-place. Why did they say that? Why is the author telling me this? We become primed to expect everything to fulfil a function. We become jaded.
This makes the handful of times when we slow down, when McCaffrey lets a scene stretch out over pages, and doesn’t stuff the silences up with silence, so much more powerful. But the effect is just to make the rest of the book look worse. There’s a seduction scene, for instance, that on paper ought to be awful – it’s creepy and stilted – but is surprisingly memorable chiefly for making me think: if this is how much better even a bad scene like this can be when you just let it breathe, why isn’t the rest of the book like this? The answer, of course, is that if it were it wouldn’t be just one book.
The problem is particularly intense toward the end – when an entire novel is squashed into 100 pages – and in the opening sections, where the demands of the narrative give us essentially nothing happening (exploring a new world means a lot of information to convey, but not necessarily much coherent narrative), and then the author makes that nothing happen very quickly. It’s both dull and tiring, at the same time.
However, if any reader is wondering how McCaffrey could have been so acclaimed by genre critics in her day… well, OK, mostly the answer, to be honest, is low standards and not having much else to pick from. But apart from that, we do get some signs here of how this sort of writing can work. When Thread arrives, and the colony goes from hippy utopia to apocalyptic war zone in moments, then the novel shines. Action and horror and character and scifi idea-conjuring all start to work, side by side, in the extended, decompressed run of scenes documenting the first threadfall. And yeah, I do mean horror. When verbs like “dissolve” start being used in relation to human beings, that has an impact. There’s one scene in particular that made me – I kid you not – jump up from my seat, shuddering, holding my book at arm’s length as though it might bite me. Thread is, in all its mindless, inimical, slithering hunger, one of the great villains of the science fiction genre, and it’s rarely more effectively used than when its victims don’t know what’s hit them. If science fiction – particularly of McCaffrey’s era – is a genre of ideas and of images, Thread is the image that makes Pern what it is, that puts that deadly element of body horror underneath the sparkly, friendship-is-magic dragon-ponies and the uplifting tales of teenagers vindicated.
Well, Thread and dragons. Because OK, it’s so easy to mock Pern’s dragons, and sometimes it’s deserved. But they have been so successful – and so imitated – because they damn well work. Because they’re wish-fulfilment ponies. Because of the weird, repressed-psychological-processes rape issues that confuse and complicate things. Because intense telepathic bonding hits readers’ need-to-be-loved circuits in a brute but hard-to-resist way. Jon Snow wouldn’t have Ghost if it weren’t for Pern. FitzChivalry Farseer wouldn’t have Wit-companions without Pern. But also because McCaffrey doesn’t back down from the alien, reptilian nature of the dragons, who are frankly narcissistic, voracious, controlling, animalistic little bastards. Or big bastards, I should say. Retaining that reptilian, dangerous edge – the edge that instinctively makes us mammals uneasy at the thought of them – is what makes their domestication, their imprinting, so effective. It’s going too far to say that the domestication fantasies of modern paranormal romance, with its dangerous-but-dedicated vampires, werewolves and so forth, wouldn’t exist if not for Pern – that all came about through its own evolutionary pathway – but Pern was an early example of an author tapping into the power of that trope. [And, like those later novels, gained a strong teenage girl fanbase as a result].
And it’s even the physicality of the beasts. Pernese dragons aren’t the only ones in existence in the popular mind, but the form – feline, lithe, muscular, heat-basking, sand-scratching, eye-whirling, spike-spined, longer-hind-limbed, phosphorous-chewing, pathetically imperious, quick-tempered, loyal/possessive, leaping/diving/launching from high places – has become one of the underlying influences for so many later authors (supported by the famous cover illustrations by Michael Whelan and by Steve Weston – Weston’s golden dragon on the cover of this novel in the UK editions may be the depiction of a winged dragon in my mind*). In particular, reading the dragons in Dragonsdawn I was struck again just how much the dragons in Robin Hobb’s novels are (seemingly? surely?) an homage to Pern. If the humans in her novels are grittier, more realistic explorations of what the people in traditional epic fantasy plots would be like, her dragons are essentially a less romanticised exploration of what Pernese dragons would be like – and what it would be like to be around them – in a more realistic (even if less scientifically plausible – McCaffrey’s worldbuilding here shows her lengthy consultations with biologists and astrophysicists) setting.
Now if only we really had the time to enjoy all of that.
*for flightless dragons: Glaurung, obviously.
And then the other problem, it must be said, with Dragonsdawn is that it is just so damned… problematic.
To begin with the unfortunate obvious: all of Pern, as has been well-established by now, is highly problematic by modern standards on account of the valorisation of rape. Now, primarily this takes the form of the telepathic influence of dragons – the intense mating urges of dragons (and to a lesser extent their wild cousins, the dragonets or fire lizards) overwhelming the minds of the humans they are bonded to, more or less forcing them to have sex. This is icky, but not necessarily a fatal problem with the novels. For one thing, there is perhaps sufficient wriggle-room here regarding the definitions of “consent” by an “individual” in a setting in which the distinctions between one individual and another are blurred by telepathy, and where instincts can have heightened force. The concept of consent requires a coherent concept of independent free will, which is called into question by telepathic bonding. Is a woman who “consents” due to dragon-induced aphrodisia really having her desires and consent overriden by an external force against her will, and hence being raped (dragons as date-rape drugs), or should we see it as just the woman being placed in a sexy situation, and her lust leading her to consent to sex (dragons as telepathic super-porn) – against her better judgement on considered reflexion, perhaps, but not actually against her will? I can see how some readers have been upset over this, but I can also see why the author might not have intended it quite that way. Helpfully – or unhelpfully for those of us feeling a need to judge – McCaffrey largely avoids confronting the potential problems here by having all the “victims” be happy about it afterward, because the good guys always end up with the girl. The dragons just, as it were, skip the small talk. Nonetheless, it is at the very least uncomfortable. Further, though: several times over the series, characters intentionally place themselves into situations where they know that this dragon-aphrodisia will result in the objects of their desire being “forced” to have sex with them – even those whose don’t see this all as outright rape must surely admit that at the very least this is rather ugly sexual manipulation, and sexual exploitation.
The difficulty, though, isn’t the “fact” of the matter. The way that telepathy can blur the otherwise comfortable lines of free will could be an interesting topic. Fiction isn’t obliged to be comfortable, after all. McCaffrey could present this as a terrible thing, or even just as inherently problematic. The difficulty is the attitude taken toward it, which is that this whole business is not only unobjectionable, but actively good. We are expected to view this as romantic.
Fortunately, there’s not a lot of dragon-rape in this book. But in a way that just heightens the problem by removing the excuse. Because my strong impression from this book is that for McCaffrey, “romance” and “rape” are in some way synonymous. She goes out of her way to emphasise non-consent as a way of making things seem romantic. Most egregiously, in what would otherwise be an entirely consenting (and hence apparently unromantic) situation, McCaffrey has her heroine spike her target’s drink with a date rape drug. Again, she’s not going for outright, named-on-the-surface rape: he’s not rendered immobile or anything. Instead, it’s only an aphrodisiac – but it’s an aphrodisiac she’s assured (by a respectable character) is infallible. That is an aphrodisiac that is sure to “make” him want to have sex with her, whatever he would otherwise have wanted. Oh, how romantic. Now sure, you can argue that this is an entirely fucked up relationship and the novel knows it – this is certainly not meant to be a perfect partnership (even though it is meant to be an intensely romantic one). Indeed, one of the strengths of the novel is how weird and complicated this romance is, and how difficult it is to work out exactly what the author is trying to say. But there is no particular suggestion that using date rape drugs might not have been a good idea. No suggestion that the person who gave them to her to use perhaps ought not to have done so. Indeed, the suggestion seems to be that he’d have had sex with her anyway, so the drugs don’t really matter. But that would make it consenting, so naturally there has to be a little rapey element added to spice it up…
Underlying some of the consent thing may be a deeper issue regarding femininity. I’m speculating here, but it seems almost as though inherent asexuality is being treated as a necessity for female characters, at the same time that the author wants to show her women to be empowered and sexually active. It’s OK for women to enjoy sex, but they shouldn’t want it, and certainly shouldn’t express any desire for it, particularly outside of marriage. So when there is sex, the woman’s consent is downplayed as much as possible, as though the fact of consent were something icky, unfeminine and disreputable, a turn-off. The intention isn’t to deny female sexuality exactly – since it’s assumed that any sort of rapey situation will secretly be welcomed. When a woman is “forced” to have sex with a male colleague by telepathic influences, this is seen as a good thing, because it lets the two of them move in together and be happy with one another (how else could a woman even acknowledge her own desires, let alone communicate them?). And when women can’t be forced by external factors, they are forced by internal ones, overwhelmed by lust. Even in the case of the strongest female character, the description of her first time portrays her as feral and enthusiastic, but in a way that is unexpected, and out of character, and never repeated. That moment of out-of-character madness is necessary to, as it were, bring her across the line, but after that she can rely on the man telling her when she does and doesn’t want sex.
Even in the case of the above-mentioned male date rape victim, this pattern seems to hold: an intriguing element of that weird plotline is the way that his attraction is depicted as specifically feminine (by the standards of Pern). He’s fit and strong, yes, but lithe, a dancer, quiet, mystical, a poet, non-aggressive. And naturally if he is to be ‘feminine’, he must also be asexual, and must also need to be raped… in his case, every time. We’re told he’s never even slightly interested in sex. Rape drugs aren’t enough, so the heroine has to turn to (thanks to advice!) the strategy of “ambushing” him when he’s asleep or half-asleep, first thing in the morning, when the imperatives of biology are for many men more pressing, and his ability to meaningfully consent to, or forcefully prevent, sex is weakened by lack of full consciousness. I don’t think McCaffrey is intentionally talking about asexuality here, and we’re reassured repeatedly that he isn’t gay. It’s just that he’s seemingly so much more attractive if he’s unwilling, like a good woman. And the heroine, too, isn’t really unfeminine. Yes, she desires him, fantasises about him (he makes her think of erotic temple carvings), and forces him to have sex with her, but through her POV we’re reassured that she’s a good girl really. The whole rape issue only really has to arise in the first place is because she’s literally incapable of expressing any sexual or romantic interest. She does, we’re told, everything right: she follows him around like a puppy, while not actually talking to him any more than she can defend through the excuse of job requirements, and never suggesting any sort of interest in him at all. In response, he’s what Pern novels consider a total cocktease (pussytease? can we say that?) – no matter how much she expresses no interest at all, he doesn’t rape her, or even proposition her (even though she’s made sure he isn’t gay). This is seemingly frustrating and exciting and drives her to extreme measures… which apparently is meant to make the whole thing achingly romantic?
Now, again, this relationship is written to be fucked up. But it’s never entirely clear what exactly McCaffrey intends to be the problem with it. Worryingly, it rather feels as though she’s putting all the blame on him, for not being a real man about it…
Speaking of following around like a puppy, there’s a teenage romance, which is eyeball-rollingly cliché for old-school fantasy. The girl follows the boy around like a puppy while the boy ignores and/or (non-vindictively) abuses her. The girl’s father happily recognises that this means she’s horny and as found her life partner. She’s still only thirteen (he’s a fair bit older), but that’s not a problem – her father reassures her that she is menstruating, so there’s no possible reason why she shouldn’t be having sex yet. And there is The Conversation. No, not that one, the conversation repeated in a hundred old fantasy novels: girl follows boy around dumbly; boy says something mildly mean; girl tells boy he knows nothing, shakes her hair and flounces angrily from room; boy asks older man what that was all about; older man laughs and tells him he’s going to have to work that out himself. For those not familiar with the genre, The Conversation is basically the inarguable stamp of fate, the one sure-fire way you can know for certain that a couple are madly in love. Which I guess makes sense when you start from the assumption that women can never express any sort of interest in a man – when the only two allowable expressions of emotion are disinterest and anger, anger gets interpreted as interest. It goes further than interpretations, though. The author goes out of her way to paint this hero as a Real Man, the opposite of the femininised man who messes things up. And Real Men, naturally, mistreat women. How else could anyone find them attractive? So the hero, naturally, while cold and controlled with others, frequently explodes in anger when around the heroine, which the heroine sees as being the same as him loving her. Her only frustration is that he’s not specifically violent toward her – but not to worry, there’s a wonderfully romantic bit where, finally, he yells at her for something she’s done. What a guy!
Oh, and if there were any doubt about the novel’s view of women, there’s the villainess. Yes, that’s an old-fashioned word, but it’s the only one that suits. You can tell that she’s evil easily: she’s “sultry”, with “well-formed breasts”. She not only has sex, she actually wants sex, and signals sexual interest. What a slut. No wonder she’s Evil in every possible way with no redeeming features! She briefly captures the attention of a good guy, but only temporarily. He soon comes to his senses and goes for someone more… I can’t remember the exact word, I think probably “dignified”. Where ‘dignity’ means having no libido and retreating from the public sphere.
Inherently, these sexual dynamics have a tinge of something in the vicinity of some kind of BDSM. In Pern, though, this seems not to be an accident. A woman adores being spoken to “like an obedient child” (this makes the man irresistible), while another, given an order by a man, “did as she was told, well-pleased”. That side of things comes to a head in a really weird lesbian bondage and humiliation scene. Now, sure, some element of that makes sense given the plot. But there comes a point where you go… “now hang on a minute….” and start to wonder whether the author has just become a bit too excited about this. So, for example, where other novels might have one woman tied up by another, maybe punched a few times, this one out of the blue makes a big issue of the victim desperately needing to go to the toilet and having to beg for it and being made to hold it in and… now hang on, is this actually here for plot and character reasons, or is the author just writing kinky fan-fiction about her own characters and has accidentally posted it to her editor instead of anonymously to an appreciative audience of like-minded readers online? From another author I might just think that they’d taken this moment to be surprisingly specific. Sometimes surprising specificity can work. But from this author, given everything else, it’s hard not to read it as fetishistic. Which… well, each to their own, but…
[of course, there’s an extent to which McCaffrey just doesn’t seem to realise that women not being controlled by men may be an option. There is, for instance, no concept of personal space for women on Pern. Our adult heroine, for example, gets her face pinched by a man (it’s his way of showing he wants to have sex with her); our teenage heroine gets her hair ruffled by at least three different adults. None of this is even remarked on as irritating. At the other extreme: I know these people want to populate the planet, but seriously! At one point, two women compare their babymaking: one has had 4 children in 8 years, but the other has done better, she’s had 5 children in 8 years. And it’s not just those two, every character with a womb under the age of 50 seems to be churning children out so fast it’s hard to imagine how they find the time, what with all the domestic chores and the full-time jobs (and the flesh-eating rain of space-fungus). When a character gets to the age of 21 without having had any babies yet she worries there must be something wrong with her…]
And that’s the point, really. I’m not going to say that Pern is evil, or that people shouldn’t read it. I don’t believe in ‘problematic’ works in that way (or, if I do, I set that threshold far higher than many people today do). I think you have to consider the work in its context, within the roles and expectations the author perhaps grew up with. And which she doesn’t just unthinkingly accept (see, for instance, the way she inverts many of the male/female assumptions in that weird romance). In particular, I think we need to acknowledge how useful books like this have been, and continue to be, for their readers, particularly teenage girls. Yes, it’s very easy to read them as purveying a wholly unhealthy and regressive ideology for girls. Perhaps they do. But we also have to consider how books like this have helped readers (particularly girls, but boys too) navigate their inherited architectures of desire and performance, whether that’s in terms of interrogating old-fashioned views of gender roles, or in providing a safe space for enjoying certain conceptions of romance that would be unrealistic and counterproductive in the real world, or indeed in considering potential interests in issues like sexual and romantic submission, and to do all this within an unthreatening, non-explicit, non-overt, PG-rated environment. Books like the Pern novels, or indeed like Twilight, become bestsellers for a reason, and it would be a mistake to belittle and patronise (no pun intended) those who get something out of them. I would be very worried if all books were like this, but that’s not to say there can’t be some value in these books. If nothing else, it’s good to be reminded now and then that it takes all sorts…
But for the average reader? Well, for the average reader who is not so specifically engaged by these themes, let’s just say that they can sometimes be distracting from the other virtues of the book.
All this, though, is only the tip of the iceberg of potentially problematic, old-fashioned assumptions, which perhaps might not otherwise seem that egregious, but that really get highlighted by the problematic ambience. The most striking example for me was when one female character talks about the justice system. Why don’t evildoers get punished with domestic chores, she wonders? After all, that, she thinks, would be wonderfully appropriate… for female offenders. What!? Women who do bad things should be punished by being confined to the kitchen?? While men shouldn’t?!? Hgnnyuhh?!
And while you’re gagging on that, here’s the kicker: McCaffrey was lauded at the time for her feminism. That’s how she got into being an author. She read once too often about a female character cowering in a corner waiting to be saved, and so wrote a novel (Restoree) about a woman who could fight back (despite being flayed alive, hung on meat hooks, forced into menial slavery, etc – so I guess the body horror and the BDSM-ish undercurrents may both have been present from the beginning…). Works like McCaffrey’s novels, which frequently featured proactive, independent female protagonists, no doubt seemed like a breath of liberated fresh air compared to those of fusty, dry male authors like Isaac Asimov, who barely even noticed the existence of women**.
But in hindsight… well, I’m not a woman, and I guess reactions will vary between individuals in any case. But I’d find the old-school approach, in which women are ignored, or at worst assumed to follow 1950s norms of irrelevence, rather less offensive than McCaffrey’s “yes but” line of attack. Asimov may have forgotten to include many strong women, but McCaffrey seems to actively promote a view in which women are inherently weak. Her response to gender norms is not to reject them, but only to say “yes, but…” – yes, most young women are emotional, histrionic wrecks who need men to control them, but look, some of them can be strong and independent! Yes, women have an innate urge to be dominated by men, but that doesn’t always stop them from being effective in their jobs, see! And so on. Ultimately, it’s a difference in ideology. Writers like Asimov committed to the premise that men and women were fundamentally the same, and that beliefs about the inherent characteristics of women were largely balderdash… they just didn’t always know how (or care enough) to follow that premise to its logical conclusion in terms of including strong female characters. Whereas writers like McCaffrey seem to accept the premise that men and women are inherently different, to accept that most of the old calumnies against weak femininity have a basis in fact, and then to strive for a combination of “separate but equal” and “the exception proves the rule” that lets her have some strong female characters. It’s not an approach without some potential merit – it does let her embrace a sort of diversity, and avoid making all her women just male authors in bad drag – and of course not being a woman myself I’m hardly in a place to get into an argument with a female author about the ultimate nature of Woman. But let’s just say, it’s an approach that I think dates even faster than the absentminded malewashing of fifties liberalism. This novel, let’s remember, was not written in the 1960s. It was written in 1988, and frankly I find that fucking alarming.
[Charmingly, McCaffrey does show some progress. She has evidently realised that some of the rules of the game that she established herself way back in the sixties are so pointlessly, stupidly misogynistic that no woman of the future could possibly accept them without anger, and so at one point has some of her female characters rant against the ridiculous conservativism of, in effect, the author herself (via her proxy character in the novel). This, incidentally, is the sort of complicated, self-aware touch that elevates the author above a lot of mindlessly wrongheaded material. But sadly it serves here more to highlight the egregious sexism than to really disarm it – that’s a trap she locked herself into decades before this book]
Similar things can be said, incidentally, about the treatment of race. Just as McCaffrey is a ‘progressive’ in the way she centres her novel around female protagonists, so she is also progressive in providing us with a ‘diverse’ cast drawn from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. The names of characters reflect many different heritages – including some not immediately recognisable – while the characters also show diversity in skin colour, including for main characters. It’s commented, realistically, that time has obscured many of the old cultural differences, but there are still distinctly non-European cultural elements around the Japanese and Chinese characters, and an Indian (or Afghan?) character. You really can’t fault her on how diverse and progressive she is, making an effort to have Pern reflect the whole of Earth, sometimes to a slightly silly extent (after all in a small colonial expedition hundreds if not thousands of years into the future, how many different Tuareg groups can reasonably be expected?).
And yet, just as the author’s female protagonists do not make her approach a genuinely liberal one as regards sexual equality, so too her ‘diverse’ protagonists do not make her feel too liberal on racial issues. She seems, in fact, to fall into both of the pitfalls facing white writers: much of the time she simply ignores race, ethnicity and culture in favour of a (realistic in the setting but nonetheless potentially irritating) homogeneity that suspiciously closely represents white American culture of today; and when she does include cultural differences they feel less like real understanding of difference and more like lazy caricatures drawn from racist archetypes. I don’t like to hit her too hard on this point, as this is a Morton’s fork that no “non-diverse” author really has a good way out of. But whatever the best way out is, this isn’t it. For a start, somebody should have told her that repeatedly using the word “ethnic” very rarely makes anything any better. When a Japanese character is being a particularly obvious pastiche of the western image of a Japanese warrior, for example, just telling us that he’s honouring his ethnic ways and his ethnic ancestors doesn’t really convince us that the author understands either her character or reality. I mean, sure, maybe that’s a part of it. But traditions and behaviours have their own internal reasons – so show us how this behaviour makes sense to him, don’t just tell us that it’s ethnic.
And for the love of God, don’t include the sentence “she’s very ethnic… he married her because she would not question what he did.” OK, different cultures may have different gender roles, sure. But “she’s very ethnic” kind of raises the flag to tell us to expect some colossal, offensive generalisation, and sure enough equating ‘very ethnic’ with ‘is a total doormat’ duly comes along to fit the bill. [It doesn’t help that the woman saying this appears to approve both of her being ‘ethnic’ and of his decision in marrying someone so ‘ethnic’/submissive… but that goes back to the abovementioned issues around gender roles and submission fetishes].
So there are some problems.
To be sure, none of these are necessarily fatal problems. They’re mostly problems around the edges, and they’re mostly more issues of clumsiness and thoughtless assumption, rather than of outright malice. If the book were better, they might fade into the background – during the effective Threadfall sections, I didn’t really care about any of that nonsense. But when the book has so many problems, and in particular early on allows the reader much too much time for second thoughts and wait-a-minute realisations, they really do get in the way a bit.
And yet, and yet…. I really don’t want to condemn the book out of hand. It has its flaws, sure, but it has its virtues too. It has some fantastic ideas, and some bold plot decisions. It’s intriguing, evocative, imaginative, and at times exciting. It’s just…. oh, never mind.
Adrenaline: 3/5. An average. Some parts, particularly early on, are really slow. But some parts in the middle are quite effective and exciting.
Emotion: 2/5. Should be more, given the content… but it flies past us too fast for us to really care.
Thought: 4/5. The fact that I’ve written almost eight thousand words in reviewing this book should indicate that there’s plenty to think about. Though, to be fair, some of it is thinking about what the hell the author must have been thinking. But throughout, it is a thoughtful book. It has themes, and reasonably complex (sometimes unexpected) plotting, and lots of worldbuilding, and many red herrings.
Beauty: 2/5. A rain of ugliness collides with limping prose.
Craft: 3/5. McCaffrey, at least in this novel, rarely displays any great talent for writing. Some lines are good, but some (particularly in dialogue) are godawful, and in general the prose is at best workmanlike. Characterisation and the delivery of information could also be better. Then again, to be fair to her, she set herself up far too much of a challenge in this novel, and she does better than a lot of authors probably would have done. She also sometimes manages to make it all work, if only for brief stretches.
Endearingness: 3/5. There are enough powerful, attractive elements here that this could have been higher. Unfortunately, all the… well, bullshit, frankly, just leaves a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.
Originality: 4/5. She leans a little on familiar tropes, particularly in the final section, and of course she’s also relying on an established series by this point. But to be fair to her, she’s never afraid to add new things, and to take directions that other, more conventional, authors might not have contemplated.
OVERALL: 4/5. NOT BAD. A frustrating novel, for the way in which strong elements, and fascinating ideas, are hamstrung by the limitations (and just plain weirdness) of the author. McCaffrey must be commended for her courage as a novelist, taking on a difficult challenge and often avoiding the easiest path. Unfortunately, her talent just isn’t up to the task she sets herself, I think.