Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Why Pern Was Successful

Introduction

Anne McCaffey was a science fiction writer with a long career, spanning from the late 1960s into the early 2000s. She wrote many series, featuring many characters, but most of those series only produced a handful of novels, and none of them were anywhere as successful as her Pern novels. There’s something about them that built a eager fanbase that pushed her to the top of the publishing charts and made her a favorite of cons, produced an underground industry of fire lizard stuffies, handed her major awards, and earned the hearts of millions.


Why were Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels successful?

About This Essay

This essay is a work of opinion. I do not posit myself as a McCaffrey scholar or a Pern expert, although I do have a respectable familiarity with these subjects. The purpose of this essay is to examine, in my opinion as an author and a marketer, why Pern worked.


While I may refer to more recent Pern books, I will primarily discuss the first five titles as they had the largest impact in building McCaffrey’s Pern’s legacy.


Dragonflight (1969)
Dragonquest (1971)
Dragonsong (1976)
Dragonsinger (1977)
The White Dragon (1978)

Background

Wikipedia summarizes Anne’s early life as follows.


Anne Inez McCaffrey (1 April 1926 – 21 November 2011) was an American-born writer who immigrated to Ireland and was best known for the Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series. Early in McCaffrey's 46-year career as a writer, she became the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the first to win a Nebula Award. Her 1978 novel The White Dragon became one of the first science-fiction books to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.


Through the 1960’s, Anne McCaffrey strove to break into the world of SF writing, a mostly male domain, by combining romance with SF. While her early worked showed her both as inventive and determined, most of her early stories contained glaring problems and faults. Unlike many writers, she was not a natural and had to earn her way up, learning from her failures. She experimented themes and structures derived from the romance genre as it existed in the 1940’s through the 1960’s, through trial and error, finding out what worked with SF.


Anne’s earliest published story was The Rowan (1959), which received a sequel a decade later with Damia (1969). These stories are both structurally romances with space opera thrown in. Each lonely, psychic woman works hard, possesses great determination and resilience, yet is missing something from their life. That thing is a man, and when they find a man equal to their own talents, they settle down into a happily ever while retaining their jobs.


Beginning in 1961, Anne sold a series of brain ship stories to magazines. These brain ships followed the tale of a woman whose body was placed into a ship, who then proceeded to live the life of a modern, liberated woman, with any number of “pilots” who were stand-ins for boyfriends and roommates, a reflection of how younger women were beginning to live.


Her first published novel was Restoree, in 1967. In this tale, a young woman is kidnapped from Earth and put into service on an alien planet watching over a crazy man. She later helps this man escape and seek his rightful place as ruler of the planet, and just in time, too, to protect the planet from disaster. Together, the new ruling couple sees the planet through a dangerous time, a theme that she would revive in her Pern books.


While Dinosaur Planet was not published until 1978, it reads like a story from earlier in Anne’s career and sold later. In this story, a group of colonists must survive among prehistoric beasts, doing their best in their low-tech surroundings. The story ends rather abruptly with the survivors going into hibernation, giving the story no satisfying resolution.


Taken in summary, these works are the direct genetic ancestors to Pern.


The first published Pern story was Weyr Search, included in the October, 1967 of Analog. In this story, Lessa, a seemingly lowly woman, is actually a strong psychic and heir to Ruatha hiding under the nose of the man, Lord Fax, who murdered her family. When dragonriders come searching for a new queen rider, the usurping ruler Fax is killed, and the dragonrider F’lar flies Lessa away to the weyr.


In the follow on story, Dragonrider, Lessa struggles to adjust to weyr life, especially against the restrictions against her as a woman, continuing the theme of women’s liberation. Gold dragons aren’t allowed to fly, which makes sense when your last breeding dragon and the world’s only hope, but by the end of the story, Lessa has won this right in another blow for women’s lib.


The two stories did well enough that Anne wrote a third section, and then assembled the stories into a fix-up, a type of novel created from related stories. In the third section, with everything looking dire for our heroes, Lessa uses her gold dragon Ramoth to psychically travel back in time and bring all the dragonriders of the past up to the present.


The resulting novel was named Dragonflight. Anne must have done something right because she won a Hugo awards for these tales. Something in these stories electrified the audience. In a male dominated fandom that should have excluded her, it instead voted her to the top of the heap, literally awarding her with a rocket ship of her own.


The follow up to Dragonflight was Dragonquest, and the royalties from that book bough Anne a house. The third in that series, The White Dragon, hit the New York Times bestseller list at a time when SF didn’t hit the bestseller list.


Of important note in this time period is the first two books of the Harper Hall series, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. We see the same familiar themes again. Menolly wants to make music, but she can’t precisely because she’s a girl. Over the course of these books, she impresses her own fair of fire lizards, gets rescued by dragonriders, gets recruited by the Masterharper himself, becomes the first girl in Harper Hall, suffers through discrimination, but in the end, proves herself and becomes a journeyman. Yay women's lib.


Taken together, these five books formed the core of McCaffrey’s fandom, sold a ton of books, made a ton of money, won her awards, and put her at the top of the SF game. That makes this work worth the effort to ask: why did Pern work?

Context

The Pern books were begun at a time full of social upheaval. During this time, women were burning their bras in protests and fighting their way into jobs, gay men were rioting in New York, the belief in psychic powers was rampant, the artisan craft movement was bursting out of its niche, the paperback industry was exploding in size and reach, counterculture was surging, anti-nuclear sentiments were rampant, all in a time when there was no Star Wars.

While I can’t possibly go deeply into the entire background, I will touch on the most important trends that influenced the design of Pern.


  • Second Wave Feminism and the Sexual Revolution
  • Gay Liberation/The Stonewall Riots
  • Anti-War
  • Environmentalism
  • Folk Music
  • The Decline of Religion
  • Progress


I will summarize the most pertinent elements of each topic, noting that each topic is far more complicated and complex than I present.


The most important note about second wave feminism and the sexual revolution is that women were demanding a different place in this world, more freedom than men had afforded them before. This is the era of “the war of the sexes” and “women coming out of the kitchen.” The particular strain of sexism that had dominated women in the mid-century had cracked under the sheer weight of feminine discontent, especially the young women attending colleges and desiring more than a “Mrs.” degree.


Meanwhile, in New York, the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent gay liberation movement brought the plight of gay men into public awareness. Where before these men were conveniently ignored, willing to stay out of the public eye, their bad treatment led them to go onto the offensive. Unwilling to be pariahs any more, they demanded to be treated as people. In the late 60’s, there was no AIDS, so that issue had not yet surfaced. At this point, homosexuals were fighting for their basic humanity.


With nuclear weapons proliferating, and the Cold War turning colder, the anti-war movement became a prominent voice and a very moral position. Protests were prolific and often turned violent, with the police as responsible for violence as the protesters. America, especially, was rocked with both violence and peaceful protest over the Vietnam War.


A popular style since the 50’s, folk music brought the acoustic guitar sound to everyone, providing the medium for many counterculture and opposition groups. They organized and expressed themselves via song. Especially for generations which did not fit into the new rock era, folk music blended popular musical sensibilities with traditional tunes and strident opinion.


In the 1960s, churches saw their religious culture broken by the tide of consumerism. No longer was the church the center of the neighborhood. Once that happened, attendance at churches plummeted, as that social dance was no longer required, more so in Europe than America. The same was true in speculative fiction. In most SF futures, because of science and reason, there was no need for God.


The SF of the 1960’s was filled with progress. The late 1960’s were the time of the space race, when humans would first set foot on the moon. The idea that science could lead mankind to a better future, that a better world could be engineered, was a commonly held belief. Human effort could lead to a better world, while those who opposed that effort, who did not share that belief, proved unwilling to give up any of their own privileges for the common good.


In 1968, Star Trek was on television.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Is Pern is science fiction or fantasy? Given that Anne only wrote science fiction before this story, given that there is no magic displayed within the story, nor is there anything fantastical other than a dragon, the argument for Pern being SF is strong. However, the confusion over SF vs fantasy is understandable.

For several decades before the 1970s, fantasy had been disguising itself as SF by giving itself a plausible mechanism, so that it could squeeze through the SF loophole with enough hand waving, but once that was done, the the story operated as a fantasy. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, true non-child fantasy formed as its own distinct marketing genre, so the fan base of fantasy busily began identifying fantasy in existing works, recognizing that psychic powers were often just stand-ins for magic, and Pern had enough of those elements to get pulled into the fantasy corral. What’s apparent, with the publishing of Dragonquest, was that Anne had added enough SF elements to her stories that Pern’s SF allegiance should not have been in doubt.

Romance

Romance forms an important basis for Anne’s books. Each of the primary Dragonrider novels features a prominent romance in the style of romances of that day. Lessa has her romance with F’lar, F’nor with Brekke, and Jaxom with Sharrah. I believe that it’s this romance structure which brought in women as Anne’s fans. They knew and understood this form of sexuality, rather than the woman-as-prize sexuality prominent in male written novels, giving women access to this fiction in a way that no other SFF work did. They may not have been conscious of that fact, but the structure is there.


In the classic romance structure, boy and girl meet, dance about each other, eventually get together, face some sort of crisis, and only after the relationship has survived a crisis has the writer proven to the audience that this romantic pair has transcended a fling and established a true relationship.


We see this structure in Dragonflight with F’lar and Lessa, where F’lar searches out Lessa, introduces here to the weyr, but she holds back until her gold launches herself into mating flight, bringing the two together. When Lessa flees back in time to bring the old timers back, she does so without F’lar blessing, surely dooming the relationship, but when she arrives back, her transgressions are forgiven and she is now the hero, and the couple together for all time.


In Dragonquest, F’nor and Brekke get to know one another. They grow close. F’nor literally carries Brekke into the bushes to have his way with her. When Brekke’s gold dragon gets killed in a terrible mating mishap (which also saves the woman from bedding someone who isn’t F’nor), the brown rider F’nor stands by his woman, proving his true worth.


In The White Dragon, Jaxom is the future Lord Holder of Ruatha, and rider of the unique white dragon Ruth. He dabbles with girls here and there, and about halfway through the book, falls ill with fever and is nursed through this by the skilled healer Sharrah. In the process of living alone on a tropical beach, they fall in love. Later on, when Sharrah is stolen away by her own brother, Jaxom flies Ruth in to rescue her, and the two publicly declare their love.


All three have the romance structure.


Because the romance structure was more familiar to women, the work felt more familiar as well, more accessible, more to their sensibilities. This aspect allowed the series to cross boundaries, picking up women where most SF works alienated women.

However, not everyone is comfortable with Anne’s couplings. F’lar is frequently depicted as shaking Lessa, in acts of near violence or a type of fear based control. F’lar feels very close to abusive, too close for many women. They only go to bed when under mind-control of their dragons, with Lessa fully unable to give consent. When F’nor drags Brekke off to the bushes, he won’t take no for an answer, and that feels too close to rape. Jaxom uses his position to demand sex from one of his subjects who could not refused his advances. These issues, among many more like them, make these early Pern books uncomfortable for the modern female reader.

Women’s Lib

Dragonflight was a close to a bra-burning novel as SF was likely to get. Anne arranged Pern as a male dominated society precisely so that her heroine, Lessa, had something to fight and push against as an example of women, like the women in her readership, pushing boundaries and bust down barrier. Lessa was an example of the thoroughly modern women of the day.


Lessa begins the novel working in the kitchen as a drudge. Her status can be now lower, and she must hide her intelligence and guile lest the men who run everything, especially Lord Fax, figure out who she is.


In the novel, Fax wants a son. That’s all he wants. The implication is that Fax has sired many daughter and thought nothing of them. To him, women are worthless. Even his wife, Lady Gemma, is only there to produce children. To him, women are just breeding stock. Symbolically, he play the role of a domineering and abusive father figure, emotionally absent, a figurative ogre that killed Lessa’s real father who represented the kind aspect of manhood. To a woman who grew up under an abusive father, who understood the need for staying out of his way when he was in a temper, the necessity of making yourself invisible to escape his wrath, this emotional similarity would have been enough to feel familiar despite Lessa having no true relationship to Fax at all.


Through the use of her psychic powers, Lessa engineers the knife fight between F’lar and Fax where otherwise, one might not have occurred. Only when Fax is killed does she ring triumphant, the ogre is dead, and now she can rule herself. There is no thought in Lessa’s mind that someone will do the job for her, or that she needs any approval from a man at all. She has full right to rule, bar nothing.


Before she can rule, F’lar gives Lessa a better offer. Ride with the dragons. Become the queen rider, which feels the same as being offered the job of queen. As the one queen rider, she is given an opportunity to essentially rule not just a hold, but an entire planet, with her co-ruler being whoever could become her consort.


Lessa goes on to impress Ramoth, the largest queen dragon ever hatched on Pern. Size matters here. Ramoth is the biggest, which transfers to Lessa, conferring onto her a status unattainable by any other person on the planet. Even in 2001’s “The Skies of Pern,” Ramoth retains her size as the largest. Yet even at the highest, the people who surround her keep trying to pull her down.


Gold dragons don’t fly. Gold dragons don’t teleport between.


This fact makes sense on a practical level, as there’s only one breeding queen on the planet, but from a symbolic level, it again puts barriers in front of Lessa, giving her a new barrier to break. Only male dragons fly. Only male dragons go between. Lessa continues to break barriers erected against women, both flying her dragon to save the day and learning to go between.


For any women into SF or fantasy, both genres not generally written towards women, likely in careers or wanting careers no normally pursued by women, such a story must have riveted them, must have supported their dreams, must have validated their desires for the first time in their entire life. A woman wrote a story that said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re exactly who you’re supposed to be. They’re the problem. So fly.”


Dragonflight ends with Lessa going back in time and literally changing history. Symbolically, that’s about as unsubtle as you can get.

Another area that enabled the series to satisfy female readers was in the portrayal of women in the stories. In general, women were a vital and ordinary part of the world, competent in their jobs, and well able to do anything. Because the work began as a liberated woman story, where a woman was pushing boundaries, most social structures locked women into their traditional home duties so that women would have some structure to resist and break into. The woman in this story went directly against the social fabric to achieve their dreams.


This idea of generational progress was highlighted with the Old Timers, the dragonriders who came from the past. They had very archaic and authoritarian ideas about the relationship of dragonriders to others. They were personifications of the generation before, the older generation, that disliked the new liberal and empowered generation of today. They embodied that generational conflict raging in the English world as women’s lib pressed women into the public sphere.


Anne's setup of Pern so that women could break into new fields later became a point of irritation. Women weren’t satisfied with women getting to fly some dragons,and women wanted broader representation across every aspect of Pernesian life. This required a bit of retconning on Anne’s part and some contortioned plotting, but as times changed, as the norms for her readers changed, she responded with a substantial equalization of the sexes. With Dragonsdawn, she made the original dragonriders mixed gender, and it was only the recent history of Pern that restricted women's otherwise equal roles.

Homosexuality

Anne knew homosexuals and was quite fond of them, being sympathetic with their situation. She proved herself an ally as she put homosexual references into her works. They generally aren’t very overt, but they are there, and in these portrayals, homosexuals are treated as normal. As sex between riders happens during mating, and only men are present when the female green dragons fly (at that point in the continuity), then sex must happen between the men.


In the weyrs, gay men had a place to go. They had a place to fly above. They had a place where they not only belonged, but they too could be the heroes, flying to protect the world below. They had, perhaps, the first depiction of homosexual normalcy ever depicted in mainstream media.


We even seen committed partners in Dragonquest, male dragonriders who are couples. Their pairings are taken as granted and treated as routine.

Tolerance of dragonrider homosexuality is further cemented in The White Dragon when Jaxom sees a green mating flight and witnesses the male riders running towards their quarters, finally old enough to understand the implications of that action.


Anne's inclusion of homosexuals is not above criticism. Even though homosexual are shown as normal, they do not compromise the primary characters in any meaningful way. While they may exist, they are relegated to tertiary characters. In essence, they are let into the party but they aren’t given a seat at the table.

Anti-War

Pern shows itself on the side of anti-war sentiment. These books, especially Dragonflight, show clear elements supporting this peace movement, which makes it very unique among both SF and fantasy books, where some degree of conflict was seen as normal and routine.


Fax is the Lord of Seven Holds, who secured his power through violence and bloodshed. He is firmly and unequivocally held up as a villain. His death at the hands of F’lar in a personal duel, not faceless war, help return Pern to the path of peace and respect between the holds. Making war is clearly demonstrated as an act of villainy, completely out of character for the planet.


The only true military action shown in the entire series is also in Dragonflight, when holders assemble a military force to settle their conflicts with the Benden dragonriders. That conflict ends with the dragons surrounding their opponents but inflicting no harm to them. Peace, rather than war, wins these conflicts.


While those two incidents are enough to argue strongly for anti-war, but there’s a larger element that's built into the very foundation of the work. The purpose of the dragons is to protect the Pern against thread, a natural threat from another planet. Thread will destroy the environment unless the dragonriders save it. The military here, the dragonriders being an air force, exist to protect people and the planet, and not to maim or kill. The dragonriders are a force of peace, not war. I honestly can't think of any other SF military or paramilitary organization organized around the same ideal.

Thread itself bears an amazing resemblance to the 1980 video game, Missile Command. Thread falls from space, and if it hits, will grow outward, devastating an area so wide, that it can be seen from space. In one short story, she describes these as circles devoid of life, reminiscent of nuclear devastation. The job of dragon riders is to prevent this destruction from ever landing, a literal living shield against the mindless destruction of mankind. Given that this is the height of nuclear fear, this nuclear metaphor is well grounded in its time.

Environmentalism?

The dragonriders keep Pern safe from thread, an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy humanity. It is only through flying dragons, a fully natural and organic solution, one that requires cooperation and intimacy, that the world below can be saved. The solution is organic, not artificial.


The original novels didn’t pay much attention to environmentalism. It was only with Dragonsdawn that Anne established Perns as a purposefully low-tech colony planet, which means that she arrived late to the environmentalism theme, and that was more to create a reason for Pern’s low-tech society rather than making common cause with the environmentalism movement.

So while thread could be an environmental allegory, it acts more like a faceless enemy, bringing people together.

Folk Music

Folk music was a big thing from the 50’s through the 70’s, especially the guitar. From the  60’s point of view, the acoustic guitar was forever. Folk and folk rock were as established as rock, soul, and jazz. So when Harpers first appear, they play guitars, like the folk musicians of their day.


Music in fandom goes way back, forming one of its longstanding backbones. The acoustic guitar was part of the tradition. The acoustic guitar had deep associations in that era before MTV’s Unplugged repopularized the acoustic band. It was the instrument of not-rock and not-pop (even though it appeared in both those movements). Of note is The Sound of Music, the 1965 film which became a perennial TV favorite, where the heroine played an acoustic guitar. Even in that era, the film won no cool awards, and considering that much of fandom wasn’t winning cool awards either, the acoustic guitar made for a good match.


Anne herself liked music, putting it into many of her works. This music brought a certain degree of humanness to her stories, something relatable in a far away and alien world that said, “these people aren’t so different from you and me.” Their need to make music made a wide circle, one that the reader felt let into.

A Lack of Religion

As was usual for SF books of its day, Pern has no religion nor any indication of religion, enough so that the author tooks pains to say as much. For most of those who enjoy this series, this was a feature, not a bug. It’s this lack of religion that further emphasises this as an SF work, for there is nothing supernatural or unexpected going on. These are rational people on a rational world solving their issues with rational thought. This is a primary idea of 1960’s SF. So while this wasn’t a selling feature, per se, it’s absence, the presence of religion, would have driven its audience away.

The Spirit of Progress

One of the strongest hallmarks of the SF market from the beginning is the spirit of progress, the idea that man, by using science, can solve his own problems and make the world a better place. Those who stand in the way of progress, in the way of making the world work better for everyone, are often Pern’s villain, men who are interested in stopping progress because they want to keep powers and privileges to themselves.


We see the spirit of progress first in Lessa’s demands to be taken serious as a rider, not just as a woman, but as a full member of the team. This social progress undergirds every book as women steadily expand into every role of Pernese society. The feminist agenda can and will be achieved, not because it is radical, but because it is sensical.


Beginning in Dragonquest, we see the scientific and engineering aspect of progress come in. The leaders of Pern begin rediscovering Pern’s spacefaring and technological past, and as the series progresses, they relearn many lost skills, explore more of their own planet, and ultimately find the site of their first settlement.


In her late books, there are people who don’t like all this progress, becoming villains in their own rights, which only underscores the basic premise of Pern. The true hero of Pern is knowledge and progress, the purest expression of the age of enlightenment, and the true villains stand against that state.


Even before then, it’s the conservatives who cause all the trouble, because they hold onto the old ways at all cost, causing disruption and creating havoc where everything would just work if only they adapted. The Odltimers cause considerable issue in Dragonquest, eventually getting exiled to the Southern Continent. In The White Dragon, a school has been established for the young leaders precisely on the idea that they will use the regained knowledge to lead Pern into a brighter, more educated future.

Progress is the hero. Conservative plays the villain.

Soulmate

Every lonely soul yearns for a perfect love, and the dragons of Pern provide exactly that. They are the perfect soul mates in every way, shape, and form. In a moment of impression, both dragon and rider fall in love with each other, a love so deep that suicide is preferable to living alone. To someone living isolated, having trouble bonding with others, having trouble being understood, the idea of perfect communion and perfect partnership was both alluring and intoxicating. Even if you didn’t fit in in some other way, in this way, you always had your champion.


Dragons weren’t passive partners, either. They could recognize who was good for you and who wasn’t, so if they thought that somebody was good, they interfered. Their riders might take a while coming around to it, only to discover that their dragons were right. Because dragons could use their psychic powers on others, in some vague way that only dragons knew, they could cut through the impossibility of ever shacking up with your perfect person, no matter how clueless you were, and at the other end would be a real human relationship.


For folks who weren’t destined for weyr life, Anne invented fire lizards, creatures akin to dragons, capable of the same bonding. More like smart dogs than deep intellects, fire lizards provided the same sort of unmitigated love in a smaller and easier to feed package. With a fire lizard, loneliness is a disease that you need never fear.


To say that fire lizards were a hit would be an understatement. For years, you could spot a McCaffrey fan at a convention with a stuffed fire lizard on their shoulder, showing off their handmade creation (most usually from a vendor) while also showing off their Pern geek status.

Freedom

Freeing oneself from the rigidity of society is a very strong theme in the Pern books, especially in the Harper Hall series. Menolly lives in an abusive family situations, member of her family who should be standing up for her don’t, all the while, the one thing that she’s going at is completely devalued. One day, she runs away, and so her life really begins, leaving her to live independently, heal up in a weyr where she’s given room to be herself, and ultimately onto Harper Hall where she proves her talents and skills, becoming a true Harper.


With Lessa, we see a woman who’s trapped in a hall, and even without the death of Fax, search would have given her a free ticket out of the common drudgery of life. Even without impressing, she would have wound up in a liberal bastion in the sky, where all sorts of differences are accepted and people from all over Pern live in harmony.


In The White Dragon, Jaxom is oppressed by his future duties as Lord Holder of Ruatha. Everything in his life is structured around this responsibility, but what he really wants is the freedom to explore being himself.


For those who feel bound, who find themselves in tough family or social situations, who find themselves liberals in a sea of conservatives, or under the heel of bullies, these books offer the escape that they need, the hope that out there are people just like them ready to take them in and let them exist, as they are, no questions asked.

Dragons

And if it hasn’t been said enough, Pern had dragons, and if there’s any perpetually perfect way to sell a fantasy or SF book, it’s putting a dragon on the cover. Good, bad, or ugly, fans love dragons. Compare this to another 1970’s hit, Dungeons and Dragons, and you’d see a dragon right there on the cover. Dragons sell.


What’s the allure of dragons? I cannot do this topic justice. If I could get that answer right, I’d launch my own series and make a mint. Dragons today, with How to Train Your Dragon, sell just as well now as they do then. The combination of flying, freedom, and power all coalesce into the dreams of puberty and young adulthood. Dragons are the motorcycles and riders are the free souls. On a dragon, you can go anywhere, do anything, and get anybody in the sack with you. They are literally the cavalry that rides in to save the day.


Dragons are a power unto themselves, and when you ride them, you become a power unto yourself as well. It's the same exact thing which makes horses in girl's literature the fixture that they are.


What made McCaffrey’s dragons particularly enticing is that they were friendly dragons, creatures who wanted to partner with and help mankind. Theirs was a high minded rule, full of goodwill and harmony.

Criticism

Anne’s Pern can’t be called perfect in all ways. It’s the product of both Anne and her time. Already in her later 40’s and 50’s when writing these books, her understanding of feminism and women’s lib wasn’t completely in line with that era, already showing its archaic ideas, and certainly not previewing the feminist ideas of today.


While Anne’s women have far more self-determination, when it comes to going to bed, like in the romance novels of the time, they’re still good girls, and good girls need circumstances beyond their control to have sex. This create a rape-like feel that many modern women are uncomfortable with.


In multiple series, Anne displays a very rough idea of how spoil children should be treated, frequently with the children getting beaten or otherwise roughly handled. As shown by her, a very firm hand and discipline is how you deal with spoiled children. This authoritarian approach to child rearing puts off many people.


Anne’s pairing of main characters sometimes leaves fan unsettled. While her primary characters are usually paired up well enough, some older characters take enough interest in some younger characters to unsettle readers.


Some characters come across as too special, too loved, such as Robinton and Menolly, possibly even crossing into Mary Sue status. However, the intended audience loved the characters, so if they’re Mary Sues, they’ve even worked on the reader, which is a mighty good trick for any writer.


All of these criticisms and more truly deserve more time than I have to touch on them.

Would Pern Be a Hit Today?

There’s no denying that Pern has aged. It was a product of its time talking to a need of its time. Much of what we see in the series now plays dated as pointy bras, domed hair dryers, and brightly colored uniforms on Technicolored sets. With women having far more options in terms of fantasy, SF, and romance, Pern would have a hard time standing out. It’s romance is clean, with the women acting more passively than actively, which isn’t as popular with today’s audience. Women still act within many women-specific roles, which would feel restrictive to a young woman of today. And the issue of breaking down barriers and advancing the feminist agenda would not hit because the feminists agendas of today are fighting very different battles with very different stakes. Breaking out from the pack would prove far more difficult for Anne.

What Happened to Pern?

At one point, Pern was at the top of the heap, and since then, it’s not. What happened to Pern? As in all things, forever isn’t really forever. Most importantly, there were multiple shifts in publishing, technology, and social circumstances guaranteeing that pern couldn’t stay a darling forever. The very forces that pushed it up moved on. As more Pern books emerged, many readers understood these books as profiteering, as a way to get more cash from a cash cow rather than the writer telling more stories that needed telling. By the early 90’s, the age of cynicism was in full swing.


Even so, the books kept making enough money for the publishers to keep asking for more, and enough for McCaffrey to keep obliging.


In marketing, the forces that Pern rode in the rapidly expanding paperback market of the 1970’s had vastly changed by the corporatization wave of the 1980s, and this wave was changed by the mass market bookstore situation of the 1990’s. Add to that a deeper and deeper backlist, which appealed to fans, but which increasingly didn’t appeal to new readers uninterested in that backlist, and you get a fandom waning. This was pretty much guaranteed. Most intellectual properties don’t survive the changes of time unscathed. In fact, Pern rode those changes far better than most.


Another thing that happened was Star Wars and the mega-franchises of the 1980’s. The number of stories which fed this sort of reader literally exploded in availability. Pern now stood behind a wave of corporate backed properties which could afford to pump out multiple new books per year. These properties were now building fan bases whose size would dwarf the size of every other type of fandom. Meanwhile, every summer, a new blockbuster came along to garner attention, and a myriad of B-movies built on this interest. These all fed into a new device, the VCR, which made watching these movies endlessly possible and probably.


Meanwhile, the very elements that made Pern so successful made it a tricky property to adapt for movies for television. How do you adapt peace loving dragons with politicking riders to a wide screen or a small screen? Although there were endless tries, the adaptation consigned Pern to development hell because the changes required to make the world work as cinema have, so far, produced unsatisfying result, or at least results that are unlikely to recoup a $400 million dollar production and advertising investment.

Conclusion


Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series attracted a large body of readers, both male and female, because it offered them a vision of how life could be while providing them approval of they way that they were, no questions asked. Girls could dream of breaking barriers. Boys could dream of escaping their unkind peers. Everyone could dream of perfect love, of a perfect partner, who perfectly accepted them. While you can’t draw a straight line between McCaffrey’s Pern and most of the female led books of today, you can guarantee that most of those authors read McCaffrey and dreamed of flying on dragons.