Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dragonflight (1968)

Dragonflight was published by Anne McCaffrey way in 1968, too early to make it as a one of the Top Fantasy Novels of the 1970's, but as far as I am concerned, the novel is an honorary member. This was one of the earliest fantasy series that I read, and arguably the most influential. This particular novel is something called a fix-up, where a series of stories are combined by a writer into a single novel. In a way, I should review each of the stories on its own.

"Weyr Search" was published in 1967 by Analog Magazine, then went on to win a Hugo for best novella. (Thank you Wikipedia.) Reading this story, you quickly understand why this novella took an award. McCaffrey took three characters, wrapped them in dynamite, put them into a field of flaming torches, then pitted each against the other. The characters all come across clearly, their ambitions each have an epic quality, and it's only a matter of time before everything blows up.

What strikes me most was how much this story lived in the unsaid. When I was in school, I didn't pick up on all the psychic and sexual undertones, but as an adult, they smack me around like a volleyball. I was absolutely fascinated by the way that Anne showed the psychic powers without any explanation, knowing that the audience would simply follow along. If you are a writer (which I am), this is a grand story to study.

"Dragonflight" follows on "Weyr Search," Benden Weyr doing its best to make itself relevant in a time of impending crisis, with those most affected refusing to recognize their impending doom. And in there, a story of feminism, of how tradition should not dictate what a woman can or should do.

"Crack Dust, Black Dust" follows on, describing the first fall of thread onto the planet. Anne follows the implications of her setup, showing just how merciless and brutal an environmental enemy can be. I adore everything about this story except for the time travel. After rereading this novel as an adult, I find the time travel element disruptive. An otherwise fine SF story gets ruined by taking the characters needlessly into the past. Time travel has too many "gee whiz" elements, and the character get "hey, let's put on a show" style revelations when the characters are not so slow as to need those sorts of revelation.

The novels wraps up with "The Cold Between," an absolutely pat and super gee-whiz story of going into the past to rescue the plot. In what should have been an entire novel on its own, part of the novella sees Lessa travel into the past to bring up the missing weyrs, making the ending feel a little too pat. This section also introduces two iconic characters, Fandarel, the mastersmith, and the super-iconic character Robinton, the master-harper. All this makes me think that this novel section really fits better at the beginning of Dragonquest, which turns on the tension of the old time Weyrleaders against our new-fangled Weyreleaders. In addition, we also see the introduction of the Southern Continent. For the future, it's a good setup.

I know that my dislike of time travel may ruffle a few feathers with other McCaffrey fans, as the ability becomes rather central to later stories, but its existence takes the desperation out of these stories, and that's a tension that Anne avoids, or perhaps opts against. She was before her time, before the late 70's and early 80's where bleak survival came of age. In 1968, SF still contains the optimism of an earlier age.