Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dragonquest (1971)

Published in 1971, Dragonquest is the book that put McCaffrey on the map. More accurately, it put McCaffrey onto a planet, named Pern, which proceeded to provide her a living wage as a writer. That's no mean feat.

Dragonquest came about in a curious time for SF and Fantasy. The genres were heading into new directions. Gone were the days of easy hand waving and shiny chrome that came with the SF short story. At the length of a novel, your setting now had to hold itself together, and hold itself together under scrutiny. Not only was Anne a member of this time, seeking to meet this newer and more detailed sort of work, due to the time that she was writing it, she was a pioneer of the style as well. For with the change of times came new pressures on Pern, and Anne had to take those series of short stories and turn them into something real, something believable, and something that approached 80,000 words.

Anne solved most of her problems marvelously, and failed at some of her problems tremendously. On balance, she delivered, for the novel went up for multiple award nominations. Not only had she gotten noticed, she had gotten noticed real good in a male dominated industry dominated by male readers. That, by itself, puts her in rare company.

The story itself is an ensemble piece, taking place seven years after the end of Dragonflight. Each arc consists of its own short stories, with the characters intermingling as they went. F'nor and Brekke make googly eyes at each other, old technology is discovered, a showdown with the old timers comes along, a gold rider causes a tragedy, Jaxom gets into extraordinary trouble, fire lizards get rediscovered, and F'lar goes digging for grubs. Dump them all into a pot and puree, and you get a very engaging novel, switching between characters frequently and smoothly.

Science has obviously come into Anne's life as her SF base knows their stuff. Pern has stopped being a Star Trek like world, where the background looks like it goes on forever but is really just a static backdrop, and started being a planet. Time zones now matter. Politics are no longer so easily settled. Goods and commodities now have worth. People need to get fed. Workers need to do the work. Adding in these ordinary details of life change Pern from the late 60's technicolor sort of production into 70's cinematic realism, where the colors mute and shadows hang deep.

Women come further to the forefront here. Anne has realized her basic mistake of making all dragonriders men (except for golds). That sort of thing was good enough for when she wrote Dragonflight, but with this book, she knows that she has many female fans, and they want more out of the females in the book. They get that, too. There are more women in this book than there are in most Hollywood films. We have Lessa, Brekke, Kylara, Mirram, and Manora making up a substantial arc of the book. From here on out, Anne makes every classy retcon attempt to make women dragonriders and bring them further into the forefront of her books.

Let's put praise where praise belongs. Anne wrote an SFF books that women clamored to read. That was no mean feat. That was extraordinary. She is now in an upward trajectory that will place her, an SF author, as a top 10 bestseller by the late 70's.

How does the SF hold up after all these years? In my opinion, pretty awesomely. Anne's main failure is in understanding that her planet is a planet. Her mind is just not up to understanding 200 million people, which was the population of the Earth at the time of the Roman Empire. Her holds and settlements feel parochial. The scale of humanity is just not there in her own mind. By the way that the novel feels, you could stuff everyone into the island of Great Britain and still have elbow room. That's not a lot of people. One the whole, that criticism is small potatoes.

A notable absence in the book is Lessa's psychic powers. They are used in one scene, but for the most part, they stop mattering. That aspect of Dragonquest has been left behind. I don't recall if psychic powers ever really come back. I think that there was a psychic in a future book earlier in the timeline.

Most importantly, I had fun reading this book again, and I don't know of a better review than that.