Thursday, May 30, 2024

First Contact: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Some things are just better left for your teenage years

It seems a strange thing to have been a lifelong SFF fan and never have read a Pern novel. I am honestly a little surprised I made it to 34 without it, but I did. Certainly the last five of those years were a little more... considered. I knew enough people who had read the series, who made enough offhand remarks about it (loving remarks! fond remarks!) that made me think it sounded a bit sus. A bit too weird. So it just never made it anywhere near the top of my reading list, because it's not like we're short of good choices for reading these days.

But now read it I have. And that sense of it being weird? I didn't know the half of it.

Before I get to the rest of the review, I need to address the elephant in the room when it comes to this novel—consent. There are some events which take place in the story that, from a consent perspective, are pretty fucking awful. Someone —a young woman— has sex with a man she has, up until now, found distinctly annoying and patronising, because her conscious will is overcome by her psychic dragon bond, and her dragon wants to mate with his dragon. It was pretty gross, all things considered. I was not a fan of that scene, or the relationship between those two characters in general, which mainly consists of him being rude and dismissive, and her pushing him away but also silently appreciating his manly bearing (being rude to her, doing what he wants) and possibly wanting him but never... saying anything to that effect to anyone ever.

As someone who was, in her teen years, an Anne Rice reader, I am no stranger to books with some extremely messed up fantasy sex stuff in them. But there is also a reason I was an Anne Rice reader as a teen. Once I got past a certain age, a certain level of maturity or experience or... something, I don't know, the way I looked at those relationships changed, and I lost some of the willingness I had to suspend disbelief/concern about them. Teen me, I suspect, would likely have rolled with the weird dragon telepathy sex. Adult me is no longer capable of that. And maybe if I had read this book at an impressionable age, I would have a level of fondness that would help, even as I reassessed the dubious attitudes to consent on an adult reread. But I don't. I only have the adult self who read this book and pulled so, so many faces throughout all of that, who could not see why this woman would tolerate for a second the misogyny and dismissal she was seeing from the men around her, who were all hoping their dragon would be her dragon's mate (and thus have to sleep with her) and thus get to be in charge of all the dragon people. And so, whatever the rest of my thoughts about it were going to be, all of them were thoroughly tainted by this, which was just a level of gross I was unwilling to accept.

It does not help that it's a sort of gross that isn't entirely alone in the story. There are a number of issues with the way male characters talk about women, the way gender is presented and enacted, the way class is discussed, and how people with power act towards those without. This is especially true for F'lar, who is the... I am going to say "love interest" but I use that phrase both loosely and unhappily. F'lar is, I think, intended to be somewhat of a positively portrayed character. Lessa, the protagonist, for all that she finds him annoying, does also consider him manly and leader-y and generally a go-getter and the sort of person who ought to be in charge of the dragon people. Unfortunately for F'lar, this was a paragraph we got very shortly after we met him:

So you can see why I was less inclined to admire the man, perhaps.

And it's not just this man. There is a deeply permeating sense of classism throughout the book. SFF broadly, even still, has a problem with how it portrays power, especially power that comes through bloodlines (whether literally in the sense of magic, or figuratively in the sense of kingship and inherited authority). It's an insidious problem, and one I would love to see tackled face on in more fiction, but one it is, for the most part, easy for many to simply ignore as part and parcel with the tropes and sensibilities of the genre as a whole. Here though, in this story? It is impossible to ignore. It saturates it, every moment, every person, so much so that actions are taken at points in the story that I consider, frankly, abhorrent, but are validated and valorised because they are taken against those who challenge these class structures. The Weyrmen are better by blood, by secret knowledge, and they will take hostages and use them to threaten the people who tithe them food for challenging that superiority. Of course, the story goes on to prove them right, but in the moment, my sympathies simply could not sit with these people, so determined that they were simply better. And that disjoint continued throughout the story—it was so clear where my sympathies were supposed to lie, and yet so clear to me that that wasn't where they went at all, that the book and I were never in alignment.

To briefly play devil's advocate against myself—surely the book is a product of its time, and perhaps even radical for the time? This is probably true, to an extent. But I have read other books from its time that were... less Like This. It is a well-worn trope to say "Ursula Le Guin was better than this," but I have to say: she really was. She tackles some complex and troublesome concepts in her work and, even when it doesn't quite land with me now, never makes me feel as unpleasant about it all as this does. So yes, I can respect that McCaffrey is messing around in the weird stuff, while also not at all appreciating some of how that resolves—I respect the intention, but not so much the result.

But hey, let's try to step away from the ick for a moment (please do let's) and talk about Dragonflight as an item of craft, as a story.

To be both blunt and brutal—man did it fucking suck. I wasn't inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt at any point because of the aforementioned ick, but even if I were, there were a number of issues that I was simply unable to ignore.

The first and most prominent amongst these was the pacing. Or rather, the total absence of anything resembling pacing. This book is an absolute hot mess of a timeline, and at one point, several months (years? I can't actually remember now) are glossed over so airily that I genuinely missed it and had to go back and reread closely to check I hadn't briefly blacked out. It's not even that McCaffrey skims over the boring bits so we just see the good stuff. At one point, we skip straight from "you should do the thing" to "the thing is done" for a genuinely interesting thing that could have actually been fun to read (doing some dragonman internal politics), but no, we couldn't possibly actually observe the events unfolding, no sir. Much better to recount them later in extreme brevity without any of the detail or emotional resonance they might have held. The majority of the events of the story are crammed in towards the end, in a rush that seems more panic than crescendo, while the early parts wallow in sludgy detail and description that don't seem to add much at all.

This is exacerbated somewhat by the use of worldbuilding, in which a pretty key detail (or functionally critical chunk, really) is not mentioned or uncovered until about 4/5 the way through the book, changes everything, and is not really dwelt upon.

McCaffrey's approach to description is likewise somewhat slipshod—when we get it and when we don't seem fairly randomly assigned to me, possibly fueled purely by what she was interested in at the moment of writing. Scenes are skimmed over without detail for no discernible reason, while others are dwelt on lingeringly, in intimate depth of detail. Whether it's physical description, backstory, worldbuilding or interpersonal relationships, there's a strange patchwork quality to things that leaves me always somewhat at a loss, on my toes, and wondering what's going on.

There are some core ideas that are neat—especially when it comes to marrying up the fantasy vibe of the setting with the science-fictional underpinnings. I fundamentally am interested in the world she's creating, underneath all the mess. But there is so much of that mess obscuring it, so little time spent developing it in a coherent, meaningful, resonant way, that my willingness to dig for it is dried up before we're halfway through the story. Which is a shame because most of it does actually come in the second half, which feels on the whole a more competent book than the first (yes, I know it was originally two novellas, but it's packaged as a novel, so I am approaching it as a novel). By the time I got to it being better (and that's "better," not "good," let me stress), she'd just lost me. I had given up hope, and a lot of interest.

But, to get off my hate train, briefly, there are some things I will acknowledge that were worthwhile about reading this book:

First off, whilst I think it was executed incredibly poorly, I do respect McCaffrey's willingness to go nuts with it. Is it SF? Is it F? Neither? Both? We need more of that. There is a playfulness and looseness to the space it occupies that is genuinely interesting, and makes me somewhat sad for the closer strictures SFF generally fits itself into, especially heading into the 90s and onwards. Stories need the freedom to be as batshit as this.

And, though it did not work for me personally, clearly something about this story captured the imaginations of many, and built for them a lifelong fascination with dragon stories. There is a reason I have heard chatter about this series throughout my life in SFF spaces. Something about the world she made, the ideas she infused it with or the characters she drew worked for people, evidently. And there are moments, when reading, when I caught tiny glimpses of what that might be. The psychic conversations between the snarky dragons. The interplay between SFF and fantasy ideas, and how they synthesised without feeling the need for tension or apology.

I also accept that the space that she was coming into at the time, the environment in which she was writing was probably... not a fun one as a woman. I cannot imagine, because my own experience is so removed from it, what it was like to be in the genre sphere at that time while being female, and doubly so while trying to be a writer. It is absolutely no shock that her worldview, and thus the worldview that permeates the writing, is so heavily infused with ideas I would now consider grossly outdated. That's how time works. Heck, that's how internalised misogyny works, even now. A book must be examined with an awareness of its context, and yeah, that does change things here, at least a little.

But I must return to the train (choo choo mfers). Whatever there was, whatever glimpses of interest, whatever moments of fascination that cropped up throughout the book, I could never let go of my problems with it, both with its attitude to people and its slapdash approach to so many parts of craft that I am used to taking for granted in the books that I read. Nor could I wholly abandon my concerns because of its context—because I know that, in that context, there were other writers doing things that weren't... a bit icky.

I'm sounding flippant, but I think there is something quite critical and complex here, around these kind of icks. Books should exist with complex, difficult, unpleasant content, grappling with it, understanding it, playing it out. Stories should not be hidden just because their themes are hard. Take as an example a book I do consider great but is also full of somewhat problematic sex—Kushiel's Dart. There's a lot of things one could easily label grooming, coercion and problematic consent in there. It's chock full of troubling themes. But the way it handles them, the way it plays them out? There's a sensitivity and thoughtfulness and questioning to it that put my concerns to rest. You never doubt, while in the narrative, this awareness within the telling that these things are troubling. The story does not expect you to be blind to that aspect, to suspend your disbelief and your morals for the thrill of the moment, for the titillation, or just because they're inconvenient to the story. It doesn't have to have a worthy message at the end of it all, but it does have to feel... considered, I suppose. And that's not a sense I ever got from Dragonflight, which is the ultimate root of my concerns with it. The modern world does not have a monopoly on thoughtfulness, and while I can understand that a story arises from a different set of mores to mine, I cannot so much let it get away with situating itself within those mores carelessly.

And so, coming to it now, as I am... I don't like it.

The interesting question, I suppose, is what difference coming to it now has made. Would I have liked it when I was younger? Or possibly, would I have viewed it differently if I didn't already have a tonne of context for the story coming into it? Was I doomed to dislike it because I knew the series as the one with the slightly iffy dragon sex stuff? Of course, it's impossible to know. Many of my friends, my peers, people my age, with similar contexts did like it as teens, and I did like things with similar issues when I was that age myself. Maybe it is just a case of wrong time, wrong place. But I can't know that. And the me who is here now, the me situated in this context, struggles to imagine another self who enjoyed this book. I disliked F'lar too much, was too conscious of the classism, the ick, the pacing issues. I know I was less concerned with craft when I was a teen, but would I have noticed none of this? Emotionally, I cannot believe that, even as I suspect it was likely true. That person is, ultimately, gone, and her opinions cannot be sought.

I do also wonder at its place in the canon of classics, the longheld memory of the genre. Something about it does ring true for a lot of people, or it would not occupy that space, even still. But I cannot quite see it. The problem with these first-contact-type encounters, these moments with something whose moment you missed, is that missing the moment sometimes really does make all the difference. Whether that moment was a specific time and place, a community of context that you all shared, or whether it's a time in one's life, a personal context that coincides in many people, sometimes, from the outside, all the windows are frosted, and the view obscured. By being who I am, where I am, when I am, in relation to this novel, I have somehow locked the door to understanding its position within the canon, possibly forever. Sometimes you look back to something you missed and there's a delight to it, of uncovering a hidden treat. But sometimes it's just a baffling case of ships passing in the night. My experience of reading Dragonflight? Emphatically the latter. I just don't get it, and suspect I never will.

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.