Jun 26 2012 12:00pm

Returning to Pern: Sky Dragons by Anne and Todd McCaffrey

Sky Dragons by Anne McCaffreyThis will be the last book to bear Anne McCaffrey’s imprimature. Her death fell between its writing and its publication, and so I must admit that my response to Sky Dragons, during my reading, was coloured by that knowledge.

My relationship to the dragonrider books has long been ambivalent, although it’s a good while since I last read a new Pern book. (A decade at least: The MasterHarper of Pern was until now, the most recent one on my shelves, although it’s entirely possible I read and forgot The Skies of Pern at some point.) Anne McCaffrey will be remembered, rightly, as one of science fiction’s grandmasters — and I’ll remember her for her books’ deep and abiding effect on my twelve-year-old reading self — but re-reading the earlier Pern books as an adult woman, more than thirty years on from their first publication, it’s impossible to overlook their more problematic aspects. (Such as Lessa’s dubiously consensual sexual relationship with F’lar, post dragon-abetted rape, for example. The ambivalent position of the green dragonriders. The social hierarchy where “rides a bigger dragon” = “leader-type.” Ahem.)

Please note that minor spoilers follow.

Sky Dragons takes place many hundreds of years before the events of Dragonflight, during the Third Pass of the Red Star, rather than the Ninth Pass. It continues from events begun in Todd McCaffrey’s solo trilogy (Dragonsblood, Dragonheart, Dragongirl) and 2011’s mother-son follow-up, Dragon’s Time. It’s very much a series book — albeit, thankfully, one that ends with rather more conclusion than cliffhanger.

Not being au courant with the series to date leaves me at something of a disadvantage when assessing Sky Dragons’ successes and failures. How well it succeeds as part of the series, I can’t say, because I don’t know. How well it succeeds alone?

For me to be able to answer that question fairly, the McCaffreys shouldn’t have made the main character someone with whom my inner twelve-year-old would fall in love — gleefully and immediately. Xhinna, rider of blue Tazith, is a woman riding a fighting dragon. Not only is she a leader whose skills see her promoted above bronze and brown riders, but her primary romantic relationships are with other women. At last, lesbians ride dragons! (Not that I’m not okay with heterosexuality. It’s just pretty awesome to have other options represented.)

Xhinna is one of a handful of adult dragonriders sent back in time to help rear and train enough young dragonets and their riders to make up the shortfall in Pern’s Thread-fighting dragons. Those who have gone back in time are now unable to time-jump forwards, and must wait until several years have passed. Xhinna swiftly finds herself in a leadership role. Over time, she negotiates the problems involved in feeding and training her wing of dragonriders and in Searching out new candidates for the dragonets, and comes to terms with her own position as an untraditional leader. Also, she has a few small problems to navigate in her relationship with her primary partner, Taria, a young woman and a green dragonrider, not least of which is when Taria briefly abandons her for a man.

Sky Dragons has several young women who end up riding fighting dragons, and several interesting queen riders. It also has a slightly annoying prescient child and a decent amount of draconic derring-do.

But gleeful as Sky Dragons makes my inner twelve-year-old, however, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is a novel where training (or Searching) montages are interspersed with occasional relationship angst at the expense of forward movement: the pacing is rather uneven, and three-quarters of the way through, the reader’s treated to a jump forward in the narrative — just as, I rather felt, things were getting interesting at Sky Weyr. A sense of real peril and consequences only comes into play with the onset of Threadfall at the very end, but these scenes seem compressed, almost forced. The narrative could have done, I think, with a bit more space to show Xhinna and her friends dealing with the danger of flying Thread, a little more activity there at the climax — to, if you’ll pardon the metaphor — show Xhinna stretching her wings.

Sky Dragons fits easily into the Pern continuum. It has many of the good things of the earlier books, while undermining or subverting several of the problematic elements. Today’s twelve-year-olds should be happy. So will those of us who remember Dragonflight and Dragonquest fondly, but find the presence of the 1970s Sexism Fairy a bit hard to take.


Liz Bourke reads a lot of books.

Svenn Diagram
1. Svenn Diagram
So now everyone can time jump? Now anyone can ride a fighting dragon? This reinforces my belief that there is a sort of decay that sets in when a series goes on too long.
It was a Big Freakin' Deal when Lessa first went between times. Now, so many people have figured it out, it is amazing that the technique was ever lost.
And it made sense to me that women didn't Impress fighting dragons. Pern seemed to be locked into a permanent frontier society due to Threadfall, and you don't put women in the line of fire when you're on the precipice of extinction. Mirrim Impressing Path was therefore a big deal thematically because it showed that Pern was finally going to be able to evolve.
But as the series grinds on, a dearth of ideas and a tendency towards PC conformity has retroactively rendered these former high points into nothingness.
Brian R
2. Mayhem
To be fair, the main reason the time jump Lessa did was such a big deal was literally because she succeeded - the old timers were very familiar with timing it for short periods of time.
But following their disappearance Benden was the only Weyr left.
For that reason, queens became a precious dwindling resource and many of the dragonriders more uncommon skills were lost.

It is made very clear in Dragonflight that not only did the old time queens riders fight with flamethrowers, but that it would be hard to keep them out of the air.
From memory the fighting greens traditionally had female riders, while the blues were implied to attract queer male riders.
Svenn Diagram
3. wiredog
I loved the Whelan covers on the earlier books...
Christopher Turkel
4. Applekey
My impression reading all her books was good ideas wasted. The original Dragonrider trilogy could have been so much more interesting, yet she chose shortcuts and cliches instead.

I never recomend her works to anyone. Maybe with Todd onboard they'll improve.
Svenn Diagram
5. Indu606
Wow... I have to admit to being disturbed by this review in so many different ways I honestly can’t decide where to start - but, like the author, I’ll give it a try.

To begin, a disclaimer - I'll be the first to admit that attaching this comment to the review of such an innocuous and largely inoffensive work may seem silly, but given its tenor, and after reading a seemingly growing number of similar reviews, I think this one just pushed me over the edge.

First, to have posted a review of the FOURTH book in a series by someone who has not read the previous three is unfair not only to the works author, but in fairness, to the reviewer and readers as well. Is it possible to fairly judge things as central as character development, story arch, continuity or framing (or for that matter, any of the other critical elements that distinguish quality story telling from less successful serialization?) - I don't think so.

Second, and in my mind much more disturbingly, this is just the latest in a growing number of examples of similar reviews here on Tor.com (and in fairness, any number of other sites and publications) in which the primary lens appears to be either gender or 'sexual-identity' sensitivity or inclusiveness. While these are important societal issues, to constantly superimpose them on ALL fiction is not only sad, but profoundly unfair.

Are we to distribute check lists to authors defining all the required character/story inclusions needed to pass our "inclusiveness" criteria? What would that list look like? Sword wielding, but slow anachronistic "hero" knight - Check. Cynical, but honorable anti-hero (with a heart of gold) thief - Check. Young, super-smart heroine (with a heart of gold) - Check. Master of the (insert supposedly unlikely weapon / martial art here) maligned / not taken seriously enough heroine(s) - Check. Homosexual / sexuality indeterminate but wise, compassionate character - Check. Despicable, stupid, close-minded, misogynist villain - Check. Did I capture your particular hot-button? Probably not. How many hot-buttons would an author need to cover to be considered inclusive enough? Is that what we'll require in order for a work or series to pass the test of this and other like-minded reviewers? (And just as confoundingly, would every installment need to successfully include every hot-button, or could an author hit 2 issues in book one, 2 more issues in the second installment and then capture the final 3 in the conclusion?) Are we going to put these kinds of restraints on the imaginations and personal choices of ALL authors in order to allow them to escape criticism that in truth has little to do with the quality of their writing or story development? That to me is a sad reproach of the tenor of so much of the criticism levied of late... and something that is just as insidious an encroachment of their creative freedom as was the resistance to the inclusion of those kinds of stories and characters in earlier times.

Ultimately, I want authors to be free to include or not include whatever they wish… it is after all their worlds and their characters to create and share. If stories lack the kind of characters and stories you look for… well, don’t read them. Or better yet, write them yourself. We all look forward to great new stories, no matter their characters or story archs. But, to use those freely elected choices as central elements in literary criticism is akin to looking at a Picasso and saying “I like it, but it would have been better if he’d used more blue” or listening to Mozart, the Beatles or Dr. Dre and saying their songs need more cowbell. The "artistry" in the writer's, artist's or musician's work is found in both what they choose to include - and exclude... and shame on anyone who tries to 'manage' that.

It is fair for reviewers to criticize the quality of writing or story development of any work – but it is something completely different to analyze someone else’s work of fiction and fault it for failing to more fully exploring elements that were of no interest to that author. Doing so is unworthy of those who profess to champion true artistic freedom and should be resisted at every turn.
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo

Bit funny to suggest that gender and sexuality "were of no interest to that author" (that author being Anne McCaffrey), and are an outside imposition from the critic.
Jenny Kristine
7. jennygadget

Your concern has been noted. I'm sure from now on, when Tor.com reviewers talk about books they think are doing a good job at being inclusive, they will refrain from discussing it, lest anyone get the idea that it's something the general reading public expects from all writers. Especially when it comes to series like Pern, whose inclusion of women has always been one of it's main selling points, but have also often failed quite spectacularly in other ways. We wouldn't want people to get the idea that one is supposed to always strive for better!

I'm sure Liz thought that she was simply trying to focus on the positive, but clearly she forgot about how this would affect all the writers who don't try to treat everyone as if they are deserving of respect and inclusion.

Shame on you Liz. I for one, am dissapointed in you bringing sexuality - and queer sexuality at that! - to a discussion of the Dragonsiders of Pern, of all books.

Svenn Diagram
8. indu606
Fair enough given Mrs. McCaffrey's life long passion for inspiring and encouraging female authors in the genre... but one that, I think, also proves my point. McCaffrey included what she wanted, saying what she elected to say about issues that mattered to her. Criticizing any author's work for not saying more - or isolating specific issues of one's own interest and using them as the fulcrum of a review - seems problematic.

Certainly, everyone is entitled to address any element of the work that appeals or fails to appeal to them - that's why we all love or fail to love different work. What's troubling is when those issues become the primary lens through which the work is reviewed - as I think it quickly becomes less a review of 'how' a story is told and more a criticism of 'what' story is told. That decision should be left to the artist and the artist alone.
Svenn Diagram
9. indu606
jennygadget - I certainly meant no disrespect... and if viewpoints such as mine aren't welcome, I understand.
Svenn Diagram
10. jacqie
I actually think that indu606 makes a point at least worth considering instead of snarking at. I understand that it's important to examine writing through the lenses of diversity and feminism (and forgive me if I've left out some other form of inclusiveness). Our book group is going to read "Dragonflight" in a couple of months, and I'm sure that one of the things that we'll discuss is how women are represented in that book. I remember loving it as a teen, but 30 years later I'm sure I'll perceive it differently.
However, Anne McCaffrey wrote "Dragonflight" in the 60's. Of course the social tropes in the book look dated now. So do the Madeleine L'Engle books that were written in the 60's. They don't follow today's tropes of inclusiveness and haven't aged well in other ways as well. However, I think that blaming these authors for not having a 21st century sensibility of race and gender when they wrote 50 years before today's zeitgeist is unfair. Yes, the books are sexist. Yes, they are racist. But that's also like saying that Led Zeppelin never wrote anything much because they sound like everybody else. In fact, it's the other way around- everybody is trying to emulate Led Zeppelin.

Lessa's relationship with F'lar is extremely problematic. But how cool is it that McCaffrey dared to show a smart, tough, independent woman who solved a problem and saved the world all by herself, at least 10 years before most science fiction dared to even write a female protagonist? You can tear Verne, Kafka and H.G. Wells apart, Asimov and Heinlein definitely wrote from privelege. But isn't there more to focus on than how these authors have failed? Isn't there some reason that their books have lasted? Isn't it possible to see these authors as writing from the society they lived in, not the society we wish that we had? Most of these folks were leaps and bounds ahead of their time; they're just not caught up with ours.

To be clear, I think this reviewer did a good job with this book- her review takes her own viewpoint into consideration, places the book in some form of context, and tries to deal with it fairly, not having read the entire series ( I haven't either). I was interested in her thoughts and if I really wanted to read this book (I don't) I would still read it, bearing her review in mind.

I've just been made very uncomfortable on this site by reviews ripping apart books by authors who are now deceased and can't write anything more to make up for their sins, and who were considered extremely progressive in their day. It seemed unfair to judge them thus.
But I know to avoid those particular pieces and read the many other excellent ones made available here.
Liz Bourke
11. hawkwing-lb
indu606 @5 & 8:

It's the fifth book of the series, actually. And since Sky Dragons spurred me to actually read more McCaffrey, on account of it finally showing that the author(s) see people a) like me and b) like my friends, I can tell you that the recent series as a whole is lacking in a defined narrative arc and inclined to deus ex machina, and that while Sky Dragons stands well enough on its own and adds something to the series, it does not rectify the series' existing flaws.

On the other hand, what it does do is important to me. I notice inclusion or lack thereof. And yes, I note that kind of thing in my reviews (I'll keep my politics out of my reviews when politics stay out of books, i.e., when hell thaws out/freezes over) because it is important.

Authors can write whatever they like! And when they show they have no concern for the lived experience of people who aren't Straight White Men, I'll criticise them to hell and gone, because literature (genre or otherwise) has more than enough straight white men, kthnx. (It's got plenty of straight white women, too - although still significantly fewer than Straight White Men.)

When authors include people from traditionally marginalised groups as main, sympathetic characters? Hell, yeah, I'm going to point it out. And praise it. Lesbians WOO YAY! QUILTBAG WOO YAY! Non-white people depicted sympathetically and without much icky colonialism and/or racism? EXTRA YAY.

People other than Straight White Men read books too - in fact, we might just be in a majority of readers. And you know what? It's really damn good to hear that a book sees you as part of its audience. Not just, you know, an unintended side-effect.

So yeah, inclusivity and intersectionality are big parts of what I look for in books, and big parts of what I critique. Most books are competently written, or they wouldn't get over a publisher's transom. (Outstanding prose or execution is outstanding for a reason.) But recognition that People Who Aren't Straight (White) and Conventional is still much rarer, and worthy of comment.
Jenny Kristine
12. jennygadget

It's not my place to say if they are or not. And to be perfectly honest, I'm not quite sure what your point really was, other than the fact that I got a general "why are so many people talking about stuff I don't care about?" vibe from it.

I can understand that people who are criticised about not being inclusive can feel like they are being told what to write about, even if I think they are missing the point that other people are actually trying to make. But here, as far as I can tell, you are complaining that Liz is praising someone for writing well about something important to her. Does. Not. Compute.

It's not that your opinion is not welcome, it's that it doesn't even make sense to me.


In this particular case, McCafferey's past failings have direct relevance on why it is so nice to see this book not fail in that particular way. So even if that was indu606's point, this seems an odd post to make it on.

L.S. Johnson
13. L.S.Johnson

"Is it possible to fairly judge things as central as character development, story arch, continuity or framing (or for that matter, any of the other critical elements that distinguish quality story telling from less successful serialization?) - I don't think so."

I would have to disagree: these are qualities of good writing period, be it in one volume or 16. A flat main character, or a meandering plot, is not excused by the fact that said character becomes a real boy four books down the line, or we finally get to see some action in book 9. The books in a series may interconnect, but they also have to stand up as written works period.

And I must say I in turn found your trope checklist disturbing. I think there is a difference between a reviewer reporting that they related to a character, and a reviewer demanding that all writing include such a character. The latter is not in fact part of this review. In fact, I suspect that the reviewer would also find your checklist problematic, as it seems designed to encourage the mix-and-match of stereotypes, not depth and nuance in character development.

To limit what reviewers comment on is as damaging to creativity and dialogue as it is to limit what authors write about. The debate over what makes a story "good"--including the purpose and role of types of characters, the value of one kind of plot over another, and other such questions about content--goes as far back as Aristotle. To place content off limits goes against the whole of this tradition, and to my mind it can only stifle creativity. A work, after all, is the sum of its choices, as well as the dialogue that precedes and surrounds it. Nothing comes out of a vacuum, and "if you don't like it, don't read it" does nothing for anyone save to encourage stasis and ignorance.

There is nothing in this review about "managing" output; there is no cry for censorship here. But just as the Picassos have a right to put their work out there in the world, so I in fact have a right to say "it could use more blue". Picasso wasn't perfect, and neither were his works; I am not perfect, and neither is my response. Who are you to step in and manage my response? And who are you to step in and speak for Picasso, to declare what interests him and what doesn't, to decide that he wouldn't want to know my thoughts, that he might not have something to gain from listening to me?
Liz Bourke
14. hawkwing-lb
jacqie @10:

No question McCaffrey was socially progressive for the seventies. Not knocking what she did there!

But it doesn't read as progressive today, which is one reason Sky Dragon made my inner twelve-year-old really happy, because it does read as progressive for this generation. And today's teenage lesbian/bi/questioning/whoever will have one more book that might make her feel that little bit more welcome as who she is. In SFF and out of it.
Jenny Kristine
15. jennygadget
"People other than Straight White Men read books too - in fact, we might just be in a majority of readers. And you know what? It's really damn good to hear that a book sees you as part of its audience. Not just, you know, an unintended side-effect."

In addition to agreeing with Liz on this, I would also like to point out that for some of us, noticing things like this is a part of doing our job well. I am a children's librarian in southern California, which means that a non-zero percentage of the children and teens I serve are not white, or not male, or not straight, etc. Quite often not any of them all at the same time. It doesn't just matter to me personally that my library's collection be as inclusive and broad as possible (I mean, broad in terms of everything - genres, point of view, protagonists, etc.) it's an important part of my professional responsibilities that I do so.
Dominic Wellington
16. riotnrrd
I think I see both sides of this argument. What I object to is when the inclusiveness tips over a line and becomes didactic. I would far rather that we all just agreed to move on, and enjoy things more like I did the original Earthsea trilogy. Reading that in South Africa, and gradually coming to understand that the main characters were dark-skinned and saw the few light-skinned people as being odd and untrustworthy, was an interesting experience. I would suggest that it worked as well as it did because Ms Le Guin kept a very light touch.

This doesn't mean that Issues need to be in the background. I just finished 2312, which (no spoilers) includes many different combinations of external sexual characteristics and orientation, including some moderately graphic descriptions of how some of the combinations might, uh, interface. Didn't bother me, but a review that focused on that to the exclusion of all the other Big Ideas in the book would annoy me.

I do agree with Indu606 that some reviews do tend to read as if the reviewer were going through a checklist, and while I believe I understand where that attitude comes from, there must come a point when we can stop doing that sort of thing and just go back to enjoying the stories. I like to think that we are getting there. I had the interesting experience of trying to explain MLK Day to my little cousins, and they just could not get their heads around the concept of racism, so there's hope.
Svenn Diagram
17. jacqie
For Liz (and everyone),
Thanks for the kind response. I get what you're saying, and looking back at what I wrote, I think I rode my hobbyhorse far off on a tangent only remotely related to your actual review. Sorry about you being the victim of my Internet therapy.
You're right, you wrote your review based on _this_ book, and the Pern series certainly has existed long enough that the new books ought to be evolving and trying harder to be inclusive. It sounds like they're succeeding at least to some degree, which is good news.
I like Liz's writing and will always happily settle down to read a piece of hers when it comes up on one of my feeds- glad to see that I can find her on TOR now! Smart decision by TOR.

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