Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Education in the Weyrs and Beyond: Dragonflight, Part Two

So here’s a question:

You live in a hollowed-out volcano with a group of generally amiable, telepathic dragons who can be ridden by humans. But, riding dragons can also be incredibly dangerous, resulting in the severe injury or death of both dragon and rider.

Also, you are—in theory—supposed to guard various people who aren’t lucky enough to live with dragons.

How exactly do you get everyone on board with basic safety procedures?

Part two of Dragonflight starts to answer this question by providing our first look at educational practices on Pern—and, in the process, answering another question: Where do all those traditions that so intrigue and obsess F’lar come from? And how are they taught?

As it opens, master manipulator and occasional murderer Lessa, now bonded to the golden dragon queen Ramoth, and Weyrwoman of Benden Weyr, is getting formal instruction in her new role from bronze dragonriders S’lel, who sleeps a lot and will mostly vanish after these scenes, and R’gul, the Weyrleader of Pern. Lessa is not happy with the lessons, partly because they don’t always make sense, partly because Lessa is intelligent enough to realize that several important bits are getting left out, and mostly because they are boring, consisting largely of Lessa having to memorize and repeat word-perfect recitations of lessons, and rewriting Teaching Ballads over and over on wax tablets—with her instructors largely refusing to answer her questions, or retreating into claims of “tradition” when pressed.

And also, refusing to teach her how to fly on the back of her own dragon.

Not surprisingly, Lessa has developed a complete antipathy towards both men—an antipathy only strengthened after a visit from Manora, the Headwoman, who arrives to give Lessa some unofficial lessons in how to run a Weyr.

Which seems a good enough time to stop for some more definitions:

Benden Weyr: The main setting for the rest of the book, barring some side excursions here and there. Later books reveal that Benden is the second-oldest of the Weyrs, partly founded while the original settlers still had access to high tech equipment, which explains some of its quirks. It’s built on top of a volcano.

The Volcano Under Benden Weyr: Dormant, but still apparently able to heat up the Hatching Sands and some of the water. I am intrigued by this. And worried! What if it suddenly goes undormant and all of the dragons are trapped in lava?

The Hatching Grounds: Technically barely in this section of the book, but since we’re discussing Benden Weyr: a large sandy area warmed by that volcano where the queen dragons lay their eggs, proving that magma has its uses.

Fort, High Reaches, Igen, Ista, Telgar Weyrs: Five mysteriously abandoned and empty Weyrs, all also located on dormant volcanoes. Not a bad reason for abandoning them, if you ask me.

Weyrleader: The leader of the Weyr, aka the huge old volcano where the dragons and their riders hang out. Responsible for keeping things on track and, presumably, for handling Emergency Volcano Procedures.

Wingleader: The leader of a smaller group of dragons, aka Not the Main Guy at the Weyr, Yet.

Wing-second: Second-in-command to Wingleaders.

The Lower Caverns: The space in the Weyrs reserved for food preparation, as well as living quarters for the women not fortunate enough to be dragonriders, the various kids, and potential young dragonriders.

The Headwoman: Responsible for domestic activities in the Weyr, which includes running the kitchens and informing the Weyrwoman that everyone is about to starve. Currently Manora.

Lessa: The Weyrwoman who has just been informed that everyone is about to starve.

Moreta: Legendary Weyrwoman, now the central character of a ballad.

Torene: Another legendary Weyrwoman, apparently not the central character of a ballad.

It would take years before McCaffrey got around to explaining why people in Pern are still singing about Moreta and even longer to explain why they are still bothering to remember a character who didn’t even rate a song. Their main purpose here is to let us—and Lessa—know that yes, queen dragons and Weyrwomen can fly, and that the current status of women on Pern is not the historical status of women on Pern.

Tithes: Food and other supplies sent by non-dragonriders to the Weyr.

The Finger Rock and the Eye Rock: Rocks that F’lar has a Thing For. Enough of a Thing that if he can’t go look at them, he makes his half-brother F’nor go look at them for him.

The Red Star: An ominous sight in the sky.

Got it? Okay. Manora informs Lessa that despite the arrival of the tithes, the Weyr doesn’t have enough food to make it through the winter. She explains that dragonriders do supplement the tithes with hunting and gathering in various places—news to Lessa, who finds herself outraged and energized by the entire conversation, partly because this means that other women get to fly on dragons and leave the Weyr, but she doesn’t. Before she can do much, however, an unexpected tithe arrives from Ruatha Hold—along with a warning that the holds are increasingly unhappy and ready to revolt.

In a side moment, F’lar manhandles Lessa, quite painfully. In his defense, she’s using her psychic powers at that particular moment to emotionally manipulate and control other dragonriders without their permission, so he’s not quite as out of line here as it might sound. Still, it’s not surprising that after this, Lessa encourages K’vet to start raiding from the holds, an action that leads F’nor to—very belatedly—teach Lessa more about Weyr politics.

At which point, all of this interesting stuff is interrupted by Ramoth’s mating flight.

Oh, right. I forgot to define that:

Mating flight: See, when a golden dragon and a bronze dragon love each other very much—

Er. No. What actually happens is that the usually adorable, calm dragons start wildly attacking the nearest animals and sucking the blood out of them in a brutal bit of dragon foreplay before launching into the sky and chasing one another wildly around, but, hey, if you’re a dragon and this is your thing, go for it.

It also involves the human riders, like, completely; they have sex right along with the dragons, and become Weyrmates—at least until the next mating flight.

And in the case of the mating flight of the senior queen, it’s also how the Weyr finds—and to a certain extent, chooses—its next leader. It should be the bronze dragon the queen wants to mate with, or, failing that, the fastest, strongest, most attractive bronze dragon of the group, but as F’nor explains, it’s just as often whatever bronze dragonrider has the approval of the Weyr.

Who, post the mating flight, is now F’lar.

There’s no time to discuss this though, since the Lords Holder have arrived at Benden Weyr with an army. And now, it’s time for F’lar to finally stop all of the cryptic hints about high seas and flooding at Telgar and dragon-deep tidal swamps at Igen and start “reeducating” people—F’lar’s term, not mine. Specifically, reeducating the Lords Holder about the powers of dragons and the fun fact that dragons can be used as part of an extensive kidnapping scheme.

Which pretty much ends the rebellion—but not before Lessa, having completely had it with men lecturing her, concealing info from her, dismissing her, and having sex with her without warning or her consent, jumps on top of Ramoth, flies over to the army, and waves at them.

So much for all of that “queens don’t fly” stuff that she’s been told.

It’s rather hard not to read at least some of this as McCaffrey’s reactions to the then-field of science fiction—and its fandom. She was appalled by the misogyny she encountered in the pulps, to the point where her first novel was a deliberate reaction to the portraits of women she found there. She was equally appalled when she discovered that the newly formed Writers of the Future contest did not include any women as judges, immediately listing off several qualified women who could have been invited, but weren’t. And apparently, she had endured more than one masculine lecture in her time.

It’s not quite the same, of course, but Lessa chafes under the formal instruction of two men who refuse to see the obvious—queen dragons can fly. They have wings. They fly during mating flights. Pern even has a song about a woman flying a dragon. And yet, even against this rather convincing mountain of data, the two men refuse to believe her—or Manora for that matter. Her rage—a reaction to the dismissal and misogyny she encounters—ends up having negative, toxic consequences not just for the Weyr, but for Pern.

Meanwhile, Lessa receives her real instruction from women—well, one woman, Manora—and F’nor, a man who is not a bronze dragonrider and therefore of lesser rank. (And also possibly bisexual, which we’ll get to later.)

Completely feminist this is not. Even as Lessa rages against men, several women still end up as nothing more than kidnap victims (they don’t even get dialogue). Lessa is physically hurt by F’lar just pages before they end up in what is basically a forced marriage. Not to mention the almost but not quite throwaway moment when a (male) messenger is shocked to realize that Lessa can read. Other women, it seems, cannot.

And yes, the conversation between Manora and Lessa—while just technically allowing this novel to pass the Bechdel test—also highlights that only six women get to say anything in this book: Manora; Lessa; Lady Gemma (who gets to croak out some ominous words before dying and giving birth to a character who will become a protagonist in a later novel); the also pregnant Lady Tela (who giggles a lot, sneezes, and smells, and completely vanishes after that scene); the unnamed birthing woman summoned to help Lady Gemma through labor; and, in the last few pages, Weyrwoman Mardra of Fort Weyr.

In a book where at least fifty men have speaking parts.

But still, it’s difficult to see that triumphant glowing dragon ride as anything other than a solid middle finger to the misogyny in science fiction.

The rest, however, mostly highlights just how toxic life in the Weyr is—even with all of those supportive, loving, telepathic dragons. Particularly the brief and surprisingly sad aside where Lessa admits that she’s unlikely to have any real women friends at Benden Weyr, thanks to her position.

Spoiler alert: This ends up being true.

But I’m mostly fascinated by the education theme throughout this section. The formal education uses a combination of rote memorization, reinforced through drills and laboriously writing out ballads and lessons on a wax tablet, serving to teach Lessa not just the words of the lessons, but how to read and write. It’s possible that Lessa, the former daughter of a Lord Holder, was already literate, but the messenger from Ruatha suggests that women aren’t taught to read—instead, they’re taught to memorize. More specifically, they’re taught songs.

It’s a natural followup to the earlier mention of “harpers”—a detail probably initially thrown in to enhance the medieval atmosphere, but one that here, along with those wax tablets emphasizes something else: Pern has lost paper technology. They’ve had to revert to older methods like wax and parchment. That’s not entirely a bad thing: Parchment formed from hides creates a long-lasting material. But making parchment is also extremely labor intensive—animals have to be raised, hides have to be tanned—creating a natural barrier against mass literacy, not to mention preserving information through writing. In turn, it increases the dependence on oral memory and songs.

And yet, this same section shows just how ineffective those same songs can be. The Lords Holders have heard the same songs, and yet have completely forgotten what dragonriders can do. In addition, they’ve stopped following the safety procedures demanded by the songs. Because the songs only list the safety procedures—they don’t explain the safety procedures, or why they are important.

It’s all a pretty powerful argument for increased technology.

I am left with a couple of questions, mostly about the wax. At no point in the Pern series can I recall a mention of bees. Plenty of other Earth animals—cats, dogs, chicken, geese—but bees, no. So where exactly is this wax coming from? Inquiring Tor.com contributors want to know.

Then again, I also want to know how Lessa has been able to live in the Weyr for what appears to be at least two Turns without learning something about mating flights, given that this same book later informs us that green dragons go on mating flights like, all the time, so she must have seen at least one. It’s a Mystery.

But at least the answer to how to get everyone on board with basic safety measures has been answered: intimidation and kidnapping. Fast and effective.

Will it be enough? Well, we”ll start getting a sense of that in the next post. See you in two weeks!

Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications—including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.


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