Putting the Science Back into Fantasy, One Hint at a Time: Dragonflight, Part Three | Tor.com

Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Putting the Science Back into Fantasy, One Hint at a Time: Dragonflight, Part Three

Back in the late 1950s, editor John Campbell of Analog was looking for a fantasy piece that could compete with the increasingly popular subgenre of fantasy—a subgenre represented, in Campbell’s mind, by rival publication The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction—when a novella depicting a gloriously pulpy world of dragons! harems! duels! ominous stars! conquests! betrayals! massacres! arrived in his slush pile. It was exactly what Campbell needed, and after a few requested rewrites, he rushed it into print. The novella, Weyr Search, was an instant hit, garnering a Nebula nomination and a Hugo Award.

Not surprisingly, Campbell wanted a sequel. Several sequels, if possible. The author, Anne McCaffrey, was eager to complyat the very least, a sequel could help her expand the novella into a lucrative novel or series.  (Just how lucrative, no one could have possibly predicted at the time.) She just had one problem:

By then, she was far more interested in writing science fiction.

Something needed to be changed in the sequel. Something big.

Part three of Dragonflight opens with dragonriders doing what they call “looking at some rocks in the morning” and what I call “hey, astronomy, with a nice callback to Stone Age tech!” Specifically, the dragonriders are watching the rocks to see a) where the sun lands at dawn and b) if a certain “star” is framed by a certain rock. It’s just enough info to let readers realize that the “star” in question is no such thing, and just enough to let some dragonriders know that Thread is coming.


Not included in all of this astronomy: Lessa. She is, understandably, more than a bit irritated to be left outagain! Don’t worry, Lessain the next book you’ll get to do all sorts of astronomy before F’lar can! Since she and F’lar haven’t had the chance to read that book yet, F’lar instead tries to placate her by giving her flying lessons. Lessa and Ramoth decide to practiceand inadvertently learn that dragons can time travel.


Speaking of time, this seems the appropriate time to stop for some more definitions, and some extended/improved definitions:

Thread: Some sort of alien lifeform that likes to eat things. Like, lots of things. Basically, if something has carbon, Thread wants to eat it. It is capable of traveling short distances between planets—that is, the distance between Venus and Earth, say, but probably not the distance between Jupiter and Earth.

The Red Star: A planet with an extremely eccentric orbit that also serves as a nice home for aliens who like to eat things. When close enough to Pern, the Red Star apparently drops all pretense of a) being a nice friendly sort of place where aliens who like to eat things want to stay on and b) having gravity, thus causing Thread to take off towards Pern, giving the Red Star a bit of a break from all that HUNGRY ALIEN LIFE but making things Pretty Darn Miserable over on Pern.

The Finger Rock: A carefully positioned rock that lets dragonriders know that yes, Winter Is Coming, which would probably be more meaningful if they were in a different franchise featuring dragons, but, hey, it’s always nice to know when, exactly, the extra blankets need to be pulled out of storage.

The Eye Rock: Another rock carefully positioned to alert dragonriders to danger, since apparently clouds of black dust falling everywhere is just a Normal Thing and Certainly Not a Warning of Danger or Anything to Worry About.

Black dust: Not actually a normal thing.

between: Where dragons go while teleporting. It’s very cold. And you can get lost in it, permanently. No wonder it deserves italic marks.

weyrling: A young dragonrider in training.

Clutch/clutching: A queen dragon laying her eggs. More specifically, something Ramoth is going to do, like, lots, because she is Ramoth and this is her prime function.

Impress: The moment when a dragonrider and a dragon create a lasting mental bond, allowing the two to communicate telepathically.

Records: Fairly self-explanatory, but crucial in this section: financial and other accounts kept by the Weyrs.

Accidental time travelling over for now, Lessa and F’lar bend their efforts towards studying the Records of other Weyrs, hoping to figure out just when Thread will start falling, while Ramoth has an enormous clutch of 41 eggs. The math here caused issues in later books, but for now, it’s good news. F’lar reacts by gleefully discarding various traditions, just pages after he got annoyed at everyone else who wanted to discard tradition. Oh, F’lar.

A few weeks later, F’nor dramatically stumbles into F’lar and Lessa’s quarters, covered with dust. Black dust.

That is, Thread.

I know, I know. I already said it, but—


F’lar realizes that yes, they can save Pern—if they time travel. Which they do, arriving just before Thread reaches the rich rainforests of Nerat. Unfortunately, the resulting fight wounds several dragons and dragonriders, leaving F’lar to wonder how a single Weyr can protect Pern, given that Pern previously needed six full Weyrs of dragons. They could, he realizes, send the newly hatched dragons back in time—just for long enough to let them grow up and produce more dragons. But just as he and Lessa agree to explore this option, a wild-eyed, exhausted F’nor dramatically stumbles into the room, telling them that that method won’t work either. He knows—because he’s visiting them from the future.

To repeat—


Thus ending part three.

Though I don’t want to leave part three without mentioning this uncomfortable follow-up to a scene in part two:

[F’lar] set his teeth, wishing, as he had a hundred times since Ramoth rose in her first mating flight, that Lessa had not been virgin, too. He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa’s first sexual experience had been violent… He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape.

Entirely backwards, F’lar. When Ramoth and Mnementh aren’t involved, Lessa’s consenting. She might not be enjoying it, but she’s consenting. The rape was back in part two, compounded by your failure to let Lessa know just what would happen during a mating flight. That this was all apparently common practice at Benden Weyr doesn’t improve the situation at all.

So. Er. Yes. Quite a lot to unpack in this section, including, but not limited to: why, exactly, Lessa, rider of a dragon capable of commanding other dragons has to wait around until F’lar thinks it’s a convenient time to give her flying lessons—and while I’m at it, why, exactly, everyone keeps blaming former deceased Weyrwoman Jora, and not her two partners, F’lon and R’gel, for the Weyr’s problems and for sinking into depression, especially since the text clarifies that her first partner, F’lon, had at least two other sexual partners and that her second partner, R’gel, was not exactly the most supportive person, and especially especially since all of these negative comments about Jora come from men, and not the women who knew her. It all forms an uncomfortable contrast to Lessa’s moment of triumph over all those annoying men in the previous section.

Not to mention F’nor’s ongoing habit of dramatically stumbling into rooms to deliver portentous warnings about Bad Things.

I’m also fascinated by the careful, thoughtful placement of the science—in both subtle and obvious ways, transforming Pern from fantasy to science fiction, and also how this is used to emphasis the seriousness of the threat.

The subtle elements include bits like the primitive astronomy, the way F’lar creates scientific charts to track Threadfalls—without calling them scientific charts—and the way that McCaffrey ties the main threat to Pern, and the main enemy of the novel, to an astronomical phenomenon: the approach of the Red Star, which follows a specific, trackable orbit, without spelling any of this out loud. The more obvious details include stuff like this:

Arrhenis? Eureka! Mycorrhiza! Flamethrowing fire lizards to wipe up the spores!

A seemingly nonsense sentence found by Lessa and F’lar while searching through the old, crumbling records—right there, an acknowledgement that for whatever reason, presumably regular attacks by Thread, Pern has lost significant technology. But the word “mycorrhiza!” doesn’t just provide a clue about what’s coming, but just how bad it is. At one point, Pern had scientists who knew that word and who could identify exactly what Thread was. Now, Pern’s technology has crumbled, to the point where Lessa and F’lar don’t recognize the word—and don’t even know who might.

The biggest science fiction element, however, is definitely the time travel—apparently also a suggestion of Campbell. It made a certain sense: The dragons could already teleport through space, so why not through time?

(Before the comments start explaining exactly why not through time, I’ll just note that genetically engineered transportation devices capable of thought and telepathy are not exactly all that firmly rooted in our current understanding of physics, either.)

It also helped transform Pern into a science fiction novel. Time travel certainly plays a role in various fantasy works, but it tends to be somewhat more associated with science fiction. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence, for instance, that the time travelers on Legends of Tomorrow zip around on a spaceship—another trope more associated with science fiction. It would take some time for Pern to get a spaceship, but the time traveling worked as an early symbol that Dragonflight and future Pern novels were swiftly shifting directions. McCaffrey also retreated from some of the other, fantasy-related pulp conventions that had formed part of her original concept: the emphasis on the purity of “blood,” for instance, and the swords. From here on out, people on Pern use belt knives.

I have some minor lingering questions, such as: Since this section makes it clear that only dragonbred children were allowed to become dragonriders for at least the previous century or so, how exactly did blue dragonrider C’gan become a Harper/Weyrsinger—a position held by craftbred children? Was he trained by a harper sent from the Harper Hall for exactly that purpose, or did C’gan and his blue dragon travel to Fort Hold and the Harper Hall for additional training?  (I was not the only one to ask about this; McCaffrey would finally answer fans in 1998, in The Masterharper of Pern.)

And one element never fails to puzzle me: Why do F’lar and Lessa work so hard to make Kylara the next Weyrwoman? Part of my puzzlement, admittedly, comes from knowing just where this story is going, but even in the narrative of this novel, it makes very little sense.

Kylara never speaks in this novel: All of our info about her comes from the perceptions of Lessa, F’lar, F’nor and Kylara’s brother, Larad. Larad tells that Kylara was eagerly anticipating her wedding before getting taken by a dragonrider to Benden Weyr. It’s an event serious enough to be listed as one of the justifications for an armed rebellion. Later books clarify that most women who head to Weyrs are willing—even honored—but Kylara’s selection happens at a very low point for the reputations of dragons. Indeed, as Lessa’s viewpoint clarifies, many people on Pern firmly believe that dragons eat humans. so this may not be a joyful experience for Kylara.

And sure enough, just days later, Kylara appears at a Hatching as one of twelve terrified, screaming women—and witnesses a baby dragon kill two of her peers. Even Lessa, who, let’s remember, has killed a few people and manipulated two men into a duel to the death, and who Impresses Ramoth shortly afterwards, is appalled. So… we can probably assume that Kylara is a touch traumatized here. The text later informs us that Kylara spends the next few months going between various men, including F’lar. Willingly enough—according to the accounts of people who are not Kylara.

And—fun fact—the text tells us that when a queen dragon rises to mate, the general feeling within the Weyr can have as much impact on selecting the final pairing as the thoughts/desires of the humans involved. Which is to say, if no one in the Weyr wants to risk losing F’lar as Weyrleader, it’s entirely possible that his dragon will be the one to fly with Kylara’s.

So, just to clarify: Lessa and F’lar go out of their way to raise the status and power of a woman who they regard as a troublemaker and who may have reasons to resent the Weyr, and put her in a position where she may find herself in F’lar’s bed again—something he apparently doesn’t want.

I can’t help but remember that the Weyr did find other women on that Search—some described as very promising prospects. Why not mentor one of them?

But Dragonflight doesn’t really have time to explore this question. It needs to move on to a bigger one: How can Pern be saved from alien attacks when they have no time to discover defensive strategies?

More on this next time.

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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