Dragonriders of Pern Reread

When Even a Delightful Dragon Can’t Quite Cover Up the Misogyny: The White Dragon, Part Two

For the most part, Anne McCaffrey’s first few Pern books had focused on humans, not dragons. Indeed, the Harper Hall Trilogy (the side trilogy written for a young adult audience) had barely included dragons at all, instead focusing on Harpers—the entertainers, teachers, journalists and spies of Pern—and fire-lizards, the adorable little miniature dragons who made such delightful pets. That changed in The White Dragon, where, for the first time, McCaffrey allowed a dragon to be a central character.

Mostly because, as the second part of The White Dragon emphasizes, Ruth is an unusually talented dragon.

In this second section, Jaxom’s ongoing, unauthorized attempts to train Ruth to chew firestone keep getting interrupted by pesky little things like, you know, responsibilities—this shortly after Jaxom spent a significant amount of time complaining that no one was giving him any responsibilities. As I think I mentioned last time, Jaxom is not the most sympathetic protagonist out there.

One of these responsibilities involves flying Finder—the Harper at Jaxom’s hold, Ruatha—to the Harper Hall at Fort Hold for Astronomy Training. As we learn in later books, the road from Fort Hold to Ruatha Hold is regularly trekked by horses, wagons, and runners, and is a relatively short journey. And as we learn in this book, both Ruatha and Fort Holds have watchdragons fully capable of taking short flights and carrying people around. Which is to say, for once Jaxom may have a point that this is a task that doesn’t need to be assigned to him.

As it turns out, however, Jaxom is conveying Finder to Fort Hold less because Jaxom is the only person around capable of doing this, and more so that Jaxom can conveniently run into Menolly so that Menolly can equally conveniently convey the latest plot twist while Jaxom transports her to Benden Weyr.

As I know I mentioned last time, many of the attempts to shoehorn Menolly into this novel are awkward at best, and this may be the primary example. Jaxom could have received this info from any of a number of other characters—including his own dragon, Ruth. Meanwhile, Menolly has apparently received her info from F’nor. If F’nor had time to fill Menolly (and presumably Robinton) in on the details, surely he had time to convey her to Benden? It’s all the more striking since F’nor apparently did bring Masterharper Robinton—but no one else—to Benden. The books continually assure us that Canth is a very large brown dragon, certainly capable of carrying more than one passenger.

Nor does Menolly even need to be at Benden—indeed, just a couple of chapters later, we find out that nobody even realized that she and Jaxom were there at all.

But I digress. Menolly greets Jaxom and Finder with the announcement that Ramoth’s precious queen egg has been stolen, which at least explains why all of the nearby dragons and fire-lizards are so agitated, if not quite why Menolly, Finder and Jaxom all need to head to Benden Weyr. Maybe the Harpers need to be there as journalists. Hmm. In any case, they head to Benden where they find dragons who are even more agitated—to the point of nearly flaming the three and Ruth when they arrive.

That agitation is outdone by their human counterparts, who are infuriated that a valuable queen egg has been stolen and taken to some unknown time. A few even discuss heading down to the Southern Continent and setting the Southern Weyr on fire, which I would think would worsen matters. As everyone is debating this with angry gestures, Ramoth cries out, Jaxom feels weak, and the queen egg reappears—about ten days older, ready to hatch. The return of the egg does very little to calm Lessa, who wants revenge. She has to settle for ordering all fire-lizards out of Benden—an order almost immediately countered by Brekke and Robinton. Neither of them are in charge of Benden, last I checked, but moving on. The egg might have been returned; the camaraderie among dragonriders seems gone.

Meanwhile, all of the fire-lizards and Ruth are absolutely terrified: Ruth because he feels that something is decidedly wrong, and the fire-lizards because they remember Ruth doing something that Ruth hasn’t done yet—that is, steal Ramoth’s egg. They are both upset at Ruth doing this and upset that he hasn’t done it, which is the sort of annoying paradox time travelers have to deal with. When Jaxom hears this from Ruth, he decides to travel back in time with Ruth and the two fire-lizards with the clearest memory of the event in order to return the egg to current time in Benden. Thanks to Ruth’s small size and willingness to be concealed in dark mud, they successfully rescue Ramoth’s egg—though not without getting caught in a Threadfall along the way.

Which makes it a good time for a couple of sidenotes:

Sidenote one: This is not at all the point of this plot/moment, but I find myself unreasonably irritated to discover that the dragonriders of Pern don’t fight Thread over the hot desert plains of Keroon. Look, dragonriders: Yes, those deserts are arid environments with little life, but little life doesn’t mean no life! As Jaxom notes, that part of Keroon may not have people, but it does have insects, grasses, and snakes. Not to mention that since Thread is capable of travelling though outer space and the skies of Pern, it’s presumably perfectly capable of travelling through sand. Especially since it burrows. Geesh, dragonriders. Ducking responsibility much?

Sidenote two: As Jaxom time travels, the narrative helpfully tells us:

He had one advantage over Lessa—he expected it.

Really? Just one advantage? Lessa had to discover and endure the trauma of time travel in the first place; Jaxom already knew it could be done. And Lessa had to put together a series of clues before making her trip, and spend hours studying a tapestry to make absolutely, positively certain she was traveling to the right time. Jaxom gets told when and where to go by fire-lizards. Advantages: Jaxom, multiple.

Not to mention that Ruth, unlike Ramoth, always knows when he is.

Back in the present timeline, Ramoth’s egg successfully hatches about ten days early. Jaxom, nobly enough, decides not to take credit for rescuing Ramoth’s egg—though the Threadscores on his face make it fairly clear that he’s been out during Thread, and Menolly, at least, guesses. Naturally, Lytol and his visitors—Robinton, Menolly (again), and N’ton, Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, assume that Jaxom got injured while trying to teach Ruth how to fight Thread, which has the advantage of forcing Lytol and N’ton to let Jaxom start training at the Fort Weyr.

Summoned for the Hatching of the rest of Ramoth’s eggs, Jaxom detours to pick up Menolly (again) despite the fact that Menolly has access to multiple other dragonriders, which annoys Jaxom and me, if for entirely different reasons. It turns out that Menolly has been shoehorned into the narrative yet again to a) apply makeup to Jaxom’s face, concealing his scar, and b) alert Jaxom to the fact that Robinton is depressed, which has the combined effect of making Jaxom seem even more incompetent and self-absorbed. (I mean, yes, he rescued the queen egg, but that was more thanks to Ruth than to Jaxom.)

What I’m saying is, once again, this constant dragging of Menolly into the narrative is doing neither character any favors.

At the Hatching, D’ram announces that he is stepping down as leader of Ista, and will be opening the next mating flight of the oldest queen, Caylith, to any younger bronze rider interested in becoming the next Weyrleader of Ista. The announcement is applauded, but seems rather unfair to virtually everyone involved here—most notably Cosira, Caylith’s rider, who is being told that she may have to break up with her current Weyrmate, G’dened, rider of Barnath, for some complete stranger from another Weyr in the interests of “fairness.”

Uh-huh.

The rest of the Hatching celebration proceeds fairly quietly. A few days later Dram’s Weyrmate, Fanna, dies, and D’ram himself disappears—apparently choosing to travel back in time to make it difficult to find him, even though the “let’s hide Ramoth’s egg in the past” plan failed within the past few weeks, so really, D’ram should know better. Let’s say he’s suffering from grief. Robinton suggests asking Ruth for help—because, he says, Ruth has a gift for talking to fire-lizards.

Once again, I have questions. Like, given that Jaxom can start training at Fort Weyr with just Lytol’s permission, why all the earlier fuss about needing to get everyone else on board with this? Given that fire-lizards have telepathic and empathic connections to their humans, how does spelling out the phrase R-E-D-S-T-A-R instead of saying it prevent the fire-lizards from knowing what the humans are discussing? And for that matter, how are the fire-lizards managing to live without constant anxiety attacks given how often that name must be mentioned on Pern?

Is it really all that important to force the Benden Weyrleaders (and everyone else) to believe that a Southern dragonrider returned the queen egg? If it’s to keep dragons from fighting dragons, well, the return of the egg already did that, regardless of who returned it. If the idea is to assure F’lar and Lessa that not everyone in the Southern Weyr approved of the Steal a Queen Egg plan, and therefore, not everyone in the Southern Weyr needs to be annihilated, well, the Benden Weyrleaders already know this. Only three bronze riders participated in the theft to start with, and it seems clear that the two queen riders at the Southern Weyr, Mardra and Merika, would not favor bringing in a younger queen to depose them. (Indeed, in the last book, several younger queen riders under their leadership had pointedly not chosen to head south to live with them.)

And although yes, Lessa does say nasty things about the Oldtimers in general, she is perfectly capable of judging Oldtimers as individuals—for instance, she has full respect for D’ram, an Oldtimer. So, why doesn’t anyone believe that Lessa is capable of dealing out precise, merited punishment to the individuals responsible? After all, this is the woman who brought down the man who murdered her family with a very low death count—just one. Well, arguably two. And sure, she also brought Ruatha to economic ruin while doing so—but a temporary economic ruin, corrected in just a couple of Turns under the skilled leadership of Lytol. She managed to get her revenge without destroying her home. What’s to say she couldn’t do something similar now?

Oh, the fact that Jaxom has to be the hero of this book. Right.

And while I’m asking questions: Why the insistence that dragons can’t remember anything, given that Mnementh was certainly able to remember the death of F’lar’s father back in Dragonflight?

That last one does have an answer: This is the start of the Ruth Is A Very Special and Unusually Talented Dragon, Despite His Size theme that would be a central part of nearly all of the white dragon’s later appearances. As nearly always, I have mixed feelings about this—I like the Don’t Judge By Appearances message, and I especially like the Those Who Look Different Can Still Be Valuable Members of Their Communities message. And I’m always up for rooting for the underdog—or, in this case underdragon, I guess—a category that very definitely includes the small-sized Ruth who was originally expected to die very young.

But the way Ruth’s small size—the same small size that prevents him and Jaxom from becoming a full fledged fighting dragon and rider—also gives him all sorts of special abilities leans right into the tired trope that your disabilities give you all kinds of advantages and special treatment, which in turn can lead to the idea that disabled people get all kinds of advantages and special treatment, which, ugh.

To The White Dragon’s credit, the novel never forgets that Ruth’s small size presents actual, pragmatic problems, but at the same time, it leans in hard to that trope: the idea that, for the most part, Ruth’s disabilities are huge advantages, and that his size means he can maneuver faster than other dragons can and that fire-lizards aren’t afraid of him, giving him (and through him, Jaxom) access to specialized information. That the primary beneficiary of all of this ends up being not Ruth, but the already privileged-to-the-max Jaxom doesn’t help. Most of these disadvantages end up vanishing completely: Ruth ends up enjoying excellent health, can and does fight Thread, and can carry three to four passengers along with Jaxom—about the same number of passengers that regular dragons carry.

(Incidentally, the real difference between Ruth and other dragons is not revealed until later in the book, but it, too, is played both as a reason to pity Jaxom—not Ruth, Jaxom—but also as an advantage for Jaxom—not Ruth, Jaxom. Sigh.)

All that said, Ruth? Really is awesome: heroic, sympathetic, insightful. It’s easy to see why fire-lizards—and everyone else—love him.

This focus on the special abilities of Ruth and, to a lesser extent, fire-lizards, however, also has the perhaps inevitable effect of diminishing the abilities of dragons: Mnementh’s ability to remember the past, for instance, or his ability to grasp abstract ideas and show considerable political acumen, providing F’lar with solid advice—not to mention Canth’s ability to bond, talk to and understand several fire-lizards back in Dragonquest.

While we’re on the subject of dragons, however, this section also highlights something acknowledged in Dragonflight, but not dwelt on there or in later books: the reality that for all of their general placidity, the dragons of Pern are, essentially, weapons of mass destruction, able to go anywhere and anywhen, breathe fire, and then vanish again. As Menolly and Jaxom note, the dragons and their riders can also hide in time—especially if they return to a past time where they were not present. The previous books had insisted that dragons would never hurt humans, except during Hatchings, when the little dragonets were too little to understand what they were doing—a concept that was reversed in the first book. This book reminds us that yes, humans have a reason to fear dragons.

I would like to stop there.

However, I can’t, because, this bit:

Now, there’d been some mysterious occurrences—insignificant in themselves but in total highly suspicious—which the Harpers felt out to be reported to Benden Weyr. Those mysterious shortages at the iron mines, for instance. And what about those young girls who were carried off and no one could trace where? Could the Oldtimers be looking for more than dragon eggs?

Hold on.

Girls are getting carried off—that is, kidnapped—and the Harpers, generally portrayed as the most thoughtful, informed, farsighted people on Pern, but even more importantly, for all intents and purposes the journalists and historians of Pern, consider this insignificant?

Though I must be fair. The book apparently thinks this is insignificant too. The girls are never mentioned again.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m reacting from years of media coverage of certain notorious kidnappings of various young women. (Pause to acknowledge that this coverage usually focuses on attractive young, usually blonde women, not women in general.) It’s possible that McCaffrey had in mind various sex trafficking cases that are less publicized, counted as insignificant by authorities— though the passage doesn’t quite read that way.

But even if so, the reality remains that dragonriders—presumably—have been kidnapping women for three books in a row now. And while in the first book this was used to end a potential rebellion/war, and in the second book regarded as a serious affront and a reason for tensions between regular people and the Oldtimers, by this book, it’s insignificant.

Ugh.

The previous books had had plenty of misogyny, of course, everywhere from “woman dragonriders can’t fly” to “girls can’t be Harpers” to borderline rape. And oh, yes, kidnapping. But this misogyny was at least somewhat mitigated by accounts of women fighting back.

In The White Dragon, not so much. Yes, it includes Lessa, infuriated about the theft of Ramoth’s egg, and ready to attack other dragonriders on command. It includes Brekke, who speaks up for fire-lizards, and the coolly competent Menolly with her ten fire-lizards. Not to mention Sharra, Jaxom’s main love interest, who plays a greater role later in the book.

But it also includes men telling Lessa that she cannot take revenge. It includes the subplot of Jaxom using Corana as an alibi for his more illicit activities, without even once asking for her cooperation. Given her major crush on him, it’s more than plausible that she’d agree, but Jaxom never asks—and conceals the truth about a few other things as well. It also includes a man, D’ram, announcing (to a large audience of—naturally—mostly men) that the next Weyrleader of Ista will be selected through a sexual contest to see which guy can manage to sleep with the senior woman of the Weyr. This is described as “fair,” which, INTERESTING USE OF THE WORD FAIR THERE, oh men of Pern. Lessa and Brekke are the only two women present. (Menolly, continually shoehorned into plenty of other scenes where she doesn’t belong, is absent from that scene. As is Cosira.)

Oh, and a moment where, after multiple assurances that no dragon would ever defy a queen—that is, female—dragon, and that the queen dragons are the true leaders of the Weyrs in between Threadfall, Mnementh ordering Ramoth to let a Hatching proceed and telling her that she is being silly just a few days after one of her eggs was stolen—one of her admittedly many eggs, granted, but Ramoth is not just being paranoid here.

Interwoven into all of this is the much better novel that I increasingly feel the protagonists don’t deserve to be in—a study of overpopulation, resource depletion and colonization. Robinton again notes that the Lord Holders are dealing with a severe overpopulation problem, not to mention too many heirs, an issue highlighted shortly afterwards by Masterminer Nerat, who notes that the mines in the Northern Continent are now finding more pockets of natural gas than metals and other useful items.

Sidenote three: Which also lets us know that Pern does not use natural gas as an energy source. Good to know.

The solution is obvious: the underpopulated Southern Continent. Which has just one flaw: It happens to have people on it already. Not many people, but people, and people with generally solid reasons to have not very kind feelings about anyone on the Northern Continent—the Oldtimers, because after helping to rescue Pern, they’ve found themselves not just mostly unthanked, but actually exiled, and Toric of Southern Hold, who came to found a settlement and offer support services to the new Southern Weyr, only to find himself saddled with a bunch of angry exiles. Yes, these are not people with reason to welcome immigrants from the Northern Continent, even though a few of them are getting smuggled in anyway. Tensions abound.

This will be the subject of the next post—along with some questions about medical services in Pern. Hard medical questions.

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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