content by

Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

A Decidedly Privileged Hero: The White Dragon, Part One

By her own admission, Anne McCaffrey had found Dragonquest (1971) very difficult to write, to the point where she more or less burned down the first draft and started again. Which understandably did not make her overly inclined to start writing its sequel—especially since she had other non-dragon books to write. But five years later she published a companion novel aimed at younger readers, Dragonsong (1976), swiftly followed by a sequel, Dragonsinger (1977), both set during the time of Dragonquest.

She clearly still had more to say about dragons.

This eventually led to a short story, “A Time When,” published by the New England Science Fiction Association in 1975, which McCaffrey expanded into a novel, The White Dragon (1978), one of the first science fiction books to land on The New York Times Best Seller list.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Return to Environmentalism: Dragonquest, Part Four

On its surface, Dragonquest is mostly a novel about social change (and dragons) and resisting social change (and dragons) and exploring some not-entirely-thought-out elements of its predecessor, Dragonflight (like dragons).

But Dragonquest was also written during a period of growing concerns about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle these environmental threats. So it’s perhaps not surprising that a novel which on the surface is about duels! dragon deaths! adorable little mini-dragons! questionable gender relationships! turns out, in the end, to be about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle them.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Fairy Tale of Dubious Origin: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”

In Western literature, the best known story of the Arabic The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known to English readers as The Arabian Nights, is arguably “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” The classic rags to riches story of a boy and a magic lamp has been told and retold numerous times in numerous media, from paintings to poems to novels to films, helped popularize the concept of “genies” for European readers, and has even been used to sell certain types of oil lamps.

What’s great about all of this is that “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” isn’t actually in any of the original Arabic collections of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights at all. Also, it may not be Arabic, but French.

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Defending Kylara: Dragonquest, Part Three

Sure, Impressing a dragon and becoming one of the dragonriders of Pern might seem like the ultimate wish fulfillment. I mean, a dragon! A dragon that can take you anywhere and anywhen! A dragon that will share your every thought and always, always love you, ensuring that you will never be alone again.

Can you imagine losing something like this, though?

You could well go insane… as Anne McCaffrey describes in Dragonquest.

Buckle up, everyone. This might not be an entirely pleasant post.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Introducing Fire-Lizards: Dragonquest, Part Two

Anne McCaffrey later admitted that she found writing Dragonquest (1971) very difficult. Vestiges of these difficulties can be found in the middle sections of the novel, which contain several minor inconsistencies, repetitions, and viewpoints—signs of hasty rewriting, perhaps, or possibly McCaffrey both trying to work out what this novel would be about, while also questioning aspects of the world she had created.

But if she couldn’t reduce the size of her problems, she could reduce the size of something else—her dragons, those huge creatures large enough to carry four or five human riders at a time, and powerful enough to strike down alien life forms from the air. Those she could miniaturize into tiny, adorable fire-lizards.

It worked so well that most of her later Pern books would sparkle with their antics.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Queer Relationships in Pern: Dragonquest

The first Pern book, Dragonflight, had ended on a hopeful but somewhat tense note, what with the return of the hungry, desperate-to-eat-anything alien Thread; lingering political questions of land ownership; massively dysfunctional relationships in the dragon Weyrs; and, oh, yes, the sudden arrival of a rather large group of time travelers, who claimed they were going to be helpful, but, we all know how well that can go. Like, yay, one massive problem solved—hello, about twenty others.

In Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey started exploring all of those toxicities and issues.

She also started—kinda—exploring some queer relationships.

Well. “Exploring” might not be the correct word.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

The Constraints of Time Travel: Dragonflight, Part Four

No matter what the method, all works featuring time travel use two premises:

  1. Time—whether past, present or future—can be changed.
  2. Yeah, no, it can’t. Sorry for the bummer.

And sorry for seemingly stopping dead any hope of a time travel story there, since if time can’t be changed, what, exactly, is the point of time travel—or, more specifically, a time travel story?

Perhaps to challenge an author—specifically, Anne McCaffrey, who took on this challenge in the last part of Dragonflight.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

Disney’s Animated Classic Dumbo Was Small on Story But Big on Heart

In 1939-40—as work progressed on the fabulously beautiful, fabulously labor intensive and fabulously expensive Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi—Roy Disney (always the practical member of the Disney family) told his brother Walt that above all, the next film had to be cheap. Very cheap. The profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the cartoon shorts had been spent. The outbreak of World War II had closed European markets and cut off a significant part of the studio income from both features and cartoons. And although the United States had yet to enter World War II, Roy Disney correctly feared that war was inevitable. And those were just the external and financial issues. The studio also faced an increasingly hostile workforce of artists unhappy with their working conditions, Walt Disney’s ongoing interference with their work, and, above all, their pay.

Unfortunately, Walt didn’t have any very cheap projects on hand. Oh, he had plenty of ideas—elaborate adaptations of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, which could use the same ice and color effects used so effectively—and expensively—in Fantasia. He even had early concept art for these and other projects. Roy Disney took a look, made some gloomy estimates and nixed these ideas.

Fortunately, some of Disney’s animators—and his head of merchandising—had found something a little less ambitious: a story about a little circus elephant with big ears that, in its original (and now impossible to find) form had run only a few pages. Simple, emotional, and above all short: it could be animated in bright colors with just a few backgrounds, with absolutely no shots of multiple moving cuckoo clocks, rocking caravans, hundreds of dancing brooms, leaves in the process of getting iced over, or forest fires—to name just a few of the recent moments that had brought Disney accountants to tears.

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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.

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Series: 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?

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

The Fantasy Roots of Pern: Dragonflight, Part One

In later interviews with press and fans, Anne McCaffrey would bristle at any attempt to classify her Dragonriders of Pern series as fantasy. Her dragons, she pointed out, were genetically engineered animals ridden by descendants of space explorers, not magical elves. The language of Pern was not a creation of the author, but descended in a fairly straight line with only a few expected deviations from English and, after McCaffrey moved to Ireland, a few Irish cadences. The plots focused on the development and rediscovery of technology. Most importantly, the presence of dragons, fire lizards, and just a touch of telepathy aside, no one in her Pern books could do magic. They focused on technical solutions to their problems—the use of nitric acid; telegraph machines; metal tools and machines; bioengineered invertebrates; and, when possible, spaceships.

Magical, Pern was not.

And this was all perfectly true—for most of the short stories, novellas and novels about Pern and its dragons and fire lizards.

Which makes it feel rather odd to start off a Pern reread by noting that the first work in the series—the one that started everything off—is, well. Fantasy. Pure pulp fantasy, at that. And not just because of the dragons.

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Series: Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Transformed Woman: Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.”

“Either become a woman, or make me a cat.”

The image of a beast hiding deep within an enchanted forest in an enchanted castle, waiting to be transformed through love, is generally associated with, well, male beasts. The beasts also typically have a frightening appearance: they are often bears, or lions, or something too terrifying to describe.

But sometimes, that enchanted beast is a girl. As in Madame d’Aulnoy’s novelette, “The White Cat.”

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Apparent Obsession With Feet

Read any collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—any—and one thing becomes immediately apparent:

Dude had a really strange, unhealthy obsession with feet.

Especially the feet of little girls.

Especially especially the feet of poverty stricken little girls.

Even in stories that—at least on the surface—have nothing to do with footwear, shoes, or even feet at all.

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Fairy Tales for Survivors: The Armless Maiden

One of the most profound influences on my understanding of fairy tales was The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors (1995), edited by Terri Windling, an anthology I discovered quite by chance while browsing a bookstore one day. I picked it up partly because of the title, partly because it had a couple of stories from favorite authors, partly because it seemed to be about fairy tales, and mostly because it had a nice big sticker proclaiming that it was 25% off.

Never underestimate the value of nice big stickers proclaiming that things are 25% off, even if those stickers end up leaving sticky residue all over your book, which is not the point just now.

Rather, it’s how the book changed my understanding of fairy tales.

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