Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Adventure classics -- Dragons with a difference


by Anne McCaffrey


In many ways, Anne McCaffrey looked like the quintessential 1950’s woman, with a husband, a house, and three kids. But there was something about the Ozzie and Harriet era that really riled her. “I was tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens,” her son Todd McCaffery recalled in his 1999 biography, Dragonholder.

Her first stories dealt with her mid-century mom milieu, but with a difference -- first about women impregnated by aliens (written while pregnant with her first child), then a lady in an ivory tower, where she admitted wishing to be while dealing with a growing family. But the times were changing and before the decade of the ’60’s ended, she was turning out stories whose women came out “kicking as hard as (they) could,” most memorably, from the backs of flying dragons.

Dragons in the 1960’s were monsters pure and simple. But in McCaffrey’s view, they practically begged to have their image raised, as she was doing for the image of women in her science fiction writing. (She used science fiction elements even in stories about dragons, “cutting (critics) short when they call me a ‘fantasy’ writer.”)

The result was a trio of short stories and award-winning novellas which would be conflated into her most famous work, Dragonflight.

Envisioned as part of a trilogy (with the later Dragonquest and The White Dragon), it would end by mothering more than twenty books in the Dragonriders of Pern series whose release (sometimes with a co-author) continued even after McCaffrey’s death in November 2011.

The stories take place on Pern, a planet in a remote solar system inhabited by descendents of terrestrial colonists. And by dragons. For me, the amazing dragons overshadowed Pern’s human inhabitants. McCaffrey developed a detailed natural history of the creatures, whose origins initially remain mysterious. They’re huge and carnivorous, but definitely not monstrous -- smart and sexy, with attributes unique in the history of dragon lore.

The series opens with a quest for young people able to link telepathically with these strange beings. But after centuries of exile from Earth, most of Pern’s inhabitants have forgotten the purpose of the partnership between humans and dragons. For heroine Lessa, outcast heiress of the fief-like “Hold” of Ruatha, being chosen appears at first to doom her to exile from the inheritance she has spent her life fighting to attain.

She soon has a far bigger stake to fight for. And fortunately for her and the rest of the planet, dragons have powers that have remained hidden -- or forgotten -- for centuries, even from dragons themselves. They need every bit of power they possess to save Pern from an interplanetary invasion that takes Lessa and her trusty queen dragon to places no female -- human or otherwise -- has ever gone.

A few months before her death, McCaffrey’s hopes of seeing a movie based on the initial Dragonriders trilogy seemed close to fulfillment, with production estimated to begin in 2012. The year is nearly over, and with a few exceptions and the usual franchises, it hasn’t been a kind one for science fiction or fantasy movies. Keep your fingers crossed that, if Smaug in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit lives up to expectations, Hollywood will get the nerve to put more dragons on the screen.

For more about McCaffrey and her work, including her own response to the movie expectations, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a November of fantasy with T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It’s more than the movie. Really.)

No comments:

Post a Comment