Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Anthony G Williams

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I first read this book when the UK paperback came out in 1970 and was blown away by it. I read it at least a couple more times over the next few years, but not since. Having recently reviewed Naomi Novik's Temeraire, which borrows heavily from Dragonflight in its concept of dragons, I thought it was time to give the original work a re-read.

I'm not sure who first invented the idea of intelligent dragons. There was of course Smaug, the wonderfully evil beast in Tolkien's The Hobbit, but he was hardly friendly. As far as I know (although I'll be happy to be corrected), McCaffrey was the first to come up with the idea of a life-long bond (in this case, telepathic) being formed between a newly hatched dragon and one particular human. It's a compelling idea which has been copied since, by others before Novik.

Dragonflight is ostensibly a science-fiction story which has far more of the feel of a fantasy. It is set on another planet, Pern, a long time in the future, where human settlers have for some reason been abandoned to their fate. A very long time later, they have reverted to a medieval level of existence with one difference – dragons. Smaller flying reptiles were native to the planet, but were genetically engineered into different and much larger forms when the original settlers discovered a major problem. A neighbouring planet had an irregular orbit which from time to time brought it very close to Pern. When that happened, masses of strings of spores, called threads, were ejected from it and fell onto Pern. Where they fell, they killed all living things. The best way of destroying them was by fire, preferably in mid-air before they reached the ground. The newly created dragons could breathe fire and were big enough to carry a human rider, so the dragonriders formed an aerial cavalry, flying to the rescue of places threatened by threadfall. They were helped in this by the dragons' ability to teleport instantly to anywhere on the planet. However, at the time of the story there had been no threadfall for centuries and the population was becoming tired of supporting the dragons and their riders, who lived apart in remote weyrs.

The tale follows the fortunes of Lessa, a girl who we first meet living a drudge's life, and F'lar, a male dragonrider. It would be unfair to reveal any of the plot and thereby deprive new readers of the pleasure of discovering this book, but suffice to say it is a beautifully-crafted award-winning gem of a story. It's packed with so many themes and incidents that it seems incredible that it's only 250 pages long; it would almost certainly be far longer if written today. Despite the brevity, the reader is far from short-changed. The characters (human and dragon) are clearly drawn and the reader comes to care about them. There is political intrigue, adventure, mystery, dramatic developments, romance, believable domestic details, terrible dangers to be faced, and lots and lots about dragons. The twist in the tail of the tale is well-conceived and brings the story to a satisfying conclusion.

By current fashions the structure and writing would probably be criticised by an editor. There is an introduction to set the scene (nowadays writers are supposed to plunge straight into the action) and there's lots of description – the short first chapter contains not a word of dialogue – whereas the modern mantra is "show don't tell". As far as this reviewer is concerned, that reflects badly on the current fashions rather than on this book. Dragonflight is one of those rare stories which is like a comforting duvet that you wrap around yourself and just love being inside – it's a wrench to leave. For this reason I am reluctant to nit-pick the few story details which prompted question marks in my mind.

Dragonflight is a stand-alone story, complete in itself (unlike Temeraire, which is obviously the first part of a longer tale). However, the world McCaffrey created became so popular that many other novels set in it eventually appeared. I read a few of them but I've kept only the first two for a possible re-read sometime (Dragonquest and The White Dragon). None of them has the freshness, originality and charm of the original and the quality declined steadily. This should not detract from Dragonflight, which is a true classic and one of the most enjoyable SFF novels ever written.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
 

ghost8772

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sure, though there were some more interesting yarns she did on Pern. I always felt she got better as a storyteller as she progressed. Yes her early books had a freshness to them, a twist on a story not yet told, same with the Rowan and Crystal singer. But those also had a harshness to the storytelling that she has smoothed out over the decades.
 

manephelien

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Actually, the first part of Dragonflight was originally published as a novelette, Weyr Search. Re-reading the story it's pretty obvious that she hadn't planned to write such a long story as it turned out to be.

Anne's characters definitely become more stereotypical and less individual the longer she keeps writing Pern, and there are also some serious flaws with her writing, particularly concerining continuity (a dead character reappears in the next book, set later in the story, characters switch names for no reason, a ten year age difference shrinks down to nothing, etc.).

The fact that I consider myself an AMC fan is a credit to her ability as a world-builder and to her flawed but essentially human characters (except Jaxom, the ultimate Gary Stu).

I think you should give Moreta another chance. It's set in another era and IMO represents Anne's Pern writing at its best and least cliche-ridden.

For those who don't know, Anne also writes romance. Most of her books are essentially bodice-rippers with a (very soft) sci-fi twist. That's one reason why they feature strong (?, shrewish at any rate) women who are only happy being dominated by even stronger alpha males. This certainly occasionally detracts from my enjoyment of her works, since I don't read straight romance at all.
 

Moggle

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If the quality has declined since "Dragonlight" then I need not worry that I'm missing out on anything. I recently gave this novel a chance because it seemed to appear on so many ppl's favorite book list, especially above any of her other works. Now I realize ppl are crazy. "Dragonflight" isn't the worst novel I've ever read but hardly worthy of any kind of praise. I suppose if you're the type of person who will read anything with dragons in it then this book is for you but aside from that I don't see the appeal.
 

Anthony G Williams

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If the quality has declined since "Dragonlight" then I need not worry that I'm missing out on anything. I recently gave this novel a chance because it seemed to appear on so many ppl's favorite book list, especially above any of her other works. Now I realize ppl are crazy. "Dragonflight" isn't the worst novel I've ever read but hardly worthy of any kind of praise. I suppose if you're the type of person who will read anything with dragons in it then this book is for you but aside from that I don't see the appeal.
Just because you don't see the appeal doesn't mean that people who do are crazy. In fact, considering how popular the book is, it's more likely that you are.
 

AE35Unit

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I've only read one of her books,Dragonquest from 1989 I think. My sister is a huge fan and I picked that one to read and quite enjoyed it. Then she suggested I try one of her earlier Pern books and so I tried Dragonflight and couldn't get into it. Totally different. Whereas Dragonquest was quite reader friendly I found the earlier one quite a struggle. It was years ago tho,might be worth a re try one day. She has written some astounding books!
 

Moggle

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Just because you don't see the appeal doesn't mean that people who do are crazy. In fact, considering how popular the book is, it's more likely that you are.

Perhaps. All the same it's still a very weak book. About 90% of it takes place in or right outside a big CAVE! And the great evil nemesis that the dragons and their dragon fighters must battle is and have been battling for centures is......NATURE! Dum dum dummm.... Anyone thinking about reading this book consider these facts. I won't get into anything else like the incredibly weak main characters; all two of them, or the way man of the characters are so badly portrayed, in stereotypical fashion. That is not nearly as troubling as just the complete lack of an exciting and compelling story with good characters.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Let's avoid making this personal, everyone. We can state our opinions without speculating on what kind of person someone must be to hold a view that is different from our own.

Speaking for myself, it's a little bit difficult to separate what I feel about the book now from what I felt when I read it so many, many years ago, when there was nothing like it around at all.
 

dustinzgirl

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Speaking for myself, it's a little bit difficult to separate what I feel about the book now from what I felt when I read it so many, many years ago, when there was nothing like it around at all.

Kids today just get the watered down copy cat versions. They don't get it. Even my own son was like, Mom this is too slow! But when I read it when I was young it blew my mind.
 

GOLLUM

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Yes, I think for its time it was something quite original and for that reason could be considered a classic or perhaps the Dragon series collectively. Can't admit to having read the entire series but of what I did read I thought was more than good.
 

ghost8772

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Yes, I think for its time it was something quite original and for that reason could be considered a classic or perhaps the Dragon series collectively. Can't admit to having read the entire series but of what I did read I thought was more than good.


With you there Gollum, though I've read all the book's Ms. McCaffrey wrote on the planet.


Moggle, since you didn't enjoy Dragonflight, please refrain from reading any others, personally I enjoyed the world, the dragons, and although effectively the peril was minimized in later stories, Man vs. Nature is an old story. if you thumb your nose at it then refrain from Tarzan, jungle book, old man and the sea.
 
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The Pern series is a truly amazing one. With the Dragonriders, Holders and Crafhalls, she has created a very intriguing society.

While the fight against Thread may appear to be a battle against nature, the original colonists wanted a low technology approach to be closer to nature.

The Healer crafthall for example, uses a lot of natural remedies. Harpers make their own musical instruments.

And I love the thought of Harpers being the teachers and disseminators of culture.

In my option, Pern is one of the top 5 "worlds" built by any science fiction author. By top, I mean a world that is interesting, unique and has a society that is well explained and works well while radically different from ours.
 

Keri Ford

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For those who don't know, Anne also writes romance. Most of her books are essentially bodice-rippers with a (very soft) sci-fi twist. That's one reason why they feature strong (?, shrewish at any rate) women who are only happy being dominated by even stronger alpha males. This certainly occasionally detracts from my enjoyment of her works, since I don't read straight romance at all.

I'm just reading Dragonflight now and the large element of romance in the story is really what stands out for me. This is unashamedly using large elements of a women's genre in a sci fi fantasy novel. I assume these novels had a very large female audience & they were probably influential in carving out a feminine form of the genre. I haven't really looked at the genre in term of women writing and audience but a more recent writer I came across who would also i think primarily appeal to women is Juliet Marillier who has similar romantic content but i think I prefer her work as I'm kind of partial to the pagan touch.
 

FAB

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When this book was first published there wasn't much in the way of female oriented science fiction. You only have to look at the top writers of the time and how they wrote their stories to see how male biased the genre was. So Anne McMaffray's books were a breath of fresh air even if they were heavily riddled with romance of the 'bodice ripping' kind. She did not just write a fantasy story, she created a whole alien world and society and turned the fantasy of dragons into the 'reality' of science fiction.
 

Danny McG

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I've recently (December 2020) done a re-read of Dragonflight, there are things I never even noticed the first time I read it.
One is the throwaway reference to the Pernese sandworms that could eat Thread.

Was there ever a more detailed description of these creatures? And were they similar to the grubs that were more common around the Holds?
(I only read about three of the dragon books, there was a bit too much romance for my taste)
 

jjcomet

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Back in high school joined a sci-fi/fan book club and the Pern series was one of the first I bought. Enjoyed immensely, multiple reads over the years.
 

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