Monday, May 21, 2012

Anne McCaffrey's Women (Dragons and Harpers and Holders, Oh My!)

Today I'm going to take a little break from my usual rantings about comics and television to mention something else very dear to my heart. And by this, I refer to Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series.*

If you're not familiar with the Dragonriders series, let me lay out the premise for you. There are dragons.

Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but really I've already told you everything that you needed to tell me when I was twelve in order to get me interested. Dragonriders boldly straddles the line between sci-fi and fantasy. Taking place on another planet, called Pern, the human inhabitants struggle to eke out a pretty medieval existence. Unfortunately for them, however, they are under constant danger from another rogue planet that comes back into orbit near them once every 200 years or so. This planet, which is never given a very official name, carries a terrifying mindless creature called Thread, that falls from the sky once the planets get close enough.

Thread is a basic organism that has one purpose: devour everything. If left unchecked it will ravage the planet and kill all of the inhabitants, or just their food. But that's not really better.

How do you kill Thread? I'm glad you asked. It involves dragons.

You see, Thread is invulnerable to everything but water (it can drown, but it takes a while) and fire. And since flying Squirtles would be dumb, Pern is equipped with dragons to keep everyone safe.**


But why, you might ask, am I talking about this series when other than its bitchin' premise, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the plot of this blog? The answer is simple: the female characters are awesome.

Let me show you just three examples, and I think you'll get the picture.

1. Lessa

Lessa is the main character in the very first three books, so she really set the tone for the series. Back before it even was a series, we had this wild-haired woman dragged into the weyr and called to stand before a dragon-hatching. There are a couple of things that are important to know here, that show just how neatly McCaffrey made this series pro-feminism. First, dragons are matriarchal. The most important and rare dragons (also the largest) are Gold Dragons. They're the Queens who lay clutches, and keep the weyr healthy.

Second, dragons are telepathic. They bond with their riders, and the bond is so strong that it can only be severed by death. Even then, dragonless riders are known to commit suicide, and riderless dragons always do. But what this means for our story is that dragons choose to bond only to compatible minds, that ensures that Queen dragons always bond with women.

Third, since the dragons are all led by their Queen, the dragonriders are all led by the Queen's rider. This means that in the weyr, the Queen's rider is the most powerful figure, and in a world that needs to be protected by dragons, the Queen and her rider pretty much rule the roost.

Which is awesome.

The thing is, McCaffrey doesn't set her story in some all-lady magical utopia. She sets her story to start in a time when it's been too long in between Thread passes. People have forgotten why they even have dragons, and they think the way that the weyrs demand tribute to be too much, and taxing. The weyrs have dwindled down from five to one, and some people worry that the Queen egg won't even hatch. The old Queen is dead. Patriarchy rules the day.

Into that world comes Lessa, who is chosen by the Queen egg, becomes ruler of the last weyr, and finally realizes that with Thread on its way, the only thing she can do is go back in time and bring the other weyrs from the past.

Along the way she manages to snag the best rider in the weyr for her mate, and absolutely kicks some patriarchal ass.

All in a day's work.

2. Menolly

Menolly came a little later in the series, and she explores a very different part of the world. Menolly is a musician, or Harper, as they're known on Pern. The problem? Only men can be Harpers, and even though Menolly is crazy talented, her family of fishermen and sea-faring people think she's a disgrace. Menolly runs away and plans to never return to civilization.

Unfortunately for her, though, she's injured, and just so happens upon a clutch of firelizard eggs right as they're hatching. (Firelizards are like tiny, adorable dragons.) She bonds with nine of them, mostly accidentally, and they help her survive in the wild. Then she's picked up by a dragonrider out looking for Thread, and after a series of adventures, manages to find her way to the Harper Hall, land of the Harpers.

Even though it's clear from the start that Menolly is a musical prodigy, and everyone she's run into along her journey other than her family has acknowledged it, Menolly is still treated like crap back at the Harper Hall. She's the only female apprentice, and the Masterharper's favoritism just makes it worse.

Menolly doesn't buckle under the pressure, though, and over the course of three books she finds herself rising up in the Harper ranks, and eventually, becomes a Master Harper. She also becomes a Journeyman in just a week after arriving at the hall, and is part of the movement to abolish Thread once and for all.

3. Nerilka

Nerilka comes from a different part of the timeline than Lessa and Menolly (who know each other, vaguely). Nerilka is from the past, and her story takes place during a great plague that sweeps through Pern. Her story runs parallel to another great epic, Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern. What I like about Nerilka though, or Rill, is that her story is the grounded, simple version.

Rill is the daughter of Holders, which means that she is essentially a feudal lord. When the plague comes, though, Rill gives up her place of status in favor of helping the sick and trying to find a cure. She's not glamorized, and not even described as particularly beautiful (actually, neither is Menolly), but she has an amazing drive to fix what's wrong in the world and to keep it turning.

When Moreta makes a great heroic sacrifice, Rill just keeps going, calmly caring for those around her and picking up the pieces. What's cooler than that?

The gist...

It all comes down to a simple fact: Dragonriders of Pern was the first series I ever read that I could wholly relate to. Yes, Lord of the Rings was epic and grand, but I didn't see myself in most of the characters (except Eowyn, as I've mentioned). In Dragonriders, though, I saw myself everywhere. I was Menolly, genius but misunderstood. I was Lessa, trying to reclaim my birthright and power when everyone was trying to push me down. And I was Rill, going even when everything looked hopeless and someone much prettier than me was getting all the glory.

It was the first time that I realized that science-fiction and fantasy could be about me, they didn't have to be about some boy I was never going to be or understand. I was enough, and these stories were all mine. 

Thank you, Anne McCaffrey, for populating my life with such wonderful women, and for teaching me that sometimes the most important thing is not credit, or fame, it's being recognized for exactly who you are, and knowing that what you've done is worthwhile.

Thank you.

*Actually, pretty much anything she ever wrote, but people don't really know her other series as well, and my absolute favorite, Nimisha's Ship is about as well known as my high school band. If you are interested in science-fiction tales of space travel, strange aliens, and dangerous escapes, then you should definitely pick it up.

**How is this science-fiction? Well, we later discover that the original settlers of Pern actually came from Earth, and that their broken spaceship still orbits the planet. They genetically engineered dragons and firelizards to fight the Thread, before time and decay destroyed all of their technology, and it was forgotten. There is a revival, though, in the main story of the books, in which Lessa and Menolly play a huge part.


  1. Loved Dragon riders and Harper Hall. Nerilka and every book from that period of Pern history bored me to death. Never noticed the feminism, though, which means either I read it too early, or she did it right. Lessa gets to be somebody, without making F'Lar into nobody. And being a great woman doesn't mean she has to be a man.

    1. Very true. The women are able to be cool, interesting characters who take charge, without diminishing the men at all. And the only men who mind are the ones who stink. She's a good writer.

      Have you tried Dragonseye? It's my favorite of the early Pern stuff.

  2. Hubby and I have the entire series and have read them many times over. (Hmmm... thinking it is time to do it again! ) I have even gone so far as to purchase The DragonLover's GUide to Pern (Twice - 1st & 2nd Editions!) AND I found "The People of Pern" and paid around $70 for a very good copy of that one. I got lucky :-)

    I think the hardest one for me to read was "Renegades of Pern" as it jumped all over the place so much. I still enjoyed it though, and it is a big part of that time frame as well. Even though she was evil in her doings, the lead character was a stron-willed woman with a penchant for survival.

    Although there are some very wise and strong women in the series (and very well portrayed by Anne), such as Leri - the old ex-queen rider - my very favorite character is (was) Robinton, and "Masterharper of Pern" is my absolute #1 book in the series. I actually found myself crying when he passed away! As a teacher of others, parent of a special child, and hobby-musician, I identified very much with Robinton and his quiet ways.

    I once wrote and asked Anne to autograph "MasterHarper" for me, but the shipping from Ireland to US was too much, so she send me some beautiful autographed bookplates instead. FOUR of them... that now hold places of honor in 4 of hubby's favorite titles in the series. She even included a copy of the email to me, and hand-signed that, too. 20 years later, I still have the letter, and it holds a very special place in my heart now that she is gone. :-(

    Her son, Todd, is trying very hard to continue to fill in the gaps in the time frames of Pern, and is doing a fairly good job of it. It is different from Annes' writing, but similar as well. She taught him not just the stories, but the depth of feeling needed to BE the characters as you write. Good job, Todd!

    Well, I stumbled onto this post, and thought I would share my thoughts. It is nice to know that "DragonRiders" is still a much-loved series in the fantasy/sci-fi genre - as it has been since I found it back in the 1970's.

    Enjoy the series... I am off to make "Bubbly Pies"!!

    God Bless

  3. I have role played in a Dragons of Pern group in second life and you will be please to learn it is soo run by women, us guys are just there to be eye candy. Oh and I related to Mennoly when I was about 12yo her story is kinda universal I guess.
    Have you read Rite of Passage by Aexei Panshin? Great book and the best female lead.

    Kevin H.