hawkwing_lb: (Bear CM weep for the entire world)
[personal profile] hawkwing_lb
After I heard of Anne McCaffrey's death, I decided to go back and read again the Pern stories. Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1971), Dragonsong (1976), Dragonsinger (1977), The White Dragon (1978), and Dragondrums (1979) have been on my shelves since round about 1997/1998.*

In 1998, I was twelve, allegedly the golden age of science fiction. I fell upon Lessa and the dragonriders of Pern with all the enthusiasm of a thirsty woman in a desert. Dragons! Fighting! Female characters - Lessa, Menolly, even Brekke - who were allowed to be competent, and angry, and active.** I remember them as being awesome, O friends.

But I last reread these when I was sixteen, and at sixteen I still thought Robert Jordan was pretty brilliant. So it was with trepidation that I opened the first pages of Dragonflight... and you know, the first pages are still pretty brilliant. The fail doesn't really start until we get back to Benden Weyr.

There are many, many things that strike me as problematic here (although I still enjoyed reading the books, and not entirely from nostalgia). To save time and ranting space, I'm only going to mention two: class, and sex. And these things remain problematic throughout all six books.

Class is something that was completely invisible to me when I was twelve, and even, to a certain extent, as a teenager. Now, reading the Pern books, it struck me very strongly. This is a class-based society in which, while we may sometimes get the perspective of the privileged cast down (Lessa, in the first pages of Dragonflight) or the unprivileged raised up (Piemur, in Dragondrums) we are never exposed to the point of view of anyone who stands outside the ruling classes. For the dragonriders, wherever they once came from, are part of the elite, and dragon Impression provides its own special version of divine right.

Closely tied to class, and the medieval assumption that might makes right, vae victis and δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν [Thuc. V.89], is the question of leadership within the weyr. The strongest bronze dragon mates with the queen: the bronze's rider fucks the queen's rider, and becomes leader of the weyr.

Strength alone is a stupid way to choose a leader. It works out well for Benden Weyr because authorial fiat. Just because. F'lar is a dick. He is an asshole, a Nice Guy, convinced of his own rightness - and again, it only works out because authorial fiat.

And his relationship with Lessa - the bare facts, as opposed to the portrayal of How It All Ended - is deeply disturbing. Dragon mating, in all its dubiously consensual - all right, downright non-consensual - glory squicked me the hell out. Whatever the logic of humans being affected by the sexual urges of their dragon partners, there's no question of the fact that rape, however thinly diguised, is still rape.

And it isn't all that thinly disguised. After the first dragon-involved encounter, F'lar and Lessa remain bedmates, but Lessa is explicitly reluctant. "He [F'lar] had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa's first sexual experience had been violent... He had been a gentle and considerate bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape." [Dragonflight 192-193, Corgi, London, 1973]

So, you get married by dragon, and then there's no recourse for marital rape? Yay, not. Especially since Lessa and F'lar are a loving couple by Dragonquest.

Sexual violence is unmarked - assumed - invisible throughout McCaffrey's early work in Pern. The sexual violence of the weyr, both explicit and implied - between bronze and gold riders, between green riders and everyone else, between riders and the women of the 'Lower Caverns,' where a clear power differential exists - which is normalised; the violence implied in the relations of the Lord Holders to their servants, which is made quite clear, thank you, in The White Dragon, which focuses on young Lord Jaxom of Ruatha - who is evidently quite a pleasant young man, but there's nothing unproblematic about having a sexual relationship with someone who is under your protection and to any degree in your power.

The small things oppressed me most. Jaxom's and the narrative's attitude towards his lover. F'nor and Brekke, in Dragonquest, where it is first made explicit that actually yeah, this is marriage by dragon, and not even afterwards do human preferences come into play. The absence of identifiable friendships between women. How every woman, bar Lessa and Menolly, is portrayed as either a caretaker or a manipulator, sometimes both at once, and even Lessa's greatest strength is her ability to manipulate. Men are allowed to be straightforward, but women? Almost never. The absence of anyone who isn't a dragonrider, Lord Holder or relative, harper, or mastercraftsman - and it is, always, man - from the narrative.

I know the world's changed since the 1970s. And I'm not saying there's nothing cool or valuable about the dragonriders of Pern and their books - unity in the face of ecological disaster, reluctance to kill other human beings, dragons! But reading these books now, I am possessed of an ineffable sadness. Because the argument I'm having with them in my head is an argument that is still happening in the world.

I still love Lessa, as a character. But now I think she, and the other women of Pern, were wronged by the world from which she came in a manner much greater than the narrative ever acknowledged.

*Judging by the edition dates and the prices, IR£6.60, that seems about right. I have these things noted in my catalogue, despite the fact the catalogue happened much later - the books still had some price stickers on.

**1997 was the year I was reading Eddings and Feist. I was rather in need of an antidote, O friends.

Thanks for this!

Date: 2013-01-31 10:38 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I, too, am just revisiting this series. After reading it as a young adult and loving it, I am horrified to not even be able to get through Dragonflight now because of the stomach churning sexism and rape. I thought I was crazy, but reading this I feel more validated. It makes me sad, because in a genre a free and expansive as science fiction, where we can literally make up our own worlds, we just keep recreating the same old matrix.

Re: Thanks for this!

Date: 2013-02-01 07:13 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oh, just someone who did threw down a book in exasperation to do a google search for "Dragonriders of Pern Sexist" and found your essay. Any recommendations for decent sci-fi? especially with dragons? I hear Octavia Butler is good, but no dragons.

Date: 2013-02-02 07:17 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I actually don't really know the difference between fantasy and science fiction. I guess Science-Fiction uses science (like the genetic engineering of the dragons on Pern)to explain their worlds whereas in fantasy the worlds don't have a basis in science, stuff just happens. I'm not picky, either sound good to me. I like stuff about gender. Dragons are always a plus, but strong female characters are necessary. I've been out of scene for awhile, and I'll look up all those writers you recommend. Although I did start the second Pern book against my better judgement. Lessa is compelling.

Date: 2011-12-14 10:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fjm.livejournal.com
All of this is horribly explicit in The Thorns of Barevi, a short story. After I read that it made me hyper aware of all of the above in a way I hadn't been before.

Date: 2011-12-14 10:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hawkwing-lb.livejournal.com
My memory is a bit fuzzy, but that's the first outing of the Freedom's Landing et al universe, yes?

Date: 2011-12-14 11:22 pm (UTC)

Date: 2011-12-14 11:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hawkwing-lb.livejournal.com
And I'm all thumbs today. I meant to add to that comment:

I loved the Freedom's Landing books when I was twelve, fortunately long before reading "The Thorns of Barevi." Which, when I discovered it in Get Off The Unicorn - ack. Gah. Getitoffofme. How is this okay, even in 1970?

It's one reason why I've avoided rereading McCaffrey's non-dragon books. Because I don't remember them as being brilliant in the first place, and I do not want to deal with... well. That.

Date: 2011-12-15 03:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jennygadget.livejournal.com
"Class is something that was completely invisible to me when I was twelve, and even, to a certain extent, as a teenager."

I vaguely remember there being a single book that did this? but not in a way that was terribly flattering. I think it was one of the ones that I read as an adult (my local library did not have a full collection growing up) so I do remember feeling a bit more uneasy than normal over the...not so progressive parts of it.

"**1997 was the year I was reading Eddings and Feist. I was rather in need of an antidote, O friends."

Oh, good lord, yes. I actually read Eddings earlier stuff rather late, and have to admit that I always thought of what's her name as "that whiny, good for nothing."

"Because the argument I'm having with them in my head is an argument that is still happening in the world."

I think this is what makes it even worse. Sometimes I run across really awful stuff that's just annoying because it's so awful, but it's not an opinion anyone would express now, so it's easier to shrug off. It's the stuff that people like to pretend never happened or the stuff that is still happening that tends to get me all ranty and doom and gloom.

Date: 2011-12-15 03:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hawkwing-lb.livejournal.com
Yeah. It's just - the world's changed. But not enough.


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