Don’t worry; the Rogue One fangirl post is coming soon. I decided to go see it again, though, so I can cry over Carrie Fisher and get sucked into another of my nostalgia bubbles.
Today, though, I was thinking about fanfic, because I’ve been spending a shit-ton of time writing one (and holy crap it’s now pushing 220,000 words…it’s outta control…lol) and I’ve been reading a bunch of other fanfic and that got me thinking about the first fanfic I wrote, which in turn got me thinking about the Hugo- and Nebula-winning spec fic writer, the late Anne McCaffrey, who wrote two of my fave series back in the day, the Harper Hall trilogy and the Dragonriders of Pern books, both set on Pern.
That’s how my brain works. Hmm. Clexa fanfic–>writing a Clexa fanfic–>my first fanfic is Pern–>Dragonriders! Which is why I went there. I started writing the Pernfic probably 6 years ago, but I will never post it because McCaffrey, while she was alive, had some rules about fanfic and from what I’ve seen of the Pern fanfic world, mine is not a fit. Roundabout 2004, the restrictions greatly decreased and fanfic spread, so there’s that. But I’m kind of weird and I don’t really do fanfic like other people. That is, I used the Pern world, but my main characters are not canon, and nor are my storylines. I created my own characters to populate the parts of Pern I wrote in that fanfic.
Regardless, my point here is that when I was but a wee lass, McCaffrey’s books opened a huge window in my head. The views were amazing, because the world she created was so real to me through her work that it stuck with me. Obviously, because many years later, I started a fanfic based on that world.
The basic premise of Pern is that it was colonized by people from Earth, who had to come up with ways to deal with a number of Pern’s quirks. One of those is that every so often, its red moon would cycle close enough to its surface that it became accessible to masses of horrible, wriggling parasites called “Thread,” named so because when they fell from the sky, they looked like grayish thread. Thread is deadly. It destroys crops and kills you with searing pain if it touches you. So our colonists had to figure out the best way to deal with this ickiness.
Solution? I mean, besides constructing buildings out of rock (which Thread can’t readily penetrate). Bioengineering. Our intrepid colonists genetically engineered dragons, but what developed here is that each dragon, upon hatching, “Impressed” a human. That is, found the human on the hatching grounds with which it was going to share a telepathic bond. That bond was lifelong and unbreakable. And there were different types of dragons, named for their coloring. The smallest were greens and blues and if I remember correctly, greens were sterile females. Blues were male then browns, also male. The biggest male dragons were bronzes, and they were expected to mate with the golds, or the female queens.
For the most part, the dragons Impressed humans whose biological sex corresponded to the dragons’ (with some caveats; see below). The woman who Impressed a queen would take on a leadership role in the “weyr,” or community of dragonriders. The other type of community was a “hold,” which served in the capacity as a producer and craft class, if you will, while the dragonriders were sort of the warrior class, since their primary function was to fight Thread. To do that, the riders take to the skies and their dragons burn it before it hits the ground.
And here’s a nifty trick that the Pernese figured out: the concept of “between.” That is, dimension jumping. Except that “between” is this super cold, dark, still place rather than a specific dimension. Dragons and their riders learn to “go between,” which allows them basically to jump through a wormhole of sorts and travel very quickly around the planet. They’ll go between above their own weyr, for example, and a few seconds later, they’ll reappear over another part of the planet. They also go between while fighting thread, to avoid getting injured or killed. Plus, the coldness of between kills any thread that manages to attach. Obviously, you have to be careful on re-entry. So learning to work with your dragon effectively in both conventional flight and using between is crucial.
The Harper Hall and Dragonriders books take place after colonization, and the social and political structures are already long in place, with an emphasis on pre-industrial living. Sort of a medieval flavor in clothing, food, and transportation (unless you were a dragonrider, in which case you had your dragon).
So that’s the premise. Within this world are other social hierarchies and relationships, and various characters that occupy them. So you’ll find this really interesting cultural and political infrastructure built around fighting Thread, with dragons at the center, which in turn lends itself to all kinds of power plays and intrigue. And these books spawned an entire Pern industry, my friends. You can buy an Atlas of Pern a guide to Pern, and even get introduced to some of the music. But that wasn’t the case when I discovered them. I had no idea about the industry that was brewing around these books.
I read the Harper Hall series (geared toward a YA audience; Dragonsinger, Dragonsong, Dragondrums) first back in the day. The first two focus on 15-year-old Menolly, who is born into an isolated sea-hold, but she’s called to music and is able to apprentice at Harper Hall, which really is about music and harpers, because harpers of Pern tell the stories of their world through their songs. It’s oral history, passed along from hold to weyr, and thus music and harpers have a revered place among the Pernese. The third book, Dragondrums, features Piemur, who was a secondary character in the other Harper Hall books, and one of the few who made her feel welcome. He’s a singer, and as a boy, he’s doing soprano, but then that damn puberty kicks in and he has to figure out a new musical occupation — perhaps with communication drums.
As a young teen, I didn’t really fit in with many of my peers, and at that age, I didn’t really have the tools in place to deal with it or figure things out completely, so I spent a lot of time reading and making up my own spec fic stories. Both Menolly and Piemur resonated with me, because they faced a lot of adversity (including bullying and cruelty) and yet found their callings — that is, they realized essential parts of themselves (sound like a familiar journey, those of you who ended up LGBTQ?)
Then the Dragonrider series spoke to me again, because one of the characters, Lessa, is a poor serving girl in a kitchen who manages to Impress a queen dragon, and she is forced into becoming a leader at a young age, and has to take on adult responsibilities, but she’s successful at it. That was immensely inspiring, to see a woman doing that in a book I read in the 80s.
Heh. Thinking about it now, that’s probably one of the reasons the character of Lexa in The 100 resonated so deeply with me. Because she, too, was a woman who came to power early, like Lessa, and had to deal with a crap-ton of responsibilities. Lessa may have been the prototype in my brain for making me susceptible to characters like Lexa. 😀
Anyway, I will say that through young eyes, these books were magical. And they had strong female characters, which is so important for young girls to see — that kind of representation in media, whatever form it takes. However, there are some problems, and when I revisited these books after I’d put a few years between my teen and later years, they were pretty glaring:
- Lack of rep in terms of people of color. Keep in mind the historical context, though. McCaffrey initially published these books in the late 1970s/early 1980s. She herself was white, and discussions about representation in terms of POC were just not as prevalent as they are now.
- ETA! Brandon R (see comments below) made some points about POC rep. I concede some of that. But not all, because if you are looking expressly to see POC reflected as the main characters and drivers of Pern stories, I’m not in full agreement with BR’s points. You can see that in the comments below in my response.
- Heternormativity. Everybody in these Pern books is heterosexual and cisgender. Which doesn’t seem logical, since the original colonists came from Earth and there are, of course, LGBTQ people on Earth. So why wouldn’t that travel? However, in terms of fanlore, there’s a rumor that McCaffrey made a really ignorant statement about homosexuality (while also indicating that some green and blue dragonriders are gay). I don’t know what to make of that statement, since I can’t confirm it, so I’m inclined to think it’s not true. Having said that, and having just griped about heteronormativity, there were green (infertile female) dragons who Impressed men. Now, in dragon mating, a female will rise to flight, and males will chase after her like horndogs and then one will mate with her. However, with the telepathic bond between rider and dragon, that means that the riders of the dragons doing the deed will hook up, too. It’s like this imperative, and they can’t fight it. So presumably, male riders bonded with greens were hooking up with male riders whose male dragons flew the female greens. But that wasn’t really explored in the books. Point being, pretty much zero queer rep.
- ETA! Brandon R below (comments; see below) pointed out that I am a bad lesbian reader. BR is right: There is some queer rep, as he describes it below. My argument in response is that yes, this is true and I totes was a bad lesbian reader but I would argue that queer characters did not drive the primary storylines and weren’t intrinsic to the main plotlines. But I do stand corrected in my monolithic statement. Also, BR makes an excellent point about Ruth, the white dragon. So thanks for that.
- Weird issues with consent. Yes, there are strong female characters, but one of the things that really bothered me was the whole mating thing in terms of the dragons. The golds (queens) were the ones that laid the eggs, so it was a big deal when a gold rose to mate, and most often, the male bronzes were the ones that mated with her. Remember that when a female dragon rises to mate, she enters this horndog haze kind of state, as do the male dragons flying after her (no queer dragons, either). Which means when the female does the deed with the male, their riders are compelled to do the deed, too. Well, that gets kind of dicey if you’re the rider of a queen (and you’re female) and you’re maybe 17 and some older guy is the rider of the bronze that mates with her. You’re compelled to fuck, basically, because of your dragon’s horndog haze and that telepathic connection overriding everything. And because Pern is inherently more sexist than not, the power dynamics imbued in this exchange creep me out. They did when I first read them, they still do now, though I don’t think that was intentional on McCaffrey’s part, to leave that creepy feeling.
So if you decide to journey to Pern, try to remember the historical context in which McCaffrey was writing them. She wrote the Harper Hall and original Dragonrider trilogies in the late 1970s/early 1980s. And writers are parts of the worlds in which they live and breathe, so McCaffrey wasn’t part of a culture that encouraged strong women and queer/POC rep in media and she had some traditional ideas about sex and gender. Do I think she meant to convey these issues with consent? No, not intentionally. Writers, after all, reflect the cultures in which they dwell. However, it’s important, I think, to point some of this out.
So yes, I can give you all a heads-up on some of the more problematic aspects of these books, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are some really beautiful and magical moments in them, and that there are strong female characters doing some really interesting and cool things. McCaffrey also wrote male characters who had to face their own adversities, as in the third in the Dragonrider series, The White Dragon. (As an aside, McCaffrey’s son Todd has continued writing Pern books. I have not read those, so I can’t speak to them, but I may, just to see his take on the world his mother created.)
And as for the lack (ETA: not complete lack; see below) of queer rep, well, I spent many a night in the dark making up my own storylines set on Pern, and they all had some serious queer rep going on. The world McCaffrey created — though hierarchical and structured a certain way within her mindset — still opened a lot of possibilities for my burgeoning creative streak, and for that, McCaffrey’s Pern books will always have a special place in my heart.
Because, really. Who wouldn’t want to ride a dragon, if given the chance?
Happy Friday, happy fangirling, and may The Force be with you.