Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.04 (A Month of McCaffrey)

My reading selections in April were very targeted, consisting of the first two Pern trilogies. My niece has been plowing through various book series, and my sister-in-law has been struggling to keep her in reading material. I started reading the Pern books in sixth grade and remember them very fondly. I had suggested them to my SIL, particularly since there are so many books in the overall series to occupy a voracious reader, and was contemplating sending these first six books to my niece for her birthday. However, since it has been almost 30 years since I read them, I thought I should read them again myself and be sure they were as good as I remembered and appropriate.

Dragonriders of Pern (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon) and Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums) – Anne McCaffrey. I very much enjoyed reading the books again, and they are as good as I remembered. I fell in love all over again with the dragons who are completely charming as basically big cats that can talk to their people telepathically. But the question of appropriateness for a sixth grader remains enough in question that I decided to wait at least another year, and have a talk with my SIL, before gifting them to my niece.

The thing is, although there is nothing explicit in the books, there are fairly adult sexual themes running throughout the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy. Dragons and their riders share an incredible mental bond and, when it’s time for a golden queen dragon to mate, her rider, along with the riders of the pursuing bronze male dragons get, shall we say, swept up in the moment. The presence of this concept in and of itself, is very subtle in the first book, Dragonflight, but it comes a bit more to the forefront in the second book, Dragonquest, in that one of the queen riders is, frankly, a slut, and her promiscuity plays a big role in the story with very definite consequences to her actions. The concept of abortion is also brought up on two occasions in this book.

The trilogy ends with The White Dragon, which is primarily a fairly mild coming of age story of a teenage boy, set against the backdrop of the continuing stories of the characters introduced in the earlier books. Although the sexual themes are much less prevalent than in Dragonquest, this is the book in which homosexuality makes an appearance. It’s incredibly subtle and only a mature, careful reader would get the implication, but apparently this concept comes out a little bit more in another book in the overall Pern series that I haven’t read yet. Anticipating that my niece may want to continue reading this series, it would only be a matter of time before she came across the relevant scene in that book. You see, women are the riders of the golden queen dragons, and men ride the rest of the dragons. The bronze, brown, and blue dragons are male, while the green dragons are female. Their riders are also swept up in the moment when the greens mate with the, typically, brown or blue male dragons (the bronzes mate with the golden queens).

In tandem with the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, I also read the Harper Hall trilogy, which starts chronologically about halfway through Dragonquest and ends a few chapters into The White Dragon. This series is much more “young adult” and is really quite charming. The first two books follow the teenage Menolly, a very musically-talented, but totally unappreciated-at-home girl, on her path towards becoming a Harper. On Pern, Harpers are equal parts musicians, historians, teachers, record keepers, lobbyists, influencers of public opinion, and secret information gatherers – obviously, too important a position for any female to imagine possible for herself (see notes below regarding the role of women in Pern society). Menolly’s talent and grace prevail, with a little help from some more progressive mentors among the harpers and dragonriders. Menolly’s empathy also allows her to Impress several fire lizards, a lesser but similar telepathic bond to that seen in their distant cousins, the dragons.

My niece’s interest in animals, music, and performance make these books perfect. However, I again have the concern that she would want to read the rest of the Pern books, plus I really think you get a lot more of the context in the Harper Hall trilogy books by having started with Dragonflight and working your way through the sets in order.

Now, I have no problem with any of the themes covered. In fact, I admire McCaffrey’s use of these concepts in books written in the 1960s. My SIL is also pretty liberal. However, I’m not too sure at what point she’d want such themes, however subtle, to enter her daughter’s reading material.

As I said, I started reading these books when I was my niece’s age, and I don’t think I caught most of the sexual subtext in these books. I certainly wasn’t scandalized by it and I turned out okay, but that is, perhaps, arguable. : )

I really like my sister-in-law and my niece, and I don’t want to do anything to estrange that relationship, so I plan to talk with my SIL the next time I see her and determine if she would be okay with this series or if she would rather hold off. I know “kids these days” are exposed to things much earlier than “back in my day”, but I’m not the parent, and my niece still just seems so wee. : )

One thing about the book series that is a bit disconcerting is the overall role of women in Pern society. Now, the main characters are primarily strong, capable women and I have no quibbles there. It’s really no different from reading historical fiction where the strong female characters are making their way in a world where stereotypical female genders roles are pervasive. But the odd thing is that the world of Pern is basically a societal devolution. The basic premise is that space-faring human colonists came to Pern many years ago. A variety of factors contributed to the people losing most of their scientific knowledge and progress (the pastoral setting, a deadly threat, the loss of communication with their home planet, etc.) All that’s well and good. But I know from another book in the series that I read long ago, and set much earlier in the Pern chronology, that women were important colonists and scientists. I’ll obviously need to read all of the books again to see how the progression comes about, but I find it unfortunate that the vision of this world is one in which, as knowledge is lost, women, by default, find themselves thrust back into such a submissive “traditional” role in society.

I was also frankly astounded by the vocabulary level in the books and wonder just how much of text I understood when I was reading it back in the day, or if I was just following the gist of the story through context. I made frequent use of my Kindle’s built-in dictionary to confirm my understanding of some of the words. I mean, I’d never heard the term “swivet” before. I could get the idea when the sentence had to do with someone who was anxious “being in a swivet”, but it was nice to look it up and know for sure.

Another thing that amused me as I was reading the final books of both trilogies is that I’m not certain I ever finished either on the first go-round. The first two books in both trilogies focus on strong female characters. These characters are still strong and woven into the continuing story, but the main characters in the final books of both trilogies are male. I remember being disappointed in this when reading both books as a kid, and the endings of each were so unfamiliar, not coming back to me at all as my memory was jogged, that I wonder if I gave up on both of them and moved on to other books in the series that were more female-focused.

I’ll be taking a break from Pern in May to enjoy some reading variety, but I know I’ll be coming back periodically throughout the year to make my way through the whole series.