Vintage Sci-Fi: “Dragonflight” by Anne McAffrey

Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back!  As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! There will be some SPOILERS for the book discussed here.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

Do you remember those days before you could easily look up which books came first in a series online? You would be browsing the stacks at a library, grab an interesting looking book, and take it home, only to discover that it is, in fact, book 5 in a lengthy series (or perhaps worse, book 2 in a trilogy!). You bring the book back, and discover the library doesn’t have the other books, so you forget about it. That’s what happened to me with the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I saw one of the books at a local library many years ago and then returned it because I couldn’t get a handle on any aspect of it, given that I’d picked up in the middle of the series (and not at one of the entry points). 

More recently, my mother-in-law, who is another speculative fiction enthusiast, recommended strongly that I try the books out and even bought me an omnibus edition of the first three. I dove in, and was hooked. But I wasn’t completely in the right place to fully understand or grasp the depth of the world McCaffrey made. More recently, I started a re-read of the series (I’d read the first 9 or so before), this time on audiobook. I was blown away by the immense scope of McCaffrey’s world, even from the first book, Dragonflight.

Dragonflight introduces us to Pern, a world which faces a threat from “Thread,” a kind of mindless spore creature that destroys almost anything it touches, burrowing, eating, consuming. Every 250 years or so, these “Threads” would shoot from another planet onto Pern, its neighboring world. To combat it, the people of Pern developed a relationship with local creatures which they called dragons after the creatures of lore. The dragons could burn the Thread from the sky before it threatened the planet, but only if they were employed properly. In Dragonflight, the threat seems more remote because the irregular orbit of the neighboring world has meant several turns (approaches of the other planet) haven’t been close enough to produce Thread, and the threat is but a memory to this medieval-ish society. But now, as the dragons breed, it seems the threat is genuine, and the people of Pern must scramble to fight the Thread before it is too late.

McCaffrey’s greatest strength here is, again, the world-building, both in its vastness and its depth. It is frankly amazing to see in the first book how much detail there is built into the world, and how much history is clearly placed behind all of it. I don’t know of McCaffrey was planning on turning the book into a massive series when she originally wrote it, but the pieces for that massive series are all there in the first book. The depth front-loaded into this first book can almost be overwhelming for a series newcomer, as I was, when I first read it. But the main plot carries the book along at a clipping pace, introducing numerous characters, locales, and ideas at a brisk rate that keeps you engaged even as you try to swim against the tide of hugeness rolling over you. 

As great as the worldbuilding is, the plot is just as good. The notion of an ancient threat is always compelling to me, as is any sense of inbuilt history. And here, we have those combined with some elements of fantasy and even some time travel thrown in. The main characters are interesting, and they work to solve some of the main problems in exciting, believable ways. They’re only developed a little throughout the book, but with everything else going on in the novel, it would be almost too much to have major character development over the course of the story as well. This is science fantasy of the best kind, and its soaring heights of dragons are balanced with other, deeper ideas that are only hinted at in this book.

I think Dragonflight is improved on a re-read. As I noted, the density of the world and ideas make it almost overwhelming the first time, but the second time through, it is easier to settle in and enjoy the world and characters and plot more, all while getting a refresher on the world. It’s an intricate, delightful novel. I am greatly looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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SDG.