So for the last few weeks I have thought about Pern a lot. I mean A LOT. As much as anytime since I was in high school. This was inspired, as are so many things these days, by a twitter conversation I caught the tail end of. An innocent enough question, ‘should I read Pern’ came from Renay from Lady Business and the timeline blew up. I missed the first tweet by an hour yet it was still going. Obviously there are a few other people who still have strong feelings about Pern.
The world needs just one more Pern post, and who am I to argue with that? But what to talk about? My own history with it? An overview or the world for those who are considering reading it? It’s place in the history of speculative fiction? An in-depth look at the gender dynamics? Yes to all of those. Except its place in history because god knows I am no SpecFic historian.
‘You know I’m a dreamer.’
It would surprise almost no one that at lunch in high school I spent my time reading. Due to our school’s strange scheduling there was no set lunch time, we just had to be sure to schedule a period off. By the end of my sophomore year I had figured out that this meant I could skip sitting in the cafeteria commons and instead lounge in a big comfy library chair. Reading mostly mysteries at the time I grabbed a random dragon book at some point and never looked back.
That book was Renegades of Pern, and let me tell you I was confused. Turns out starting the middle of the series wasn’t the way to go. But soon enough I had it figured out and worked my way through the entire series up to that point within a few months. I probably read the series three more times before I graduated high school.
The appeal of the books is obvious, the covers showed people interacting with dragons. Be they riding them or playing with cute little ones a person would have to be dead to not get why this seemed so awesome. Dig into them and one would find the books were easy to read, exciting, and had characters to cheer for or root against as needed. Had they been released today the books very well may have be classified as Young Adult, there is a certain simplicity to them that had me entranced.
Just the facts, ma’am.
The books of Pern are fantasy hidden in a sci-fi world, a forgotten colony of earth that devolved back to a medieval state due to an unforeseen attack. The nature of the attack (and this isn’t spoilery at all, the prologue of the first book lays it out) was an unintelligent biological threat called ‘thread.’ Falling from the sky whenever the red star is in the sky this biological matter eats anything organic it comes across. To keep it from falling dragons and their riders patrol the sky, flaming it out of the air. It falls for twenty years or so before the star is out of range giving the people a two hundred year interval.
Dragons are permanently bonded to one person with whom they share a telepathic link. They can also talk to each other in the same way giving the riders a communication avenue to better coordinate their defense. They live in groups called Weyrs, while the rest of the land is organized into political groups under Holds, which are set in easily defended regions. This is a land of Lords and vassals, with trades strictly organized by a journeyman system. But things have gotten a bit compliant when all this opens up.
The series begins after an interval that went twice as long. The dragonriders are seen by the people as more of a leech at this point, protectors against a long over threat. The first series deals with the Dragonriders prepping the people, dealing with the impossible, and generally trying to save the world. Then the series does something unique. It finishes its arc but keeps going in new ways. The Harper Hall trilogy shows life in Pern away from the grandiose figures on the dragons. Later books deal with exploration of new lands, exploration of ending the thread threat forever, and eventually some very sci-fi crossover with discovery of old technologies. As far as I know the series is even now being continued by Anne’s son but the nature of those books are unknown to me. I stopped reading at All the Wyers of Pern because the story was at a stopping place in my mind.
It all starts with Lessa, who more than anyone can be considered the main character for the first books. Her role is fascinating to me, a rule breaker before such a thing was considered so cool. Her starting point is fantasy trope gold; a drudge for a powerful lord with absolutely no agency. Let’s for a minute pretend this series was a Disney movie when looking at what happens next. Early on the dragon riders, mythical in the eyes of Lessa at this point, come through the Hold looking for promising candidates to attach to dragons. Minor struggles, a few points of action, pages pass and BOOM. Who would have thunk it? This dirty drudge ends up ‘impressing,’ or bonding with, a baby queen dragon. By default Lessa is now the highest ranked female in the most important community on the planet. Happy ending, right?
If it were a Disney movie. After all, she is now basically queen and oh by the way by default paired up with resident bachelor #1, a ‘bronze’ rider named F’lar. But Pern ain’t Disney and Lessa’s dream doesn’t even last a book. She quickly learns she has no more agency in her new life than her old. The food may be better and the bars gilded, but a cage is still a cage. While the boys are off playing with fire she finds her life completely laid out for her with little excitement or responcibilty outside of taking care of that literal golden egg. Oh joy.
Cue the second escape. Now we are getting into spoiler territory so I will stay vague. What makes Lessa so intriguing is what comes next. She has already had the world handed to her but after that ‘happy’ ending she goes forth and actually forges her own path. It is Lessa’s actions, specifically the titular dragonflight, that truly changes the nature of the fight the people of Pern are going through. She takes control, gains true power, and becomes a character worth reading about.
Let’s talk about sex, bay bee.
Ya, that big twitter discussion that got me thinking about Pern so much? It really fell into one path fairly quickly, a discussion about the creepy sexual dynamics. What creepy sexual dynamics you ask? Oh, I thought everyone knew.
Here is how sex works in dragon world. It isn’t rape because dragons.
That telepathic link between dragons and their person extends to lustful feelings. If two dragons ‘go flying’ together then you best believe their people are having the time of their life. Even if they don’t like each other. No ifs ands or buts about it. Because…Dragons.
But here is yet another thing that has to be looked at through the lens of time. Now I doubt it will ever be mistaken for normalcy, and there were some other implications that seem downright bigoted (homosexuality only shows itself between dragons of a certain color known for their promiscuity).
But as pointed out by author Kate Elliot (and let us be honest, if something intelligent is being said on Twitter it often comes from Kate Elliot) this is a book that allowed for the enjoyment of sex completely and unapologetically, for both genders. Zero slut shaming, zero double standards and no jealous rages. The dragons gave an escape into a more modern thinking; they acted as a vessel for a healthier sexual dynamic. Even the very backward attempt to justify homosexuality using dragon emotions is a small step forward as the society allows it even if only in specific situations is it seen.
So…creepy dynamics sure. But maybe something that helped plant the seeds for a fight that is still being fought.
Does this dude ever shut up?
I have rambled enough, despite not getting into half of what I could talk about. This whole post was a long winded way of me saying, yes, I think the books of Pern are probably still worth reading. Perhaps I should actually grab my old copies from the shelf and test this theory? Yes, I think I shall.