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20 November 2008 @ 11:25 pm
Being a girl who discovered the joy of non-picture books through Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons and went on to devour Jane Yolen's dragon stories, Robin McKinley's Hero and the Crown, and of course The Hobbit, I had always thought that someday I should really get around to reading Anne McCaffrey's books about the Dragonriders of Pern. They were always there, in the background, standard reading for your average nerdy girl with magical inclinations. But somehow I never read any.

I was at the library the other day and saw an omnibus of the first three novels, Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. So I though, "Well, self, you are mostly unemployed and have great swathes of time on your hands! You will never have a better opportunity to catch up on your feminist sf/f credentials" and checked it out.

Last night I struggled through to the end of the first book. I will not be reading any more.

First, and this is not to cast aspersions on McCaffrey's more recent books (actually, none of this is--she's been writing for decades and I'm sure has really developed as a novelist, although I'm not tempted to check), the writing is sooo bad. I'm sure I couldn't do any better, but it's Anne McCaffrey! Famous! The first of the novels that a gigantic fandom is based upon! (Actually, is it gigantic? I have no idea.)

It's hard for me to pin down exactly what is wrong with the writing. It's like she wants to evoke really compelling emotions and dynamics, but the idea of them is so strong in her head that she's tempted to just believe that the reader can see what she's seeing without actually reading about it. Sometimes she tells when she should show (I feel like my middle school language arts teacher whenever I use that phrase), and the rest of the time when she shows, I just don't care.

It could be that I'm naturally unsympathetic. This is a very angsty book. It is full of characters who have incredibly rigid ways of viewing the world and are incredibly arrogant about it. Some of them are the good guys, which means that they have iron wills. Some of them are the bad guys, which means that they are stubborn and overtraditional. The two main characters are of course good guys, and they happen to be super powerful and also not of the same gender, which means that the entire book, ostensibly about riding dragons and being really awesome and saving the world, is actually about Lessa and F'lar having a destructive, passive-aggressive pissing contest with deeply creepy sexual undertones. (Maybe this is your thing, but it sure isn't mine.)

So McCaffrey is always showing things like Lessa gritting her teeth or F'lar clenching his fists because they are mad at each other because they are too proud to actually explain their actions to each other, even though they are supposed to cooperate because the fate of the world depends upon it.

Here are two sort-of-minor things that infuriate me about the plot.

1. At the beginning of the story, Lessa is leading a miserable existence as a servant in Ruatha Hold. Her family is supposed to rule Ruatha, but ten years ago this guy Fax invaded, brutally shut down resistance, killed her whole family, and took over. She only survived because she was able to magically disguise herself as an old and ugly servant. However, since she had no chance of overthrowing Fax, she decided that while he controlled Ruatha he wouldn't be able to profit by it at all. She does this by sabotaging all of Ruatha's production. Yes, this makes sure that Fax gets really crappy taxes, but it also forces everyone in her entire country into starvation. Sure, she's sharing in it herself, but she doesn't seem to have asked anybody else if they'd like to spite Fax that way!

This is supposed to indicate that she's ruthless and hardcore. In a good way. Because everybody who saves the world is really doing it for their own ends.

2. When F'lar discovers Lessa and takes her away to be the most special dragonrider ever, he's choosing her because the old queen dragon is just about to die, leaving one female egg behind. Lessa bonds with this dragon when it hatches and they learn how to do dragonridery things together. This is the ONLY FEMALE DRAGON ON THE ENTIRE PLANET. Yet when F'lar gets mad at Lessa for doing risky things during training, it's not because if something went wrong, THERE COULD BE NO MORE DRAGONS and THE WORLD WOULD BE DOOMED. It's because F'lar wants to be in control and Lessa has thwarted his will.

I want to slap everybody in this book.

Okay, the sex and gender stuff. This is just nasty. Apart from a couple of motherly subordinate types, Lessa is portrayed as the only woman in the world who's worthy to draw breath. Things are in a sorry state because the woman bonded to the previous queen dragon was a ditz who was (I kid you not!) too interested in sex to properly control her dragon, whatever that means, and no, it's not actually explained. F'lar is (actual word used) disgusted by all the women he encounters on his search before he gets to Lessa. And when the new queen dragon lays another female egg, the dragonriders (who are all men, by the way, apart from Lessa) kidnap a whole bunch of girls from all over the land, apparently don't explain anything to them, and then set them in front of the hatching egg. Everyone except these girls knows that a hatching dragon is clumsy and big and has sharp claws. Then they all sit back and watch as one after another is mauled to shreds until somebody finally bonds with the hatchling. The point is not so much "dragonriding is full of harsh and brutal customs" as "look at these stupid, shrieking girls who are scared of a baby dragon, unlike iron-willed Lessa."

Then there's F'lar and Lessa's relationship. McCaffrey never actually explains this, because that would be, uh, not subtle enough or something, but apparently when dragons mate the humans who are bonded with them also end up together. For some reason we only get to hear about this from F'lar's point of view. Here's a lovely example:
[F'lar] caught [Lessa's] arm and felt her body tense. He set his teeth, wishing, as he had a hundred times since Ramoth rose in her first mating flight, that Lessa had not been virgin, too. He had not thought to control his dragon-incited emotions, and Lessa's first sexual experience had been violent. It had surprised him to be first, considering that her adolescent years had been spent drudging for lascivious warders and soldier-types. Evidently no one had bothered to penetrate the curtain of rags and the coat of filth she had carefully maintained as a disguise. He had been a considerate and gentle bedmate ever since, but, unless Ramoth and Mnementh were involved, he might as well call it rape.

Yet he knew someday, somehow, he would coax her into responding wholeheartedly to his lovemaking. He had a certain pride in his skill, and he was in a position to persevere.
(After reading that, only the thought of complaining about it on thisbookisass kept me going to the end.)

Also, that part about Lessa being the only woman worth anything? This also seems to be because she's thin. The other women whom we are supposed to scorn for their ditziness are also always described as voluptuous, fat, corpulent, plump, etc. The previous female dragonrider who was no good? Fat. The women F'lar passes over before he gets to Lessa?
"You've seen the women." Lytol's disgust showed through the words. It was a statement, not a question, for he hurried on. "Well, there are no better in all the High Reaches." His tone expressed utmost disdain. ... "You would almost expect the opposite, wouldn't you? ... But Fax likes his women comfortably fleshed and docile."
Lessa, on the other hand, is thin, and McCaffrey never lets you forget it. First she's thin because she's been starving in Ruatha. Then, even when she gets to the Weyr and has plenty of food, she has a virtuously small appetite. F'lar thinks about how thin she is. Her movements and body language and appearance are described in such a way as to emphasize her thinness. Her body is constantly contrasted with those of other, fatter women indistinguishably from the way McCaffrey contrasts her willpower, strength, and general awesomeness with their stupidity, vapidity, and weakness.

At the beginning of the book I was sure that the reason F'lar kept thinking about fat vs. thin was that dragonriders have to be small for the same reason as jockeys do. But no--dragons are super strong, they can carry two people as effortlessly as one, most dragonriders are men and men generally weigh more than women, and the queen dragon is the biggest and strongest dragon of all. No, it's just that body size and character were inextricably linked in McCaffrey's head, to the point that body size became her favorite way to describe character.

It's hard to give a sense here of exactly how strong fat hatred is in this book, because there isn't one big nasty quote that I can pull--it just permeates every chapter. Maybe it'll give some idea if I tell you that halfway through, I was googling "Anne McCaffrey" and "eating disorder" to see if that would explain anything. The internet has no answers. I'm just relieved that, after all, I didn't read this when I was 15.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 06:00 am (UTC)
I would like to point out that I made it all the way through that review without using the word "pernicious."
Johnny Guns: his goal in life was to be an echodefutata on November 21st, 2008 06:43 am (UTC)
This brought back such a flood of memories. I read this book when I was thirteen or so (my best friends were INTO Anne McCaffrey), and I remember even then being completely quizzical about the way F'lar conducted himself with Lessa. (And that offhand paragraph about their sex life was just so incongruous and weird as hell.) I've never had the desire to read it as an adult, and I'm sorry you had to. xD

There's such a Big Deal about people being stubborn about being in love in fantasy novels. One of the better times I've seen it done is in Archangel by Sharon Shinn, but even then it is a hard, hard dynamic to choose as a writer. Why would you punish yourself like that and make your own job that much harder? It's such a weird choice.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
I guess they assume we always like to read about sexual and romantic tension, and then decide that tension = people denying their true feelings and being assholes to each other.

On the other hand, maybe McCaffrey was the first to do that in a fantasy novel, in which case we have her to blame, but at least she wasn't being cliché.

You were a good thirteen-year-old. I was not a skeptical reader at the time.
Rebecca: Booktibicina on November 21st, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC)
I think the screwed up relationships are one of the things she took from her earlier stint writing romance novels. That kind of dynamic is certainly all over the place there.

She may well have been the first to do that in a fantasy novel, if only because she got there so early.

On the other hand, at least there were female characters who didn't get almost immediately shuffled off into not actually being around - see also Tolkein and pretty much every other fantasy writer before her. I mean, really, if you want to feel better about McCaffrey's relationships, just spend some time examining the relationships in earlier Fantasy/Science Fiction novels.

I half-way suspect that a bit part of the problem is just that the novels are dated. For that matter, I think a lot of the fat=bad stuff is partially about them being dated. If you compare them to other books written at the time or shortly before, they probably start looking much better.
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anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
I really am glad to hear that the series improves!
crystalpyramidcrystalpyramid on November 21st, 2008 11:54 am (UTC)
I think it's easy to miss a lot of stuff when you read things as a kid, just for plot and reading the whole series fast. I don't remember any of this from the McCaffrey books, which I read, but didn't love. I remember rereading a bunch of Mercedes Lackey books in college (which I did love in early high school) and being appalled at how unhealthily romanticized all of the relationships were.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 02:39 pm (UTC)
Mercedes Lackey! I read a few of those too. They made me totally unsurprised when I discovered the world of Harry Potter slash fanfiction.

I don't remember the relationships--I've only reread one of them since--but I do remember how whiny and self-centered the main character was. "NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME! I HATE THE WORLD!" And then in order to validate this Lackey does a bunch of horrible things to him and his boyfriend for the rest of the book.

I understand how they were so sustaining for some of my high school friends, though.
llelwynllelwyn on November 21st, 2008 03:53 pm (UTC)
I read those in middle school as well. Vanyel is such a damned whiner, but one feels a lot better about him by the end of the series. The dude does redeem himself in some ways. He never does become a fully sympathetic character, but I guess I feel that that makes him a tiny bit more real (I've never met anyone who I don't have ANY conflict with).

In a lot of ways, I forgive Mercedes Lackey for a lot of her literary sins because she's writing for an audience that isn't me, anymore. Now, that doesn't mean that she shouldn't have toned the romance element down, but I recall as a teen that being what I wanted to read about and how I wanted it put to me. Because that was how I was socialized? Probably. But that doesn't change that it was what I wanted to hear.

crystalpyramidcrystalpyramid on November 21st, 2008 04:29 pm (UTC)
Oh, good, we're talking about the same series. (:

I was trying to read comfort-books after a breakup, and discovering that utterly unrealistic stories about relationships where Your One True Love died so you have to wait for a replacement One True Love to be reborn was not really helpful. And the whole thing was too perfect and too shallow and generally unbelievable. Since I think most of her readers are sexually/relationshipally inexperienced geek girls (and, I learned last year, gay boys), nobody really notices that at the time. But it's troublesome.

Also, Lackey's pleasure/pain stuff is probably equally unrealistic, and a lot of where I got various confusing ideas about that, which followed me around and made my life stupid.
the stag's daughterdoe_witch on November 21st, 2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
Daaamn! Wow, I didn't read McCaffrey growing up but I knew a lot of people who did, so I kept figuring I'd get around to it, and even bought the first book but didn't crack it open. Looks like I had good intuition.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 02:41 pm (UTC)
Life is too short. I hope you found some other great fantasy books instead.
Rebecca: Booktibicina on November 21st, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
I honestly think the Harper Hall trilogy is the better introduction to the world. Then again. I started reading these books when I was about nine or ten. (Though for 'that's probably not age appropriate reading material, the whole series was beat by my having read The Mists of Avalon circa age 8.)

The books do get better (well, until they get worse again... I never made it through Dolphins of Pern and that's about when I gave up. Though I did go back and read the MasterHarper book.)

On the other hand, it's been long enough since I read any of the Pern books that I might feel very differently now.

As another note, I'm having a really difficult time thinking of an Anne McCaffrey book in which the romantic relationships aren't really kind of messed up. (I include in this her actual romances as well as... pretty much everything she's written.) Some of them grow into healthy relationships is later books, but they pretty much all start out messed up and not really the sort of relationships one wants to model.

And, honestly, she does kind of continue the 'fat=bad' thing, I just try to ignore that when I read her stuff.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC)
That's good to know. If I'm ever stuck on a desert island with McCaffrey's complete oeuvre, I'll go for the Harper Hall books first!

I guess she found out that her readers like to read about angsty, emotionally-unfulfilling relationships. :(
Rebecca: Book of Dreamstibicina on November 21st, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
I think it's more that she's creating problems and challenges in the relationships to make them 'interesting', once people stop being the central focus of the books and become background characters in other people's stories, they're allowed to have good relationships. For that matter, Lessa and F'lar end up with a much better relationship than you'd think from the first book.

And if you've got all of McCaffrey, I'd say go for Crystal Singer or The Powers That Be or The Ship Who Sang. That or some of her romances, which are honestly kind of fun (provided you don't mind animals which are remarkably smart,) though they also suffer from the 'no, really, we could have solved this if you'd just talked to each other' problem, though it at least is generally presented as them being stupid for not talking to each other. I'm particularly fond of The Mark of Merlin and The Kilternan Legacy.

Though I do actually like the Harper Hall books, but... they can be a bit angsty and a bit wish-fullfillment-ish. But there's also much less sex because they were aimed at a young adult crowd. They're a lot more about finding your place when you're an outsider.
The Good Things Journalthemeindzeye on November 21st, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
You know, I loved these when I was in middle school, but then I reread them later. I hate Lessa (major bitch) and F'lar (arrogant jerk-face) and think they're just miserable examples of humanity. They both need a good kick in the ass. What bothered me also was the inconsistencies in the series. In the first book, Lessa seems to have almost magical powers and things are more fantastical, and then in the next books it's like, well, okay let's just pretend none of that happened 'cause there's no magic in these books anymore. And the swords disappear, and the whole society pretty much changes over time.

And I don't like the ones she wrote later on because all the characters are all "Oh, my joints ache I must go have a good sit-down 'cause I'm old oh, geeze, stuff is happening. Eh. I'll send some young person out to take care of it while I sit here with achey joints." Woo? Only not?
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The Good Things Journalthemeindzeye on November 21st, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
Once Lessa and F'lar get older, they whine around about creaky joints. I think F'nor also whines around about creaky joints. Master Robinton did, too, but I loved Master Robinton so he doesn't count as far as I'm concerned (seriously, best character in the whole series). And then whoever the main character in The Skies of Pern was, even though he wasn't really all -that- old. I think once she hit 86, she forgot that young people don't think about their joints like 24 hours a day.
llelwynllelwyn on November 21st, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
I'm yet another person who loved those books when she was younger and now looks back on them in wistful discomfort. I still have to admit to some sort of reminiscent affection for them, but the gender roles, particularly in her earlier works make me deeply uncomfortable. Doona, Pern, even Earth (trust me, DO NOT read her romance novels)... every world she wrote on near the beginning of her career was full of Strong Men and Women who Needed Their Protection. Sort of. Every relationship she wrote about is in some way fucked up. And to some extent this continues to be so.

Honestly, the Harper Hall series is better, probably because it is written for a younger audience and was published about a decade later than Dragonflight. Still, though, my favorite character all but vanishes after the second book (strangely enough coinciding with her reaching an age to become involved in a serious romantic relationship. Go figure.)

I'm attributing this to the fact that the woman was born in 1926 and so grew up after the First Wave and before the Second. She started being published in the late 60s, but ideas do hang on. Further, looking at her brief bio on Wikipedia it doesn't look like she's ever had a sucessful romantic relationship (divorced in 1970, no report of a current partner or anyone since), so maybe she's writing based on experience in some way and rather unhealthy fantasy in others.

cornaryncornaryn on November 21st, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
At first I thought I had read these books, but apparently not. Although it did remind me of one book about male dragon trainers (the dragons fight for sport) and female (of course) "bagging girls" (prostitutes), and some weird shit about slaves and sex. How the fuck does this stuff end up in the Young Adult section? Did you read this one? Main character=Jakkin.

I'm really going to have to look back at those books I DID read in middle school. I want to refocus on Beauty and the Beast adaptations. I haven't read all the short story versions, but I've read the big three. I know my original interest was due to an unfortunate perspective on gender, so I know I'll see new things this time around. And I'll be able to more clearly articulate what I don't like about the animalistic sex focus in a couple versions.

And THAT brings to mind my new vegan/Quaker perspective. That will REALLY change how I view fantasy novels. Were you ever uncomfortable with the Pokemon cartoon? I was, and now I understand why.
anatomiste on November 21st, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
Those are the dragon y/a books by Jane Yolen. Can't remember their names but they'd be easy to look up, since they all have Dragon in the title (if I remember correctly).

Which are the big three Beauty and the Beast adaptations? I've read the two by Robin McKinley.

I never saw the Pokemon cartoon. What was the matter with it?
The Good Things Journalthemeindzeye on November 21st, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)
The Jane Yolen ones are Dragon's Blood, Heart's Blood and A Sending of Dragons. I really like the first two, although A Sending of Dragons is all kinds of messed up. O.o x.x :D
cornaryncornaryn on November 21st, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
There's also Donna Jo Napoli's Beast. It's the only adaptation of hers that I've finished, but she's done several fairy tales. I read Beast as a first year, and one scene really sticks with me--the girl is bending over to pick berries or some such, and Mr. Persian Lion is looking at that and thinking yum. The prince's transformation into a lion apparently brings out the animal in him (and their relationship brings it out in her as well?). Like I said, I need to reread it.

In Pokemon, you capture the wild Pokemon and do battle with them. There are official tournaments, unofficial battles against bad guys, using Poke powers to escape a situation or whatever. The main character Ash is portrayed as a "good" Pokemon master because he doesn't say hurtful things to his Pokemon, because Pikachu is his best "friend," and because he is concerned with their welfare. The thing is, the Pokemon get hurt in battle. Always. And sometimes, they get REALLY hurt. Pikachu is portrayed as always willing to do battle for Ash because they're friends, and he gives his all even when it knocks him unconscious in a dangerous way. He always gets better though, and Ash never thinks OH MAYBE IF PIKACHU IS MY FRIEND I SHOULD STOP ASKING HIM TO GET HURT TO PLEASE ME. And Pikachu and the others never think (unless their masters are the "bad guys") hey, I don't actually feel like living in a damn Poke ball and being a fighting slave for this puny boy. Dogfighting is illegal, yet Pokemon was wildly popular. Hm.
the stag's daughterdoe_witch on December 15th, 2008 10:34 pm (UTC)
Okay, this is insanely wacky but besides the part where I also know those Jane Yolen books and really loved the first two, growing up, you, cornaryn, are secretly one degree of LJ separation from me, which is so random. I don't have thechokecherry friended but I know her personally and many people on her friends list are on mine. And yet you know anatomiste... whom I don't know all that well, but who knows recordbodycount, whom I do know online...

Basically you are this crazy nexus of people I know on the Internet vs. people I know offline. It is magical and I never thought it was possible. Well, it kind of happened to me once before, but this is maybe even weirder.
Rohesiasyaldia on November 22nd, 2008 03:11 am (UTC)
I've read some of the dragon's with riders books. I don't even remember enough about them to be able to figure out which ones.

I am tired of romance and sexual tension in my fantasy. Even the ya section is far too full of it.
cornaryncornaryn on December 16th, 2008 04:59 am (UTC)
Yes yes yes.
unwashed and idealistic: [firefly] Kayleetil_midnight on November 23rd, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I didn't even finish this book when I tried to read it last summer. And I was on vacation and deprived of other books the read and even then I decided that, yeah, I wasn't going to be reading this book. No thanks.
Mornie: Objects in Spacemornie on December 26th, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC)
Personal opinions aside and all, I have a problem with referring to McCaffrey as a "fantasy" writer, and the Dragonriders of Pern as "fantasy." They're science fiction. The dragons are technically an alien race which was genetically altered to be huge. Humans came to Pern via space ship. There's no actual magic anywhere in the books.
So now I've revealed myself as a huge nerd. Please excuse me and my nostalgic attatchment to the first books I ever read that made me think, "Hey, maybe this reading thing is kinda fun." But more importantly, I'm just a stickler for what constitutes "fantasy" vs. "science fiction."
Lucy Huntzinger: bear kingathenais on January 22nd, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)
The sexual politics of the Pern books make me gag now. When they were new, though, I barely even noticed. I was ten, though.