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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.
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.