Tag Archives: Pern

Comfort books, second course: Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Michael-Whelan-Dragons-dragons-4284189-1204-827Today I am serving up the second course of our three course meal of books that are comfort food for my soul. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series directly motivated me to become a writerNo other series of books has had a more profound effect on me as both a reader, and as an author.

The artwork gracing many of her later covers was done by the same brilliant artist, Michael Whelan, whose work graces many of Tad Williams’ books.

I have read the entire series every year since I snuck my father’s Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of The Dragonriders of Pern, a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them.   I can’t tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, “When I think of dragons, I think of Pern.”

AnneMcCaffrey_DragonflightAnne McCaffrey’s 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses at least 23 novels and several anthologies of short stories that are just as compelling as the novels.  In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!

Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, Weyr Search which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part Dragonrider, with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.

Anne McCaffrey was the grand mistress of worldbuilding. Aspiring scifi and fantasy authors should read her work for the small clues and hints that are sprinkled within her work , the little brushstrokes that create the larger picture. She gave us a real planet, in Pern–and our minds built around her framework, believing the world of Pern to be as real as our own earth.

moretaPern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years.  However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval).  The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).

dragon flight 2The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold.  She was ten years old the day her family’s hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds.  Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher’s kennel during the massacre.  Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family’s rightful home.  However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should.  Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him.  Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa’s vengeful care.

whitedragonThe action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters.  The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined.  Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me.  Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.

To the right here is the colorful book cover as was published in 1970 by Corgi.  I never liked this cover nearly so much as the Michael Whelan covers, though I did have several copies of this particular book.

This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction.  I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for new stories by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything that even remotely promised to be as good as this book.  I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this series of books stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.

white dragon 2The Dragonriders of Pern series has captivated generations of fans. It was the first adult series of books my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck them off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story.  Every year new books are to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks of nothing but reading to get through it, even as fast as I read.

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Don’t dump it-deploy it

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMost of my work takes place in  a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.

But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head.  Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.

So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups  I frequently  see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?

The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.

Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:

Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.

dump no infoA sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.

Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.

That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone  from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again? 

So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single,  a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.

Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.

TRUST YOUR READERThere’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.

Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.

Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.

Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped,  fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.

Book- onstruction-signNow you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.

We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.

For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.

Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.

 

 

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