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Problematic Faves: The romances of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series

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Jan 10, 2019, 3:03 PM EST

Author Anne McCaffrey was a huge influence on so many young readers and writers, the first women to win a Hugo Award, and the first woman to win a Nebula award. She’s the author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, the Crystal Singer series and so many others. She wrote powerful female characters who did things for themselves and often ruled a planet. She’s in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

She was an amazing woman, and yet, her romances are problematic. In the midst of her wonderfully created world of the Federated Sentient Planets, her "Ship Who Sang," and her bioengineered dragons, we as modern readers have to come to terms with difficult relationships. 

The Dragonriders series centers largely around the character of Lessa. She was born the daughter of a Holder, or a ruling Lord, but after her family was slaughtered, a very young Lessa hides as a drudge, or a servant. She lives a hellish life but uses her slight psychic powers to arrange the Hold so that it falls to pieces and so that the current Lord makes no profit from it. She’s “rescued” by a dragonrider named F’lar who is searching for candidates to “impress” the last existing female dragon who is about to hatch. Dragons fight Thread, a devastating organism that falls from the sky for 50 turns (or years) every 200 turns. It didn’t happen 200 years ago and everyone thinks it’s gone forever. Lessa and F’lar, who eventually hook up and live as partners for the remainder of the series, change the antiquated views of the planet and save the world from Thread. 

The story is great. Lessa is well-drawn, powerful, difficult, loving, wonderful. She’s also got issues and prejudices. She’s a real person. The issues never lie with her or the world she inhabits. Pern is great as well. There's an odd feudal system on a planet that has forgotten it was settled by colonists from Earth thousands of years ago, and the lack of any religion is fascinating, but it’s the romance that is wonky.

F’lar and Lessa are great people on their own, but it’s very hard to read about how they got together. In the first book, F’lar and his brother F’nor are constantly commenting on how hot Lessa is and F’lar just expects that she will sleep with him. She doesn’t, but when they finally become a couple, she constantly worries that he will “shake” her if she misbehaves. It’s jarring for readers to see an otherwise powerful woman worry about this, and F’lar shows no other sign of abuse or even the ability to tolerate it after the first couple of chapters. It’s like McCaffrey decided to change who he was, part-way in, and to give Lessa a tolerance for abuse that doesn’t fit with her character at all. 

Equally as problematic is F’lar’s brother F’nor and his eventual wife Brekke. Brekke is a very young woman and a healer who has just impressed a dragon. In the Pern universe, when dragons mate, their riders get caught up in the dragon’s emotions. and must have sex. Usuall,y it’s a group of men (who impress all the other colors of dragons other than Gold, which is a Queen) waiting around the woman whose Queen dragon is ready to mate, or a man whose green is, all so the winner can screw her/him. Brekke is terrified - understandably - about this happening to her virgin self and F’nor tries to help out by having sex with her. After, he wonders if his insistence amounted to rape. She’s clearly in love with him, but he was willing for that to be the case and was a little worried about it. Again, it doesn’t fit at all with his character. It’s something we see later with F’lar and Lessa’s son F’lessan and his partner Tai. (Women later begin to impress green dragons, who are the only other female dragons.) He worries that she’s been raped by other dragonriders, and after having sex with her, worries that he raped her because she really wasn’t willing. He keeps asking her to say that she chose him. It’s pretty awful. 

In the music school, or Harper Hall, we see a semi-normal relationship develop between the student Menolly and her superior (sort of) Sebell, and it appears to be healthy at first. The problem here is that, once Menolly is married to Sebell and has babies, she virtually disappears from the narrative. This woman who was being trained as a prodigy by the Masterharper himself just disappears after being the first woman to be trained in music in modern memory. It's not that she couldn’t happily choose motherhood, but again, it’s a McCaffrey romance that doesn’t make sense for the character. We never hear her express that desire. She’s a woman with power and one who loves her job, and suddenly it’s just gone from her life and her husband is the one running things. 

The biggest topic of contention for modern readers, however, is the issue of the dragons and their impressing. Until later in the series, only men can impress dragons of bronze, brown, green and blue (in descending order of importance). As green dragons are female, and as greens often mate with blues, McCaffrey has said that they usually impress homosexual or bisexual riders. There is a quote that may or may not be true that has her saying that anal sex during a dragon mating causes you to be gay. The validity of that quote has been debated for a long time. 

So, what do we do with this? Everyone has to decide for themselves about how much you can forgive from writing or any other art from the past. Significantly, McCaffrey was writing about gay characters with very little judgment in the 1970s. The Weyrs, where the dragons live, and their population are accepting of any form of sexuality (other than Kylara’s), and of women with multiple partners. Sex during your dragon’s mating flight isn’t considered cheating, nor is a sex with partners of any gender during that time. None of this is stigmatized by the books. Nudity isn’t an issue and religion isn’t in evidence. We watch misogyny change to acceptance through the course of the series and see ignorance and ultra-conservative thinking punished with disdain and banishment. Women begin to impress other dragons. McCaffrey wrote about women with power and intense inner strength. She created worlds that are glorious. In her other series, we start to see even less judgment about strong sexuality and pairings of many kinds. But it’s her earlier books that are the hardest to accept. 

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