Geek Girl in Hollywood: In praise of the ahead-of-its-time 'Pern' series
Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern" series is coming to the movies. For this writer, they were important books in shaping her early feminism.
Last night, I decided to, once again, re-read the “Dragonriders of Pern” series of books by Anne McCaffrey. Yes, the one that’s getting a movie. They were my first fantasy novels and I’ve re-read them at least 12 times. Depending on how you count the short stories, the series is either 22-24 books, with the first one, “Dragonflight,” written in 1968. In a nutshell, this is about a planet, settled by humans years before that has forgotten its origin. It’s a medieval sort of society that faces the threat of “thread,” organic matter-eating spores that fall from the sky. Some of the inhabitants ride dragons to flame it out of the sky.
So why is this old book series important? Well, while re-reading the first one last night, certain things struck me again. The series, written by a woman who was one of the few writing science fiction back then (or at least one of the few to get published), has a female lead unlike almost any out there at the time. Her name is Lessa and she’s still a role model for me. She’s brought in by the dragon rider F’lar to “impress” the one egg-laying dragon left on Pern, but she’s stuck in a society that fails to recognize the value of women. She, however, recognizes her own self-worth and power and it ends up changing the world.
What the books did so well was to show the society changing, which the real one was very much doing back in 1968. There were troubling passages (at least, troubling to read now) in the early books about what was expected of women, but that changed as the series went on, and Pernese society with it.
Even in the beginning, in the weyrs, where the dragons and riders lived, sexuality was a comfortable thing. No one was too weirded out by women sleeping with more than one man in her life or by homosexuality. No one was expected to breed until they were worn out or dead. Once Lessa took over, things started to change for women all over Pern. They ran craft halls. They were among the leaders of the day. By the end of the series in 2003 (and the continuing series written by her son Todd), we had a society that reflects what we see today.
So why talk about a series from so long ago? Because, reading what I did, I grew up not having issues with sexuality. I grew up thinking that women could do whatever they wanted, even when faced with a bunch of men in power who didn’t think they could. The things that make me uncomfortable now are at the beginning of the series, and changed as the society did.
I say this all because the newer books I’ve been reading, notably the “Star Wars” series, with an absolute 50/50 split between men and women in all aspects of society, from military to commerce to farmers, are the ones a younger generation will be devouring the way I did with the Pern series. They’ll see women in power in fiction at a much younger age than I did. They’ll see themselves. I found these books where a women triumphs and society changes when there were very few like them. Now they’re everywhere, and that can only mean good things.