Anne McCaffrey
Dragonflight Cover

It Flies, and Then it Falls


It's not easy to describe exactly why I hate this book so much, especially since it has been so well-established in the genre canon. Any severe criticism is bound to be met with animosity from the book's fans. Before I list out my complaints, I will note that I did genuinely enjoy a few things, such as the vivid characters, the cheeky intermingling of science fiction and fantasy, and the political wranglings between the dragon-riding and earth-bound societies. None of that prevents me from despising this novel with all the strength of my soul.

Back in the Year of Our Lord 1895, Mark Twain wrote an essay against The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences," in which he included a number of "rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic [i.e., action-adventure] fiction." More than a few of these rules are applicable to Dragonflight. These rules require...

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. Because of the time-traveling conceit in the story (and more on that soon), it is hard to speak of this story "arriving" anywhere. What the characters discover throughout the course of this twisted narrative is that they "already" traveled backwards in history in order to accomplish certain tasks, and all that remains is for them to, well, do it again. Up until the discovery that dragons can not only teleport (!) but even time travel (!!), the story follows a fairly interesting and dramatically satisfying movement from one place to another, but then it simply twists in upon itself in a self-fulfilling, and thus uninteresting, way.

2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. To quote what Twain says of The Deerslayer, "the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop."

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. We are told that the other dragon weyrs all mysteriously died out hundreds of years ago. This rule is flagrantly broken by making them not-dead, thanks to time travel.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. Sadly, even if one accepts the conceit of temporal knotting, there is absolutely no reason for the inhabitants of the long-"dead" weyrs to be brought from the distant past into the not-so-distant present. Simply don't steal them from their time, and then their descendants will have produced more than enough dragons to meet the present threat.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. Let it simply be noted that the characters of Dragonflight—backwards, pseudo-medieval, squallor-dwelling people that they are supposed to be—have little difficulty swallowing the idea of time travel. One cannot conceivably imagine people like that speaking casually about not altering the timeline.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. And here is the meat of it. Miracles are poor enough material for anything but hagiography, and they are nearly unforgivable in a genre that purports to be (in the modern sense of the word) scientific. How can a dragon teleport? No good reason or method is given—they simply do. Isn't it enough in a thrilling tale to be able to ride a magnificent flying beast, without the miracle of teleportation? And then, it turns out, the dragons can travel backwards in time. Presumably, McCaffrey thinks this needs no further explanation because of the Einsteinian mathematics that equate time with the spatial dimensions. At this point, I nearly consigned this volume to the flames. The only thing preventing my paperback from receiving an infernal fate was the desire to write this review, something difficult to do without reading the story down to its bitter dregs.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. This is accomplished well enough at the start of the tale, which was inhabited with real heroes and real villains. Sadly, the threat of the "Threads" has nothing to do with bad people or villainy. They are simply part of a virus-like biological incursion from one ecosystem into another. One might come to love F'lar and Lessa, but one cannot hate a virus as though it were a moral agent.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. Aside from an early villain, two main characters, and their dragons, every other person is a bland enigma.

Twain's parthian shot at The Deerslayer seems appropriate for closing out this review: "A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill [well, maybe a little thrill -J], no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious." And its dragon flights, I shall add, a crash into the mountains of absurdity.