Dragonflight: early instalment weirdness a-gogo
Dragonflight is weird.
Dragonflight is really, really weird.
Dragonflight has a right to be weird. It’s two novellas – Weyr Search and Dragonrider – squidged together, plus some extra material from a third, unpublished story called Crack Dust, Black Dust, none of which were ever envisaged as the beginning of the sprawling Pern saga that we all know and love. The first three parts of the book in my edition – Weyr Search, Dragonflight and Dust Fall (the fourth part is called The Cold Between) – correspond to those separate stories.
As a result, it’s full of early instalment weirdness.
If you’re not familiar with TV Tropes (and if you’re not, it’s a rabbit hole, be warned), this is how it defines the phenomenon:
“Long running series often have to experiment a little before they find their niche: sometimes there are concepts abandoned early on that were fascinating, either because they were potentially good ideas back then, or they just clash so much with the later tone of the series. In short, the first installment is a “prototype”, like a pilot or a first episode.”
Think season one Star Trek: The Next Generation with male and female officers in miniskirts; Tyrion Lannister doing backflips in A Game of Thrones; Cylon spines glowing in Battlestar Galactica. Things that were phased out because they didn’t fit with later, more important facts, or because the writers had a better idea. Or because they were just daft. Miniskirts.
Dragonflight has this in spades (perhaps not the miniskirts). No other Ninth Pass book is quite so tonally or factually at odds with the others. The Pern of Dragonflight is far darker, dirtier, and dung-ier than it is in Dragonquest, set just a few Turns later; or in Masterharper of Pern, its effective prequel. One of the chief issues many readers have with Masterharper is that it just doesn’t tally with the scungy, downtrodden, quasi-medieval Pern of Dragonflight so much as it does the more enlightened mid-Ninth Pass era.
And that’s okay. Anne hadn’t figured this stuff out yet. She had no idea when she wrote those novellas, or even when she combined them into Dragonflight, that she’d be writing a dozen more books set on Pern. We all love to discuss Anne-consistencies, but some of the functional changes that occurred behind-the-scenes between Dragonflight and the later books weren’t inconsistencies but deliberate changes, decisions Anne made about Pern as she developed it beyond what was required for those early novellas.
So in Dragonflight, greens are male, and queens the only female dragons. Dragons (and watch-whers) have both scales and ears. In some editions, all dragon eggs – not just gold – are visibly the colour of the dragons they contain. Terrified candidates are mauled and even killed by dragonets during a Hatching.
We never see any of this ever again.
These points are all specifically, directly, and repeatedly contradicted in later books.
And one side of perhaps the most time-honoured debate of the Pern fandom community – Just how big are dragons, anyway? – is predicated in large part on Dragonflight‘s descriptions. Mnementh is implied to be colossal: he is eye-level with F’lar when his chin is on the ground; his eye is larger than Lessa’s entire head; he cages Lessa in his claws. Many of the quotes supporting immense (the famous airliner 25-45 metres-scale) dragons derive from Dragonflight, while the later books imply dragons of somewhat more modest proportions. (Although, here, even Dragonflight is inconsistent: at one point F’lar vaults onto Mnementh’s neck while he is hovering above their weyr ledge. Yowza!)
But the conflicts between Dragonflight and everything else aren’t mistakes. They’re retcons. When Anne returned to Pern to write Dragonquest, she chose to change these things. And so greens became female, dragons earless and smooth-skinned, and Hatching ceremonies occasions for joy and celebration, not terror and bloody evisceration. Taken in the wider context of the entire corpus of Pern canon, much of Dragonflight just doesn’t fit any more. When arguing two sides of an inconsistency, Dragonflight – with its strange descriptions of humongous dragons who don’t actually speak (Mnementh has no dialogue in the whole of Weyr Search) and in general behave in a far more crude and primitive way than we now associate with Pernese dragons – surely has to be given less credence than the later books, where the norms we associate with Pern are much more established.
All else being equal, if something that shows up in Dragonflight is contradicted by one or more of the other books, Dragonflight is the source we quietly shove under the carpet.
Imagine if fandom took everything established in Dragonflight as 100% true, and everything that came after it a non-canon contradiction of the purity of Pern.
Imagine if Dragonflight had been the only Dragonriders of Pern book. Would we have fallen in love with this world nearly so much without all the later material – joyful Hatchings, direct dragon dialogue, female greens, fire-lizards, the Harperhall, Ruth – that was nowhere to be seen in Dragonflight and mitigates the grim crapsackiness of Second Long Interval Pern?
Dragonflight is weird.
It’s a weird early instalment.
(But at least there weren’t any miniskirts.)