Robin Roberts on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight


The first woman writer to receive both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) is perhaps best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series. Now a world her son, Todd McCaffrey, has taken over writing about, Anne McCaffrey wrote a number of wonderful novels and short stories about Pern over the years. Robin Roberts argues that Dragonflight is both one of the best, “a rich and complex text” (21), that “most completely develops the plot that will serve as a model for the other books in the series.” (21)

According to Roberts, “Dragonflight contains character, plot, and themes that are representative of McCaffrey’s work in general, […which] does for dragons what Isaac Asimov’s Robot series does for robots – it establishes dragons as sentient, competent, and caring companions and creatures with a believable scientific explanation for their existence.” (21)

Dragonflight,” Roberts explains, “begins as many of McCaffrey’s novels do, in media res (in the middle of the story). This structure was common to epic poetry, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, so McCaffrey draws on a time-honored tradition for her plot and immediately captures her reader’s interest. McCaffrey begins in the middle in two ways: the novel describes events in the middle of the planet Pern’s history, and events in the middle of the heroine’s life.

Many science fiction novels begin with the colonization of a planet, but Dragonflight depicts the events that occur long after the initial exploration and development of Pern. …Pern has the same unique potential for sentient life that our planet does, and the same problems (human greed, politics).” (22)

“The book,” Roberts points out, “begins with these words, ‘When is a legend a legend? Why is a myth a myth?’ (xi). The rest of the novel answers these questions, and the introduction explains how Pern’s origins and history produce myth and legend.” (22)

Of course, this beginning has received a fair amount of attention and its connections with the rest of the Dragonriders series is certainly worth considering. On the surface, at a plot level, as Roberts explains, “Lessa [the protagonist] is descended from dragonriders, but she knows nothing about them. Her ignorance stems from her position as an outcast, but also because dragons have become less important to Pernese society in general. …Lessa’s ignorance makes her the ideal stand-in for the reader; like Lessa, we are attracted to the dragons, but know nothing about them. As Lessa makes her discoveries and bonds with a dragon, the reader vicariously experiences the pleasures of flying and communing with a dragon. [Further, Lessa is chosen as a candidate for a queen dragon just as the fall of the deadly Thread is imminent.] Only the rediscovery and repopulation of the world with dragons will save Pern. The reader is invited to unravel the mystery of the dragons and the solution to Pern’s plight with the help of clues from ballads that precede each chapter. These brief and tantalizing verses describe dragons and [-p.24] their role in combatting Thread. …it is the ballads that provide the way to rescue Pern from extinction. The excerpts she uses in the novel’s structure are not only entertaining, but also central to the plot.” (23-24)

Roberts continues: “Using questions and supplying Pern’s history in the introduction draw the reader into the world of Pern. The introduction works as preparation, as a hook, and then the ballads provide the answers. This structure smoothly integrates the reader into Pern.” (24)

The importance of story and art to Pern and its people goes deeper than ‘just’ plot, though, as Roberts discusses. Story and identity are greatly entwined in the creation of both character and storyworld. Characters don’t just have stories; they are stories. They are pushed and pulled by story and by art. There is a depth to Pern that is provided by story.

I suppose you could say that ‘story’ comes alive through Pern… and somehow this seems a perfect legacy … if you know what I mean

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT

Note: links to Pern can be found at:


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