The Dragonriders of Pern series has been a classic of sci-fi for pretty much my entire existence. I’ve never read any of it until now, however, and after two books I’m left wondering quite a few things.
Written in the late 60s, the first novel–Dragonflight–tells the story of a young woman who unexpectedly bonds with a dragon during the twilight years of the planet Pern’s 400 year peaceful interlude. The fungal spores that rain down from a neighbouring planet soon return, however, and she must find a way to save her homeworld.
It’s a good story that would be a great story if she weren’t so annoying. It’s a good story that would be a fantastic barn-burner of a novel if a good third of it weren’t devoted to her abusive conflicts with her mate. Nothing says “good leisure reading time” like a man shaking a woman violently when angered by her refusal to obey him.
Yes, you read that right. A man shaking a woman violently when angered by her refusal to obey him.
But here’s the problem I have as both a reader and a writer.
As distasteful as these scenes of domestic violence are, as uncomfortable as I am reading them I think they are accurate. Strong-willed men used to dominating a culture and being feted for their prowess often DO conflict with women of equally strong will and smart mouth.
At first I was horrifed, thinking “that’s just not something I need to read about”. Then I realised that as much as we speculative fiction readers carry on about worldbuilding, do we dare complain when the worldbuilding describes the characters in that world accurately? Unlike Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Dragonflight never fetishizes the abuse or makes it seem cute and kind of sexy in a “ravish me, big fella” way. It’s an uncomfortable situation portrayed uncomfortably. As objectionably squicky as it is to read, it does have resolution and doesn’t continue past the middle third of the book.
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this novel, most of them slagging off on the book and declaiming it as anti-feminist trash.
Feminists get abused. Believe it or not, there is more than one feminist out there who has been slapped, punched, kicked, shaken and worse. The point of feminism isn’t to pretend that this doesn’t happen but to point out how wrong it is when it does. I think that Dragonflight did that successfully, actually.
I’m on the verge of thinking that perhaps we as readers in the 21st century have gotten too much political correctness that then stands in the way of our willingness to watch characters develop. I’m not sure if I’m going to commit to that theory all the way, though, because I’ve read too many novels lately where the woman is raped for no other reason that to have a shocking, prurient thing happen. We’re also the culture that lauded the Millenium Trilogy to the rafters and made that trilogy of meaningless torture porn a bestselling icon of publishing. So I don’t think I’m ready to say we need to stop being so guarded against violence and exploitation in fiction.
I do think, though, when the violence serves a purpose and is ultimately dealt with we need to admit that a purpose was, indeed, served.