Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Anne McCaffrey's Pern books

So, on my holiday I read about 13 books.   Ok so that includes 2 trades, but nonetheless I think that's pretty good going, AND  it gives me another reason to be grateful for my kindle, cos if I hadn't had that my luggage would either have been much heavier, or I'd have spent a fortune in all the second hand book shops.

ANYWAY.  I started going through the Pern books again, starting with the Masterharper of Pern, then going back to book number 1, now I'm on book number 6.  Man, I love reading.  Anyway, my last recollection of the Pern books (on the second or third reading) was that they were massively sexist, which irked me (obviously).  I mostly recalled things like all the heroic women being monogamous and the all the evil women being promiscuous, as well as all the women having housework type roles and the men being the ones doing the exciting things.

I have since changed my mind.  The Pern books are about a society in flux, changing, developing and casting aside the old traditions which inhibit and harm the citizens of Pern.  They are books about a society seeking new knowledge, new ways of doing things and the heroes of the books are trying to improve lives for everyone.

Yes, a lot of the women aren't allowed to progress (or enter) the crafthalls, yes they are expected to bear children and manage their holds (under the men), or serve the men their food and drink, but throughout the books it is made clear that these are the old ways of doing things and it must change.

Lessa is the driving force that saved Pern in first book.  She is involved in all councils, laws, plans for Pern.  She couldn't NOT be.  She will not be cast aside by those who deem her unworthy because of her sex or gender.
The weyrleaders councils are dominated by men, to be sure, but that's because an old tradition decreed that women could only impress queen dragons, this belief is questioned and then broken when Mirrim impresses a green dragon.

Menolly's success at becoming a harper proves to people that women can be trained, and those men who question this are shown to be in the wrong.
Kylara's character is very much selfish, conniving and yes, promiscuous.  But it's not the sex that makes her bad, it's the way she plays men off and the way that her selfishness drives her to cause the death of 2 queen dragons.
Other heroic women are also shown to be promiscuous, for example, Silvina in the Masterharper of Pern book.  Ok, this is a later book, so I think it's clear that McCaffrey was trying to amend and improve the politics of Pernese life as she continued with her series.  But who cares if it's a retcon or a new thing?  It works.
It is made very clear throughout all the books that the young people of Pern wish to live in a Weyr, partly for the sexual freedom it brings.  This indicates that life outside a Weyr is sexually limited, and as the dragonriders are the heroes of this series, surely this indicates that sexual promiscuity is if not encouraged, certainly not frowned upon by the writer?
There is the element of arranged marriages, but I think it's clear that these benefit neither men nor women.  I think that issue is more to do with the familial and societal structures rather than a gender imbalance.

I mean, the books do have some sexist flaws in them, of course they do, most things do.  Some are a  product of the time in which they are written (the earlier ones mostly), some are because they fall into romantic fiction tropes of sex (and at their heart the Pern books are as much romance stories as sci fi stories).  But on the whole, it's not a sexist series.  there are tons of worthy women characters, all excelling at some of what they do, failing at others, all with human flaws, the same as the men.  As a story of a society in flux and improving itself you can see that the problems within the set up are being addressed.

That makes them a much more satisfying read that I had previously thought.  And, for a series about dragons (i.e. right up my street) this pleases me no end.


CraftyReader said...

The Pern books were the first ones I ever stole from my mom; and I still have those copies (duct-taped & packing-taped together). That gives you an idea of how much I love them.

I read them when I was about 10 so any sexism in them went over my head. I just wanted a fire dragon. When I reread them in college, I was righteously angry about the women being in charge of the house.

Now when I read them, I see Pern the way you do. And I enjoy reading a world & culture evolve (maybe even devolve, a bit).

I think the Pern books get a somewhat bad rep because people do read them as sci-fi; not romance. I read them as romance more than sci-fi--they're some of the first books that made me want to actually be a character.

(here via twitter)

Saranga said...

I think I first picked them up because I thought they were fantasy, with dragons (and who doesn't love dragons?). I then read an interview with Anne McCaffrey where she said they were sci-fi, not fantasy, becuase there's no magic and technology, genetic engineering etc plays a great role in the books.
It's bizarre to read a sci-fi book about an agricultural, pre industrial society, but also so satisfying!
I am not a fan of traditional sci-fi, which is heavy on the tech explanations.

I still reallllly want a fire-lizard.