The quick guide to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels (by someone who hasn’t read them in years)

When we heard the news that Anne McCaffrey had died earlier this week, I found myself unexpectedly effected by it. For several years in my childhood and teens, Pern was one of my chief obsessions. I think that if I had run across Pern fans instead of Star Wars fans when I got online at 17, I might be running a very different kind of SF/F blog.

But instead, I gave up on following the series in 2001, after what I thought were several lackluster books. I can’t in good conscience recommend any of the recent Pern books, as I haven’t read them (and was actually shocked at just how many there are now!) But, for anyone who wants a grounding in the series, here are my recommendations.

Colonist with fire-lizards, from the cover of Dragonsdawn. (Art by Michael Whelan.)

The basics. While it’s easy to mistake the books for fantasy – Dragons! – they are in fact science fiction. The planet Pern, or Rukbat 3, was colonized by people from Earth several thousand years before the first books take place. The settlers planned a low-tech, agrarian colony, but soon discovered that the planet was menaced by periodic showers of ‘thread,’ a spaceborn organism that destroys all organic material it comes in contact with. Without the resources to renew their technology and protect their people and crops, they bioengineered large, rideable dragons from the indigenous ‘fire-lizards,’ which, with a little help from a phosphine rock, can breathe flame to destroy the thread. The dragons pick their riders when they hatch, forming a lifelong telepathic bond. (None of this is a spoiler: It’s all spelled out in the prologues of several books.)

Okay, it’s not the hardest of science in science fiction. DRAGONS!

The main divisions in Pern society are the Weyrs (dragons, dragonriders, and their support staff) Holds (Communities/settlements/cities/towns where most of the people live) and the craft Halls (Harpers, Smiths, Weavers, Farmers, etc.)

Because of thread, pretty much everyone lives in caves or stone buildings of some sort. Luckily, Pern has a lot of caves.

Best bet: Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon are available in a trade compilation.

So, what to read? The first Pern books are Dragonflight (1968,) and Dragonquest (1970,) which begin with a focus on the dragonriders of Benden Weyr, particularly Lessa, F’lar and F’nor. The White Dragon (1978,) focuses on Jaxom and his ‘sport’ dragon, Ruth. I’d say your next step – or you can read them concurrently with Dragonquest – are the first two Harper Hall books, Dragonsong (1976) and Dragonsinger (1977,) which show Pern from a different perspective, that of Menolly, a minor holder’s daughter who becomes an apprentice Harper. The third Harper book, Dragondrums (1979) follows another young harper, Menolly’s friend Piemur, and takes place during The White Dragon. From there, I’d recommend All the Weyrs of Pern (1991,) which I always felt seemed like a good conclusion to the era. (There are two books that follow WeyrsThe Dolphins of Pern (1994) and The Skies of Pern (2001) – but as these are the books that made me quit reading the series entirely, I can’t say I recommend them.)

There are a few novels set in earlier Pern that I enjoyed, though. First is is Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983,) a standalone set during a horrific plague in the Sixth Pass. (Nerilka’s Story (1986) is set during the same time, from another character’s perspective, though I’d rec it only if you like Moreta.) The second is Dragonsdawn (1988,) which is probably one of my favorite prequel stories ever, telling the story of the initial colonization and the first dragonriders. That also has a bit of a followup, The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall (1993,) which is several short stories/novellas set before, during, and after Dragonsdawn.

Yes, you could start with Dragonsdawn, but I don’t generally recommend reading this type of series chronologically – it kind of destroys half the fun of learning how all that stuff came to be. However, as ImperialGirl points out in the comments, either Moreta or the Harper Hall books would be good tests to see if the series appeals to you.

Also handy – though long out of print – are The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern and The Atlas of Pern – think of them as Pernese Essential Guides.

So, with one exception, I don’t really recommend any Pern novels published after 1991. Most of the current stuff – which is co- or entirely authored by Anne’s son, Todd McCaffrey – I haven’t read at all. Todd seems to have carved out an era for himself – the Third Pass – although apparently a post-Weyrs novel is in the works.

(And no, Pern fans, I haven’t forgotten about Renegades, Masterharper or any of the other books not mentioned – I just found them rather lackluster.)

It’s worth noting that there are some issues within the series that may trouble modern readers. Pern is fairly patriarchal and feudal. Both Dragonflight and Dragonquest (at least) have relationships and dubious sexual consent issues straight out of bodice-ripping romance novels. Most of the villains are pretty flat. (Certain Holds always seem to breed bad guys, going all the back to their namesakes in Dragonsdawn – at least one villainess’ biggest characteristic is being rather promiscuous.) McCaffrey also had some very odd ideas about homosexuality, though I don’t remember too much of it being spelled out in the actual books. (I could be wrong.) And, yes, there is the occasional continuity error. Horrors!

In any case, if all the memorials have made you curious about McCaffrey’s most famous series, here’s my version of a roadmap, drawn strictly from memory. Other McCaffrey readers, what are your recs – Pern and beyond?

14 thoughts on “The quick guide to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels (by someone who hasn’t read them in years)

  1. Michelle

    I totally agree with you! It was those classic ones that got me hooked on the series, and while I’m sure Todd means well, he just doesn’t have his mother’s touch, and I haven’t enjoyed the more recent books. I’ve read them anyway, because the series is still more enjoyable that say, the new era of Star Wars, but I’ll probably give up soon. There’s apparently one more book coming that Anne had worked on with him, and I doubt I’ll read more after that.

  2. Barriss Coffee

    As someone who only vaguely heard of the series once before, you guys have me intrigued. Great synopsis, Dunc. I think I’ll check these out.

  3. theadornedunicorn

    I loved the Dragonriders series when I was younger, though I barely remember the details now…I don’t find it at all surprising that those of us who loved Dragonriders love Star Wars!

  4. DarthPahl

    Dunc, I’m right there with you. I felt like you and I bonded a bit over both Star Wars and Pern. I ended up journaling it under another pseudo which has now gotten linked (weird, I know) from a geek feminist blog.

    I don’t quite remember when I discovered Pern. I was young enough to think it was all very daring and edgy and what would my mother think if she knew I was reading a book where the inside cover used the word DESIRE (old green cover of Dragonflight and the passage with Ramouth’s first flight with Mnementh). OMG DRAGONS and OMG DRAGONS AND SEX. And then, whoa, wait a minute, those are all men with green dragons so that means HOMOSEXUAL SEX WITH DRAGONS. WHAT WOULD MY MOTHER SAY? It was without a doubt my first exposure to same sex relationships which when you think about it is really early in our collective cultural development.

    Further, the timing of these was so important for girls coming of age in a time when sci fi/fantasy/genre was just beginning to take off. Where did you go after Middle Earth, Prydain, and Narnia and while you were waiting for ESB and ROTJ? I know in the same time I tried Thomas Covenant and the first Terry Brooks and MZB (Mists, Darkover) then classic science fiction.

    The series was for many our first exposure to speculative fiction, a great gift, and a bridge to the world of science fiction, and to adult literature that had more mature content in the background.

    Now, the sexism, the consent, and the abuse do make me wince though I did not see it at the time. I’m really thinking a lot about how I condemn Twilight and have to say candidly that Pern probably filled a similar hole in the lives of teens/young adults and we’ve all turned out just fine. The dragon as your BFF, helpmate, advocate, defender, and intimate against all the Mean Girls is a very powerful totem.

    Interestingly, my son went through a huge dragon phase, but it was very much an extension of RAWWR DINOSAURS AND THINGS WITH TEETH. With girls, it was much more about the emotional connection with dragons.

    So, with Pern, I didn’t notice the issues because I was young, it was a more innocent time, and most of all OMG DRAGONS. I definitely look at them now through the lens of that fond memory. I also find that I am far more likely to re-read Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs and the Harper Hall series (middle of 1 and through all of 2) rather than the original books and I think it might be that I would have a much harder time now looking the other way.

  5. Dunc Post author

    Heh, I never read Tolkien as a kid: Pern kind of was my Middle-Earth. (Though I think I did read Narnia first, or at least around the same time.)

    My parents knew exactly what I was reading: All my books were originally my mother’s, and my father read them too. I actually did a very lengthy (we broke for lunch) fourth grade book report on Dragonflight. Did I talk about dragon mating in front of a nun?!? Very likely.

    Read through all of Dragonflight last night (after I wrote this) and man… F’lar is a jerk. Some ‘hero.’ (Jaxom is better, right? Right?) I recall Dragonquest being squicker, though. But I know it’s there, so it’s not like I’m getting blindsided.

  6. DarthPahl

    I saw your tweet about F’lar being a jerk and he is! The mating flight and then some of his reflections afterwards are, now, really cringe-worthy. Lessa is a very complex character and I do like how throughout the books she remains pretty bitchy and I don’t think her mothering skills were much either. Yes! Jaxom is better. Totally. Sniff. I’d always sort of thought in my head canon that F’nor was the nicer half brother and then realized YESTERDAY when I reading tributes that F’nor’s behavior with Brekke at the Southern Hold is frequently cited as one of the squickiest, most triggery parts in the whole series. Oops. Goodness, I was clueless when I read them.

    As said, I’m far more likely nowadays to re-read Harper Hall (I did within the last 6 months) or All the Weyrs or Dragonsdawn. I didn’t like Renegades much at all — it really irritated me that the beginning of the book had so little to do with the end — but I did LOVE the ending of it once they get to the business of the excavating and the appearance of AIVAS at the very end.

  7. elisabeth

    Oh, neat, a roadmap for Pern-books!
    Read a fanfic (from a totaly different series, and it was an AU at that) last year that was -according to the fanficwriter- heavily based on this series. Was intrigued, but then I looked up a list of all the books in the series….and got discouraged. Now I at least have *somwehere* to start. :-D

  8. Dunc Post author

    Yes, the Brekke stuff… Sigh. Well, we’ll see.

    The worst part with Lessa herself (in Dragonflight) is the whole “He’ll shake me!” bit. Granted, she’s understandably freaked out at that point and F’lar is a jerk, I just… Gah. LESSA, YOU ARE BETTER THAN THAT. (…Talk about arrested development, though, geez.)

    I haven’t reread any Pern in… It’s got to be close to a decade. Debating whether to read Renegades or not… It was always the dullest to me, I forgot there was any AIVAS in there.

    elisabeth: Yeah, it’s tough now since bookstores don’t really stock a ton of older titles, plus they’re not exactly numbered…

  9. ImperialGirl

    Personally, I vote for “read Moreta and if you like it, read the others” (unless you’re a normal ten and not an advanced ten, then read the Harper Hall books.)

  10. eliz

    I have somehow never read Pern– though I love dragons… so I just bought the compilation for my kindle. It’ll be nice to go to after I finish reading about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is good, but dry and written by someone who’s not happy that Susan B Anthony gets all the credit… but they were bff’s too and *sigh* I want to get to the dragons! :)

  11. Crazy

    I checked this series out of the library because I saw the first one, remembered this post, and DRAGONS!! I actually love all the Anne McCaffrey’s books, (well, the beginning of “Dragonsong” has be wanting to punch Marvi) and kinda like the first trilogy she wrote with her son. When Todd writes without her, he is a lot more “adventurous” in relationships than his mother, and he abuses the time-travel abilities of the dragons.

    Thanks for this post! It introduced me to an amazing series.

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