Sky Dragons by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey
Cover art by Les Edwards
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel is the last work of Anne McCaffrey. It was in the final stages when she died suddenly at the age of eighty-five. She had been in ill health for a number of years, and as her condition worsened, she began to leave her literary worlds increasingly to other hands. Almost all of her novels in the last decade have been collaborations, whether credited or not. Pern, the crown jewel of her life work, has been increasingly given over to her son Todd McCaffrey, and several of the most recent Pern books have come out entirely under his name.
However, Anne McCaffrey came back to head the authorship of Dragon Time, the novel immediately previous to this one. It appears that this decision was the result of dissatisfaction with Todd McCaffrey's solo work, and to be true, there was plenty to criticize about his handling of the books he did solo.
Pern was never Great Literature. Unlike, for instance Frank Herbert's landmark novel Dune, the Pern books were never about Great Ideas about the nature of leadership or the role of religion in society. They were first and foremost the exploration of a society in which dragons were not evil monsters to be slain, but partners with humanity in the fight to protect their world and their civilization from a mindless menace that rained down upon them from the skies for fifty years out of every two hundred and fifty. It was a setup that allowed just enough time for the immediacy of the peril to fade between Passes, such that maintaining readiness had to become a major part of their culture to ensure they wouldn't divert the resources that they will need to save future generations to person consumption. Given how frequently politicians in the Primary World scant disaster readiness as a wasteful and unnecessary expense as soon as it's been a few years since the last mass-casualty disaster and seem completely unable to come to grips with planning for low-frequency disasters with a high probability of completely destroying civilization, like asteroid strikes and caldera volcano eruptions, it's a theme with plenty of applicability.
Even the early Pern books had their flaws, although often they were by and large the problems of being the product of their time. Unless one is accustomed to taking a historicist view of the documents of earlier times and remembering that the past is another country and they do things differently there, the first several Pern books can be very disturbing reading. For that reason, I cannot in good conscience recommend Dragonflight or Dragonquest to a reader who doesn't have a sense of how corporal punishment was still a cultural norm of some subcultures in the time they were written, and that at that time it wasn't viewed as shocking or as domestic violence for a man to shake or (lightly) slap a woman who was viewed as having become hysterical.
Even Dragonsong, which was written for younger readers and thus doesn't have the problematical romantic relationships that border on the abusive, has become dated in its own way. When Ms. McCaffrey wrote it, women were just beginning the fight to enter largely masculine professions, not as the rare exception, but as a matter of course because their talents suited them for such work. Girls were still told on a regular basis that they could not aspire to their goals because this or that was only for boys, and that they should lower their sights and content themselves with traditionally feminine occupations. In a time when women have gained a foothold in almost every occupation that doesn't actually require physiological assets of maleness such as greater upper-body strength, when even the International Space Station has been commanded by women, most recently US Navy Captain Sunita Williams, the image of Menolly struggling against her family's opposition to her becoming a Harper may be hard for young readers to identify with, unless they read a great deal of news and realize that there are still many countries outside the industrialized West where girls still face hostility and even physical violence for daring to aspire to step outside of the traditional roles assigned to them.
But with all their problems, those early Pern books still had a vividness that drew you in and made you want to keep reading. You cared about the characters, from the first moment Lessa woke up in the kitchens of Ruatha Hold, the Pernese equivalent of a princess in hiding in an occupied land, and carried out one after another act of sabotage in her ongoing effort to bring about the downfall of the hated usurper Fax who had murdered her entire family. At the end of The White Dragion, there's a strong sense that Anne McCaffrey was trying to bring the series to a close by revealing the shuttles by which the original settlers of Pern had come to their new home, thus bringing the story full circle. Yet the economic realities of the publishing world wouldn't let her abandon her most popular creation, and like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after throwing Sherlock Homles over the Reichenbach Falls, she went back to an earlier part of the storyline to find new stories to tell.
Yet the further the series continued, the weaker the books seemed to become. Part of it was a certain pastelling of the world as problematic elements were made more politically correct, more acceptable to contemporary readers just discovering the series. There was also a growing sense that a number of the stories really didn't need to take place in Pern, that instead it was just being used as a popular setting to tell a story that didn't necessarily depend upon the key element of Pern -- the relationship between human and dragon -- to work as a story.
However, this book goes far beyond that level of problematical, to the point where I was so intensely disappointed with it that I actually wondered whether it was not only a complete waste of my time, but of the trees that died to make the paper on which it was printed. Even if I'd read it in digital format, I think I'd still have ended up regarding as a waste of ones and zeroes, because quite honestly, I have no idea why the story even needed to be told. After the first couple of chapters, I ended up just skimming it and finishing the whole thing in two days. Not because I was so captivated that I couldn't put it down, but because I just wanted to be able to say that yes, I had indeed read the entire thing and thus was qualified to write literary criticism of it.
Its flaws are almost innumerable. I'm still not sure what the point of the story is, because it doesn't really carry through or conclude the story from Dragon Time. It's just one after another episode of Xhinna's unending struggle against one natural threat after another to preserve the tiny, understaffed Weyr she and a few other desperate survivors of serial disaster in hopes of somehow bringing into being enough dragons to save Pern. When I read Dragon Harper, I felt that the scenes of mass death in the plague got to feeling like the authors were just turning the volume up to 11 rather than really making me feel a sense of immediate threat to the fabric of Pernese society. I have the same feeling here about the endless series of threats that just keep popping up whack-a-mole fashion, to the point it feels like the authors were just running endless try-fail cycles in hopes of filling up the necessary wordage to make a novel, and not a very good one.
For instance, take poor little Quinth, the blue dragon who was badly injured while still in the shell in the Hatching gone horribly wrong which starts the novel. We're simply told that he was "terribly injured," but we never get to really see his injuries, or get a sense of just what happened to him. Contrast that with the scene in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern in which Moreta acts as a surgeon for a dragon badly scored in Threadfall, and we get intense clinical detail of the poor creature's injuries, a scene which can be wince-inducing in spite of the fact that the character to whom it's happened belongs to a biology completely alien from humanity.
And that points up another problem -- in the earlier books of the Pern series, the dragons really were characters, every bit as memorable as their riders. Mnementh, Canth, Ramoth, Ruth, all were someone we got to know as care about as individuals, as people, even if they weren't humans. In these later books, the dragons are increasingly becoming steeds rather than characters, and their occasional telepathic communications with their riders feel more and more pro forma, rather than genuine character development.
Even the human characters in Sky Dragons are handled in this distancing way that tells us we should care about them but never shows us the things that would make us care, or even really make them stand out as individuals. Part of it may be that it's a direct continuation of previous novels, so that the authors may well have written it as if the characterization developed in previous volumes would automatically carry over into the current volume. But for whatever reason, I found that I simply didn't care about the characters. It didn't help that many of their names left me feeling as if the authors were scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with unique sequences of reasonably pronounceable phonemes, especially the use of an initial X for several characters in addition to Xhinna, whose name always struck me as alien to Pernese culture. Compare that to the earlier Pern books, where the names simultaneously felt just a little alien, yet not that far out of bounds of familiar naming conventions.
I also cannot shake the nagging feeling that Xhinna's lesbianism was included primarily for reasons of Political Correctness, rather than her membership in a sexual minority growing naturally and organically out of her character. It's thrown out a few times, especially the references to the crap she caught from some adult authority figures because she liked girls instead of boys, but we never really get any development of more than the most superficial romantic relationships that really don't form an integral part of her character. I can't help contrasting that with David Drake's characterization of Adele Mundy in the Lt. Leary series. From the beginning of With the Lightnings it's pretty clear that she's asexual and feels no desire for men or women (in sharp contrast to Daniel Leary's continual chasing after pretty faces, which makes his progressional respect for Adele as an information specialist stand out all the more), yet it's never made a great deal of until it actually becomes a critical part of a character interaction in The Far Side of the Stars, in which a young woman in a monastic community is struggling with her path in life and Adele explains she can offer no advice because she does not experience this desire, and that the other character must work things out on her own.
After all the Perils of Pauline style chapters of Xhinna's struggle to keep her charges alive and her continual nagging worries about what happened to Fiona and the other dragonriders who jumped between time and became lost, we suddenly have several scenes with those characters -- but no sense whatsoever of how those goings-on connected to Xhinna's time. Maybe it's related to the "knot in time" that forms such a major part of several of these chapters, but I found the writing so disengaging that I just couldn't get my mind to go back through and read it through a second time to try to sort it out.
Not to mention the major suspension-of-disbelief problem I am having with the idea that all these goings-on were always in the past of those Ninth Pass novels I read way back when. Not just the idea that perhaps the events were forgotten in subsequent turmoils and upheavals, but the idea that all evidence of human habitations of the Eastern Islands would be completely effaced and forgotten as if they never were. There's a point where one simply runs out of slack to give an author and the story goes into Nope territory.
As a result, I simply cannot recommend this novel for anybody except the absolute completist who must have every single Pern book ever written. I think Todd McCaffrey really does love and mean to honor his mother's literary legacy, unlike certain authors who seem to be churning out endless sequels, prequels and interquels to a deceased author's work solely to milk the cash cow yet another time, but I am simply not seeing evidence that he's equal to the job, and far too much that his talents simply aren't adequate to continue Pern without his mother's guidance and advice. Much as I hate to say it, I think it would be best if Pern ended here. Not because I don't like Pern, but because I think it's time to say good-bye and put Pern to rest before it becomes reduced to a complete travesty.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
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