Humanity colonized Pern a long time ago, but then left the colonists to their own devices. Pern’s start system contained a captured planet that comes close enough to Pern every 200 or 400 years that it can send Threads across to invade Pern. A Thread would bury itself in the soil, reproduce, and destroy everything organic nearby, unless killed with fire. The people of Pern domesticated the native dragons, which could eat firestone to produce fire and burn the Threads out of the air as they fell. Dragons could also move between and effectively teleport, which aided them in getting to the Threads. Still, it required hundreds of dragons and their riders to keep Pern thread-free for the dozens of Turns that the Red Star was close enough to send over Threads.
Lessa was a serving girl in the Ruatha Hold. Her Hold had been invaded by their neighbor Fax and her family exterminated. She was not killed because she hid in the watch-wher’s cave during the slaughter of her family. Fax treated all the people in his holds as purely a means to his desired end of productivity. So she sabotaged the productivity of the Hold, so that nothing ever went right for him. She was able to telepathically communicate with the watch-wher, to plant thoughts in other people’s minds, and even to make herself appear ugly to others.
The old dragon queen had laid a queen egg, so a Search was made by the weyrmen for woman who could make a good telepathic connection with the hatchling. Ruatha had historically produced great dragonriders, so the search came to Fax’s domains and eventually came to Ruatha. Lessa had contrived for everything to go wrong, from the rooms not being clean to the bread being hard and the roast being both raw and overdone. She influenced Fax’s mind so that he was so frustrated with Ruatha Hold that he burst out that if things continued being unacceptable he would renounce the Hold. Lessa was playing the bronze rider F’lar against Fax so that they would fight (and she would help F’lar win, and so regain her rightful title to the Hold). However, just at that moment Fax’s heavily pregnant wife went into painful labor. Fax said he would renounce the Hold to the baby if it was a boy, a way around his earlier unintended remarks that he found quite amusing. This was officially witnessed by the dragonriders. The wife died in labor before, and Lessa came down from helping with the birth to announce that a baby boy was born. Fax flew into a rage, and Lessa got her fight. F’lar killed Fax, although not without injury.
Both F’lar and the dragons could sense the power that Lessa wielded, although it took a while before he identified that she was the source. He invited Lessa to come to the Weyr, where she could become the weyrwoman, a much greater opportunity than merely regaining her Hold (which she had not succeeded in doing anyway). She had not given any thought to the future, and so she agreed. She did not trust F’lar, though, and held an animosity towards him (and everyone else in the Weyr) for some time.
She was barely finished bathing herself and cleaning off ten Turns of grime when news came that the eggs were hatching. F’lar rushed her into the white Impressioning garments, and then off to the arena where the eggs would shortly hatch. A cluster of frightened boys stood around the male eggs and a gaggle of terrified girls around the queen egg. When the dragons hatched they clumsily sought after a child they liked, unintentionally killing and or wounding the children who were too scared to get out of the way. Lessa was not afraid, and so she took control and went to the queen dragon, looking at its eyes. First Impression was made, and it was love at first sight. They would adore each other telepathically the rest of their lives.
The weyrleader, R’gul, began Lessa’s instruction as weyrwoman. The previous weyrwoman was slobbish, and her queen dragon was slobbish, leading to small clutches of eggs and a reduction in the strength of the Weyr, so R’gul made sure to teach Lessa all the rules and made her learn the instructive ballads and songs word for word. Lessa was willful, and chaffed at not being given reasons for anything, just commands. It especially irked her that she was told that queens don’t fly (except to mate), and when she asked why they had wings, she was simply told that queens don’t fly. Manora, the Keeper of the Records, was required to inform the weyrwoman on the state of the provisions of the Weyr. Two Turns in to Lessa’s training she came and informed her that supplies were low, and that most of the Holds were not giving their proper tithes. Lessa was increasingly frustrated that R’gul’s idea of leadership was doing nothing to try to avoid the wrath of the Lords. She was frustrated that F’lar, obviously capable, was doing nothing. So she did something herself: she influenced the young K’net to raid the Holds for tithes they should have given.
Lessa’s dragon, Ramoth, came in season, and it was time to mate. F’lar told Lessa that he must prevent Ramoth from eating (she always got sluggish afterwards), which Lessa could only do with difficulty. Then Ramoth sensed all the male dragons desiring her and flew, leading them on a chase where all the males dropped out, too tired to pursue, except for F’lar’s dragon Mnementh. As the two dragon’s mated, the telepathic connection included Lessa and F’lar, and she was consumed with desire for him, and they became husband and wife. However, apart from the dragon-passion, she hated him. F’lar had been attracted to her from the beginning, even partly because of her precociousness. He longed for her to look at him tenderly as she looked at Ramoth, but she did not, even though she shared his bed.
The weyrman of the dragon that mated with the queen traditionally became the weyrleader, and as soon as he became weyrleader, F’lar took decisive control, abandoning the conciliatory inaction of R’gul. The Lords were upset with the raiding and had come with an army to teach the Weyr a lesson. But in addition to not keeping the traditional laws of the firepits tended, the inhabited areas clear of vegetation (so Threads could not infect it), and tithing to the Weyr, they had also forgotten the abilities of the dragons. F’lar had one of his men take dragons between to go instantly to the now unguarded Holds and take the Lords’ wives hostage; this took a scant few minutes. Then they assembled a wing of dragons and swooped down on the army from above, hovering just above them. The army panicked in fear, and the Lord’s quickly capitulated when they saw that their wives were taken hostage, agreeing to send the proper tithes forthwith.
Lessa had taken Ramoth out to fly, appearing above the army and impressing everyone. F’lar was angry that she was so constantly disobedient, but Mnementh said that they just wanted to test out their wings, and that it would be wise to teach her to fly and to go between, before she tried to figure it out on her own. F’lar realized that Mnementh was right, and told the surprised and gratified Lessa that he would teach her to fly. After some time, during which Lessa is mad at F’lar for not taking her with him to watch the conjunction of the Red Star bracketed by the rock that indicates that the close pass will begin and Threads will soon be falling, and after a certain Kylara had a son which Lessa suspected was F’lar’s (but which he thought was likely a later patron of her attentions; this had all happened before Mnementh had mated with Ramoth), there was finally time to teach them to fly between.
To fly between required fixing on a specific point, which the rider communicated telepathically with his or her dragon, and the dragon took went there. Between was very cold, and they spent three cough’s worth of time there before re-entering normal space, ideally at the location. The more specific the details of the location, the better; ending up inside the rock instead of above it was not desirable, it F’lar had seen it happen. They practiced flying between all around the Weyr. After Ramoth laid her eggs, F’lar would take them around Pern to experience other locations (the rider who had been there would communicate the location to his dragon, who would then relay it to the other dragon). Until then, there was a list of locations and their descriptions to be learned.
Of course, Lessa would not wait, and promptly told Ramoth to go between to Ruarch, which she described in detail to Ramoth. They arrived to see Fax’s men just beginning the invasion of Ruarch, and they saw a younger Lessa run to the watch-wher’s cave. They had apparently not only jumped in space but also in time. Lessa managed to get back to the Weyr in the present time, but came back very disturbed. She blamed herself for the fact that her family had died: the watch-wher had not given the warning because it recognized her on the dragon. F’lar consoled her saying that dawn is when the watch-wher was retired, and besides, Fax had bribed insiders to let them in. But he was quick shocked to learn that one could go between times as well as places. F’lar tried it himself that day, and found himself also unnerved as he saw himself as a boy.
F’lar was poring over the Records, the newer ones of which had deteriorated to the point where the skins smelled, trying to find information about the time that the Threads would start appearing. Lessa expressed doubt that the Threads would come, but should promised to trust F’lar until at least spring if they didn’t come soon. Then Ramoth’s eggs started hatching and everyone went to the hatchery stadium cave. Despite the usefulness of traditions in preserving knowledge, F’lar had dispensed with the traditions of First Impression and had coached the boys and girls on what to expect, with the result that instead of being trampled by dragons that weren’t interested in them they merely stepped aside, and the dragons and people paired up happily and with almost no injuries. Kylara paired up with the queen dragon. Kylara seemed to prefer F’lar to her mate, and F’lar thought it would work well to have her populate one of the empty Weyrs (there used to be five, but shortly after the last pass of the Red Star they other four Weyrs had disappeared), an idea enthusiastically supported by Lessa.
They received a report that there was an unusual amount of black dust in the north, which they realized were Threads that had been falling but froze into harmless black dust due to the cold weather. F’lar realized that Lessa and Ramoth’s dreams that day were premonitions of a Thread attack in the jungle region of Pern, which would have started two hours previously. After an argument between F’lar and Lessa where he blamed her for holding out on him the fact that she could communicate with any dragon in the Weyr, after promising him that she would help him, F’lar realized that they could repulse the attack by going between to two hours ago. They were successful in going backwards and burning most of the Threads out of the air, but came back wounded where the Threads had fallen on them. More of them were wounded than F’lar had anticipated, and more tired, too. Repulsing attacks every few days for the next fifty Turns did not look very possible now.
F’lar convened all the Lords and the Masters of all the crafts, conveying them by dragon through between and had a council. The master weaver said that he had seen a tapestry at Ruath once that used dyes now lost to their craft, which depicted devices that spout flame—useful for burning the Threads that make it to the ground. The master smith was intrigued by the idea, but did not know how to make them. Lessa and F’lar had been discussing sending Kylara to the southern continent (it had been destroyed by Threads long ago and abandoned) ten years ago with the queen to start a new Weyr and get time to breed more dragons. F’lar’s brother F’nor came in-between meetings all tanned to say that things were harder than anticipated during those ten years, which unsettled F’lar. F’lar told the council that he had worked out from ancient records the timings of the Thread attacks, but he needed the Holds to keep a vigilant guard and to burn all the Threads that made it to the ground (which the Lords balked at, but soon saw that they had no other choice). The master harper said that he had learned a strange ballad, saying that 400 years ago the master harper had been called to the Weyr and instructed to write a learning song. It was written with an unsettling tune, meant to be remembered, and it had words that seemed like a riddle.
Eventually Lessa worked out that the riddle referred to someone going to the past to tell the Weyrs that the future was short-handed and bringing them to the future. Having worked this out, she took Ramoth and jumped between to four hundred years ago. She and Ramoth spent a long time between, and Lessa woke up some weeks later having raved in her sleep about falling and cold. Ramoth had arrived emaciated. She told the Weyrs that the future needed them, which was inadvertently confirmed when she mentioned the tapestry, which had just been commissioned and which no one else knew about. Since the Red Star was receding and the Thread attack had passed, the dragonmen were growing bored and the Hold’s honoring them less. They had spent their entire lives fighting the Threads, and did not want to fade into irrelevance, so they were quite happy to join the battle in the future. They jumped back in 25 year increments which worked a lot better, and surprised a very distraught F’lar, who had worked out that his Lessa, whom he loved (and who was no longer antagonistic towards him) had gone back, and since she had not returned, she must be dead. They also brought back the flamethrower, which the smith had not been able to reproduce, although he had created an acid sprayer, which the ancients thought was better, since it both destroyed the Threads that had begun burrowing and acted as a fertilizer. (The ancients also flew the queens, but since queens became infertile if they ate the firestone that allowed dragons to breathe fire, the queens flew low and used flamethrowers to incinerate Threads that made it to the ground.) And after F’lar decided that the southern Weyr was a success and had Kylara remain there, Lessa gave herself to F’lar with dragon-passion.
Dragonflight is the first of the many Pern novels, and is an interesting mix of science fiction (time loops, another planet, alien lifeforms), fantasy (dragons), and romance novel. The writing is good, and McCaffrey is able to distill emotional experiences into one or two sentences that create a longing for that in the reader. Most of the characters are fairly static, but Lessa develops from an untrusting oppressed orphan-cinderella through an overconfident, rebellious weyr-teenager, into a the loving wife of a leader who is a leader herself, and learning to partner with her husband to lead the Weyr and the planet for its benefit and protection.
The time loop plot is an unusual twist for a fantasy novel, which I appreciate, as well as the science-fiction aspect. The loops flow well, and are internally consistent. However, the fatal flaw for me is that the past is dependent on the present, which breaks causality. This is not generally a big problem except for the most important loop. Four-fifths of the Weyrs leave for the future, leaving just one Weyr, and causing it to dwindle in numbers and importance. But because they have left and the numbers have dropped, the future needs them. Well, instead of leaving for the future, if they had stayed maybe the future wouldn’t have had a problem in the first place.
The relationships are robust (I especially liked the dragons, who occasionally interject telepathic comments and seem to have an edgy streak to their personality), and the society of the Weyr is relatively fleshed out, for such a short book. However, Pern itself feels like a very small and flat world, more like the size of a mountainous country like Switzerland rather than an earth-like planet. Compared to Tolkien, or The Wind in the Willows, or even The Chronicles of Narnia, Pern feels like a 90's video game. Frankly, it feels like an experiment that McCaffrey did, and apparently it struck a chord in the larger world. I like my fantasy with a robust world that feels real, but Pern exists just enough to fill 288 large-font pages and no more. However, it does attempt to cross a lot of genres, so if you like the creative attempt, and you like a more compelling romance than your typical male author provides, you might like Pern.