By Anne McCaffrey, 1968

This brisk and inventive breakout novel is a romantic coming of age medieval sci-fi fantasy, which sees a pair of unrelated orphans who’re each cheated of their birthright, brought together by fate to attempt to save their world from a malevolent cosmic spore.

important and influential

Originally published as three short stories, and brought together in one volume in 1968, it became the first in a long series of books by the Irish-American writer who carved out an important and influential space for herself in the genre.

Set on the planet Pern, Dragonflight is an exciting medieval revenge story which is as concerned with time travel as it is with flying fire-breathing lizards, but where the former is a device to explore grief and regret, the latter are a means of allowing surrogate maternity, an experience which is crucial to charting the central character’s emotional development.

gloriously unrepentant

Our protagonist, Lessa, is a highborn young woman who’s introduced as living in serfdom having been robbed of her birthright. Using her wits, courage and resilience, and with the aid of F’lar, leader of the socially disparate dragon riders, Lessa becomes queen of all the dragon riders, which is about to face a cosmic menace which threatens the existence of all human life on the planet.

Lessa is a a masterful creation, a gloriously unrepentant figure who never dwells on the killing she performs to execute her plan of revenge, and who at one point considers infanticide as a means to her bloody ends.

Proud, astute, clever, Lessa constantly confounds the men she meets, proving to be better than than the best dragon riders, who earns respect for her deeds and never coasts on her regal heritage. Unless it suits her purposes.

the book shows its age

Where it’s easy to imagine Lessa as a role model the young Princess Leia, her beau, F’lar, is tall, dark, handsome, arrogant and aloof figure, who combines the swashbuckling of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood with the emotionally reticence of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy.

He’s a man of action, but also rational, a thinker, a planner, and frankly a bit dour. And in contrast Lessa acts on her wits and frequently on instinct.

Their contrasting personalities allow for dramatic sparks, and it’s here the book shows its age. McCaffrey has a clear eye for power imbalance in the sexual relations and there is stuff in here that’s uncomfortable to read.

When F’lar considers Lessa disobedient or hysterical, F’lar shakes and slaps her. A lot. And F’lar’s abuse of Lessa is publicly tolerated. A passage where F’lar shruggingly dismisses his own recognition that his sexual congress with Lessa is on a par with rape is particularly egregious.

And where hopefully such brutish and abusive behaviour would now be frowned upon or acknowledged as a bad thing by the author, McCaffrey seems inclined to not even admonish F’lar. Instead McCaffrey at all times emphasises that Lessa is a survivor as well as a potential saviour.

The author’s real focus is on the mother and daughter relationship which is the beating emotional heart of the book. Long before Game of Thrones, Lessa was the mother of dragons, specifically her golden dragon, Ramoth. And in McCaffrey’s world it’s motherhood that’s capable of making life complete and healing society.

leather-clad sword-wielding warriors

Ramoth is Lessa’s surrogate child and Ramoth growth to maturity reflects Lessa’s rise to the top of the social hierarchy, instigating a rebirth in all around her and a flowering of empowerment and growth.

This is a also a very modern story of a young mother coping simultaneously with parenting and a new partner while running a large business imbued with centuries of deeply ingrained misogynistic practices. And having to save the world from the apocalypse at the same time. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer thought she was having hard time of it.

chattel and concubines

McCaffrey’s brutal medieval world of of castles and keeps is fully realised with tapestries, poems, and ballads, and various strands of society rubbing up against each other. The author understands this macho world of leather-clad sword-wielding warriors who treat women as chattel and concubines, and seems to enjoy the testosterone-fuelled attempts of men to assert authority over each other.

There are exciting duels and airborne battles aplenty, and the scenes of the airborne fire-breathing dragons fighting are as exciting as any aerial dogfight in a Second World War movie.

blood, rank and destiny

Yes, Dragonflight could be considered more fantasy than sci-fi, though the author apparently bridled at the suggestion, pointing out her humans are descendants of future colonists from Earth, and who’ve genetically engineered local species to assist them in their new planet. This history is established with a brief Introduction to the novel, and dictates how the story develops in future volumes.

Despite having a fiercely strong woman protagonist, there’s no social commentary as you will find in writers such as Miriam Allen deFordMcCaffrey is happy to create a world of royal bloodlines, and talk of purity of blood, rank and destiny without pause of thought. It’s a striated society with little if any crossing of lanes

In contrast to Ursula K. Le Guin, or Nicola Griffith, McCaffrey’s world is also a predominately heterosexual and mostly white world, though race, class and sexuality are, to an extent, explored in later books.

sci-fi movie, Avatar

Safe to say McCaffrey is determined to tell a barnstorming adventure in the most straightforward manner possible, which is not to suggest she’s not a great storyteller. She rattles along at a fair lick, gleefully swooping about her planet, plotting here and there, dropping breadcrumbs of clues as to how our heroes will win.

McCaffrey puts the reader’s need to be entertained before any egotistical drive of her own to be considered a great stylist or an ‘important’ writer. By a dedicatedly tending to her craft, McCaffrey creates a fabulous living and breathing world.

The dragons are given voice and communicate telepathically with their chosen rider with whom they have an emotional bond. Dragons are a metaphor for animal instincts of humans which must be tamed and unleashed at the correct moments in order to demonstrate one’s maturity, such the sexual experience, where the telepathic bond with one’s dragon heightens the emotionally experience of sexual congress.

convention-defying survivor of domestic abuse

It’s difficult to read McCaffrey’s scenes of the dragons hatching ceremony where they form an emotional telepathic bond with their human rider, and not imagine director James Cameron was not at least passingly familiar with Dragonflight when he wrote the script to his 2009 sci-fi movie, Avatar.

Dragonflight, made McCaffrey the first woman to win a Hugo Award for writing fiction, as well as the first to win a Nebula Award, and by creating Lessa, a rule breaking, tradition-challenging, convention-defying survivor of domestic abuse to rise to pre-eminence in a male-dominated world, it’s the least McCaffrey deserved.

If you haven’t read Dragonflight, please do.

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Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE


Xenogenesis (1969) By Miriam Allen deFord

Full of extraordinary range, relevancy and variety, this anthology of 16 unconnected thought-provoking, sci-fi stories are by turns tremendously exciting, engaging and amusing. Each is deftly told and though recognisably sci-fi, they encompass other genres such as horror, adventure, and mystery.

on a par with Asimov’s, I Robot

Originally published in magazines from 1950 to 1968, this tumultuous time span covers momentous moments in society such as the widespread legalisation and availability of divorce, contraception, and abortion. And all this tectonic social dynamic provides much fertile inspiration for the author.

The ears of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk will be burning as you read this as many of the stories can be read as critiques of contemporary future visions of brave interplanetary space captains romping across the cosmos and having consequence-free relations with alien species.

And elements of the stories would seem to be a forerunner to and a probable influence on the script for director Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien, and possibly on authors such as John Wyndham and PD James.

robot soldiers, spaceships, and laser guns

All great sci-fi such as this uses the future as an analogy of the time it’s written in, and by beginning in the US colonial past and then blasting off to the space-bound future, allows deFord to stretch connective tissue across human history while firmly addressing the present.

Yes, deFord deploys sci-fi paraphernalia such as robot soldiers, suspended animation for interplanetary travel, spaceships, and laser guns in her always entertaining yarns of exploration.

insanity, crime and punishment

But she’s not exploring new worlds and civilisations, and boldly going where no man has gone before for the manly derring do of it, but to sail into the heart of darkness of contemporary issues surrounding gender, motherhood, insanity, crime and punishment.

In her stories, government agencies favour men over women for status, privilege, genetic tinkering and the potential evolution of humanity. Agency and autonomy are removed from or denied to women, often by male control of the reproductive process, while punishment is meted out to pregnant or promiscuous women by society and government.

And the destruction of indigenous peoples and culture by colonisation is a repeated theme as stories challenge our understanding of civilisation.

Despite this, the stories are always entertaining, often global in scope, and even have notes of optimism. In common with many female sci-fi writers, such as Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett, and Mary E. Bradley Lane, education is emphasised as the bedrock of equality and civilisation.

DeFord mocks contemporary capitalist US by making anarchy synonymous with socialism, and of course this lack of an ‘executive class’ appalls our all-American heroes of the patriarchy.

New worlds are an opportunity for men to indulge in sex, and men’s ego-driven, one-track mind and lust-driven exploration are mined for humour as deFord constantly toys with male attitudes to sex and fatherhood.

Male explorers are bemused when they’re not immediately attractive to the opposite sex

Male fragility is a running joke. The many thrusting Captain Kirk-a-likes littering the book like a virus are careless and callous about fatherhood, and suspicious and dismissive of women’s behaviour. Male explorers are puzzled by pacifism of aliens they meet, and are bemused when they’re not immediately attractive to the opposite sex.

Women reproduce without sex or male involvement and male protagonists are frequently unable to grasp their redundancy in the reproductive process. One male character is so alarmed at his sudden lack of sex drive he decides the only recourse is to commit suicide, rather than be shamed for being thought ‘queer’.

Despite or possibly because of this, many of the stories are underpinned with hope, though it must be noted those hoping for race and class intersectionality will find little, if any signs of it here,

Still, this is a huge amount of easily digestible fun, and Xenogenesis proves you can deliver challenging and overtly political narratives as long as the storytelling is sufficiently smart and gripping. And this is on a par with Asimov’s, I Robot, in the pantheon a crowd-pleasing and thought provoking sci-fi anthologies.

Here’s a synopsis of each story in turn.

1 The Daughter of the Tree

This opening story sets the tone and themes for all the stories to follow. A frontier fable set in the year 1880, it describes an encounter north of Seattle between a white 18 year old orphan, Lee, and an unnamed Native American* who introduces Lee to a mute young woman called, ‘the daughter of the tree’.

It’s an expert mystical mystery story of ancient tree spirits which touches on colonialism, racism and the liquidity of family bonds, as well as the frailty of life, the power of nature, eco-concerns and the scarcity of resources. A haunting introduction before

* in keeping with the date of publication, the term ‘Indian’ is used in my 1969 edition

2 The Superior Sex

Satirising the ridiculousness of inequality, this gender-flipping tale is full of humour and violence, and sees a pair of astronauts land on another planet where due to a surfeit of men, woman practise polyandry and men are pejoratively described as a ‘seed-bearers’.

The world is mixes advanced tech and feudal hierarchy with robot soldiers, brain-implanted language translators and medical experimentation to explore issues of legal rights governing consent over one’s own body.

3 The Ajeri Diary

Set in the year 2297, this story is written in the form of the diary of a Federation ‘exosociologist’ who travels to a distant planet, Algol IV, to study a humanoid alien race and their gender demarcated society.

While our male protagonist is made welcome by the males, he’s unable to meet or interact with any females of the species, and his innate prejudice leads him to draw the wrong conclusions as to why.

4 Quick to Haste

Four colonist astronauts are initially delighted when they land on an idyllic agriculture alien world populated by carefree humanoids, whose uninhibited young women offer sex, but not without consequence.

5 The Smiling Future

English speaking ‘Super-Dolphins’ with immense psychic power rise out of the polluted Pacific Ocean to take the politicians of a computerised over populated future earth to task for polluting the seas with atomic waste, and come with a eye-opening proposition to save at least part of humanity from extinction.

6 Gathi

A noirish fable of the social punishment of a promiscuous young woman, as seen from the perspective of an ancient tree, and explores how a woman’s life chances are dictated by procreation and exploitation.

7 The Children

Set in the the then future of 1982, a group of mostly male scientists conduct an experiment into the efficacy of time travel, and is a dizzying account of the fall and rise of humanity through a narrative which employs millennium-hopping and interstellar travel.

Wrestling with questions of the ownership of reproductive rights, prejudice and pride thrive before the story turns on itself and becomes a reflection on guilt and redemption. Marvellous!

8 Throwback

A bleak tale of betrayal exploring how insanity and criminology are defined and deployed by the 30th century state, which sees a non government-sanctioned pregnancy resulting in an artist having more than a brush with the authorities.

9 One-way Journey

A rumour-fuelled family story involving a state lottery and the Asteroid belt which ends on a nightmarish note.

10 The Season of the Babies

A planet’s desperate bid to be admitted to the prestigious Federation of planets is threatened by cultural breeding differences in this funny and savage satire with echoes of Jonathan Swift, which explores the connection between maternity, income, employment, and economics.

11 Featherbed on Chlyntha

Raising transgender and first published in 1957, a full 14 years before the publication of Kurt Vonnegut”s Slaughterhouse Five, this sees a human scientist kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in a zoo on their home world, where they conduct experiments to see if he’s reproductively compatible with their humanoid species.

12 The Transit of Venus

Nudity is a form of control and clothing is rebellion in this love story which uses a state scandal to explore social conformity, the evidence of insanity, and medical diagnosis an act of control by the state.

13 All In Good Time

A law professor teaches his class about a trial for a case of time-travelling bigamist from the year 2160. By some stretch the weakest story here but by no means a dud.

14 The Absolutely Perfect Murder

There’s a bleak view of heterosexual marriage in this noirish Manhattan murder mystery set in the year of 2146, which sees a disaffected husband plot to use time travel to kill his domineering wife. The pair’s life in a drug-upped hi-tech stupor speaks to monotony of their existence.

15 Operation Cassandra

Death cults, racism and artificial insemination feature in this tense post-apocalypse tale which mocks men’s ego, chivalry and sensibilities, while highlighting women are far more essential to the survival of the species the men are.

Amusingly it imagines a cult forming around George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and I’m not sure a less extreme version of this hasn’t happened, and this may easily be read as deFord considering Orwell’s seminal work to be over-praised.

14 The Last Generation?

A suitable conclusion for the anthology it draws all deFord’s preoccupations together in one tidy bundle, and is a compelling an argument for putting science at the centre of democracy and politics, and placing women and children at the centre of society.

Set in the then future of the 1970’s, a minor nuclear incident triggers a global infertility of all mammals with catastrophic eco-consequences.

A pointed reminder the power to shape the future is our hands, this final story is a cliff-hanging study about the hubris of playing god, and is possibly an influence on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and PD James’ The Children of Men.

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Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE