The Past can be a Pain

The Past can be a Pain June 21, 2019

Having finished re-visiting Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (reviewed here), I’ve moved on for a first time through the sequel, Dragonquest. As with the first in the series, Dragonquest is an interesting enough story that takes place in a fascinating world. Whatever else can be said about her books, McCaffrey is certainly a solid world-builder.

In this book, F’lar has to deal with the “Oldtimers”, the dragonriders Lessa had brought forward in time to help fight the now-falling Thread. After seven years, they now have sufficient resources to deal with Thread, but the Oldtimers’ insistence on doing things their own way, on living in the world of four hundred years previous, is starting to wear on the majority of people in the modern world. F’lar more and more has to play peacemaker between the demands of the Oldtimers and the entrenched expectations of his contemporaries.

If that’s not enough, he also has to contend with the discontent among some of the very contemporaries who think the dragonriders are not doing enough. They insist that it is time to take the fight to the Red Star itself, and strike at the Thread homeworld. Perhaps the newly discovered “fire lizards”, miniature ancestors of the dragons who can also bond with humans and teleport between places, will be the key to victory on a foreign planet. Or maybe the mysterious resistance of the unpopulated Southern continent of Pern holds the key to final victory.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on in this book.

Again, McCaffrey continues to be a compelling writer with an interesting world about which to write. Even with the numerous plot lines, there are enough new ideas, characters, etc to keep things interesting, but not so many that the book becomes cluttered beyond comprehension.

Even better, the reflection of the previous book about the relationship between the past and the present continues to be an issue thoughtfully worked out. For example, in the last book we saw that the answer to the problems of the present lie in the past. Here, we are warned against the dangers of romanticizing that very same past:

“He [F’lar]–and all Benden’s dragonriders–had learned the root of Threadfighting from the Oldtimers. had learned the many tricks of dodging Thread, gauging the varieties of Fall, of conserving the strength of beast and rider, of turning the mind from the horrors of a full scoring or a phosophine emission too close. What F’lar didn’t realize was how his Weyr and the Southerners had improved on the teaching; improved and surpassed, as they could on the larger, stronger, more intelligent contemporary dragons. F’lar had been able, in the name of gratitude and loyalty to his peers, to ignore, forget, rationalize the Oldtimers’ shortcomings. He could do so no longer as the weight of their insecurity and insularity forced him to reevaluate the results of their actions. In spite of this disillusionment, some part of F’lar, that inner soul of a man which requires a hero, a model against which to measure his own accomplishments, wanted to unite all the dragonmen; to sweep away the Oldtimers’ intractable resistance to change, their tenacious hold on the outmoded.” (118)

In other words, the past might have the answers, but it is by no means perfect. We need to remember when we’re looking to the past for inspiration that there is good there as well as bad. We don’t want to reject it completely, but we also don’t want to embrace it completely either. Instead, we need to have a balanced and honest view that takes what is best and imaginatively recreates it in the present, while leaving behind what should be left behind.

The primary weakness of this book is that it really should have been more than one novel. There are too many plot lines and themes in this one volume, each of which could have been its own novella, and none of which easily stitch to the others. The end result is kind of a narrative mess, with F’Nor (F’lar’s brother) ending up being more of a central character than F’lar. I suppose that might have been intentional, but it seems to be more the result of sloppy planning/editing than an intentionally crafted work.

Still, what might have been an utter train wreck in the hands of a lesser author ends up still being a perfectly serviceable story here. So once you’ve finished Dragonflight, do go on to Dragonquest if only to spend a bit more time in the world McCaffrey built.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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