Reason and its discontents: The Problem with Anne McCaffrey

I think I was about 15 when I first started reading The Chronicles of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Teenagers have a very limited budget, so I mostly borrowed the books from either the local public library or the school library. I only ever bought one of them, the second book, Dragon Quest, which I was unable to find in either library.

Dragon Flight, the first of the books, is a classic in fantasy, and got me pretty much hooked on the series. It is set in a fictional world where people live in mostly medieval style, protected from a sky borne threat called ‘thread’ by dragon riders. I enjoyed it because it is an excellent example of escapist fantasy literature, involving a totally fictional world with dragons, albeit swords without sorcery.

For the most part, the rest of the first trilogy and the companion trilogy about harpers are much like that. Enjoyable because they require a suspension of disbelief.

Where the books started to pall for me was when Anne McCaffrey started to introduce elements of science fiction. Of course, you cannot have a world with both humans and dragons without some sort of explanation, and her rational nature meant that she could not help herself, but had to introduce an explanation. We discover that Pern is a distant world colonised by humans, who have forgotten the technology that brought them there, or their original home Earth, and who genetically engineered the dragons from a local alien species.

And when the heroes of the first novel, the leaders of Benden Weyr, F’lar and Lessa, start driving the gradual discovery of this forgotten technology and history, the series descends from Fantasy into a hybrid science fiction.

I enjoy both Science Fiction and Fantasy. But I do not like it when both genres are combined. The only place where I believe that has successfully worked is in Star Wars, with the Force. In every other instance where an author has started a fantasy story, and then combined it with science fiction, it spoils it for me. You can either have sword and sorcery, or you can have space opera. You cannot and should not have both.

What prompted me to start writing these reflections was my finding a copy of All the Weyrs of Pern at the book exchange at the Highpoint Shopping Centre this afternoon, when I was changing buses on the way home (the book exchange is at the bus stop). This Pern novel is the eleventh, and involves the discovery of an artificial intelligence which has lain dormant for the 2000 years since Pern was colonised.

I sighed, shook my head, and put the book down rather than taking it home. I gave up on Pern when I read the colonisation origin novel Dragonsdawn, many years ago. I do not want my fond memories of reading Dragonflight further spoilt.

Anne McCaffrey is not the only author to spoil her perfectly good fantasy novel series with the introduction of reason and science. L.E. Modesitt Jr, a rather prolific writer from about 15-20 years ago, would sometimes write straight science fiction. But frequently, he would write Fantasy. His Recluce series is now at 22 novels, and I quite enjoyed the first five of those novels. I stopped at number six, Fall of Angels, when he introduced a science fiction element (one which did not seem particularly believable in any event) to explain the origins of many of the people in that fantasy world. I simply stopped reading the book partway through, and have never returned to that series.

Sadly, I did not realise until most of the way through one of the series by Mark Lawrence and one by Joe Abercrombie that their fantasy worlds were actually set in a post-apocalyptic future. That discovery, and the inclusion of such elements of rational explanation, diminished my enjoyment of their fantasies. (I also find use of a post-apocalyptic world as the vehicle for a fantasy story to be rather misanthropic, as if the author is hoping for humanity to get nearly wiped out.)

What is wrong with just suspending disbelief entirely and indulging in some fantasy, preferably sword and sorcery, without finding rational explanations for things? Imagine if Tolkien had introduced nuclear bombs and laser guns into Middle Earth? Ugh! Or, alternatively, if you had machine guns and jet fighters instead of swords and dragons in Game of Thrones (btw, I did not enjoy the prose style in Game of Thrones so I stopped reading the first book 100 pages in).

Perhaps I am just a hopeless romantic – I like the idea of seeing some mystery and magic in my reading, without the constant need for rational explanation. I wish more so-called fantasy authors would realise the necessity of this and not season their work with misplaced traces of reality.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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