Archive for June, 2012

Things keep breaking at my house. Expensive things, like my car. To chill out, I’m revisiting an iconic childhood dragon story, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” You all know it. Sing with me:

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea/And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee./Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff/and brought him strings and sealing wax, and other fancy stuff. 

Not only the dragon is magical here. The whole tale of their adventures (pirates and princes and giants, oh my!) ending in separation as the child grows up is sweetly sad and universal. Almost the same story comprises the backbone of the Toy Story movie series, to name just one. Indeed, one could take out Puff and substitute any beloved childhood activity that had to be given up in adulthood. Whether it’s running, rocketry, singing or playing with dolls, the price of maturity remains.

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sails./Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail./Noble kings and princes would bow when e’er they came./Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name.

Yes, I hear some of you out there snickering at me over the supposed drug references contained within this song. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear me rolling my eyes back at you. Leonard Lipton, who wrote the original poem in 1959, and all the members of Peter, Paul and Mary, the band who immortalized the song in 1962, insist that no such meaning was ever intended. They’re the authors — they know what they were trying to say. If others disagree, it only shows that some people can find something naughty in anything at all.

As for me, I’m still singing along:

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys./Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys./One gray night, it happened. Jackie Paper came no more./Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly ceased his fearless roar.

Maybe Puff will come get me before the auto shop calls.


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Q: What reality TV show could a dragon star in?

A: Hoarders!

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I’m going to diverge slightly from dragons and talk about the legacy a successful writer leaves behind. This must surely be part of every writer’s dream — to have fans who remember us and our books when we pass from life. Once a writer has died, you’d think the story would over, as it were. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

As I watch the publishing news, there has been a growing trend to write sequels and re-imagine works by dead authors. A few of these are authorized by the copyright holders, as Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Peter and the Star Catchers series beginning in the 2004. The vast majority are based upon works in the public domain, like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, reworked as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith in 2009. Allegedly, P&P&Z is a parody. In reality, it looks a lot like Grahame-Smith’s career plan.

Certainly I can see why publishers love this sort of project. The original works are already famous, and there’s a built-in audience. Still, I must confess that it troubles me to see Gregory Maguire make millions on Wicked books, musical, merchandise, etc., while the descendants of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, get nothing.

Are such books homage or rip-off? All I can say is, every time I see a new book or movie appropriate the unique ideas of a dead author, my gut reaction is, “Make your own.” Create your own fabulous world, engaging characters, and thrilling plot. Don’t steal from the dead.

To bring this rant back around to my topic, dragons, I have to mention the artistic legacy of Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey apparently kept enough of an eye open to realize there would a temptation for strangers to appropriate Dragonriders of Pern after her death. She took legal steps to protect her beloved Pern. She also recruited her son, Todd McCaffrey, to write future Pern books so that her creation doesn’t fall into the hands of strangers.

If I’m ever in the mood for a new dose of Pern, I’ll certainly buy a book by Todd McCaffrey. But when John Scalzi takes it upon himself to “reboot” Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper’s masterful 1962 novel? I have to pass.

I don’t care if Little Fuzzy is now in the public domain. My money is for writers who do the hard work of creation themselves — the authors who make their own.

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One of the most unique aspects of the dragons in the Pern books is the variety of colors they come in, and the social hierarchy attached to those colors.

The most comon color is green, which comprise fully half of all dragons. Green are the smallest, least intelligent, and are female. In ascending order (of size, intelligence and rarity) are blue, brown and bronze, all males. The largest and rarest of all are gold females, also known as queen dragons.

I should put in here that Pernese dragons were genetically engineered from a tiny species native to Pern, the fire lizards. Fire lizards are smart animals, but not truly intelligent. Fire lizard fairs are definitely run by their queens, and this tendency passed to the dragons. The draconic association with humans added a few wrinkles, however.

In order to fight Thread, dragons chew firestone, a rock rich in phosphorus. The phosphorus gas is released in the dragon’s stomach and bursts into flame when exhaled, thus providing a reasonably SF-nal rationale for fire breath.

Under McCaffrey’s scenario, eating firestone renders green dragons sterile. Realizing this possibility, the scientist who engineered them also ensured that gold dragons, who produce the more desirable clutches, would be unable to chew firestone. Queen dragons vomit if they try. (This might be pushing the limits of what genetic engineering can really do, but it works for the purpose of the story.)

The upshot is that queen dragons are even more rare and precious because the far more numerous greens cannot produce offspring. This, in turn, enforces the queen’s dominance over her weyr… but only to a point. Remember, humans are involved, and with humans, everything is about status and power.

The political hierarchy of the dragon weyrs is very much tied to the color of the dragon a person is paired with. Queen riders are instantly elevated to the elite. It might seem that women are totally in control of the weyrs — and this was a ground-breaking idea when McCaffrey started the series — but that’s not quite the case.

When fire lizards mate, the queen is pursued by the bronzes and larger browns of her fair. She lays eggs and guards them fiercely. Green fire lizards also mate and lay eggs, but since they aren’t as bright, they don’t guard their clutches and those eggs are far less likely to hatch.

Dragons also rise to mate, except that the humans also tie their political leadership to these flights. Whose ever bronze catches the Weyrwoman’s queen instantly becomes Weyrleader. The books are full of sudden power shifts after mating flights. And for all practical purposes, it’s the weyrleaders who go out and have adventures, while the weyrwomen stay home and mind the dragonweyr.

Not so ground-breaking after all.

There’s a feeling among riders that mating flights are somehow mystically decided, and the riders are a couple destined for each other.  Much as I enjoy the series, I have my doubts. I’ve also heard from friends that there’s something slightly naughty — even kinky — about mating flights and the relationships that result.

The dragons, themselves, never really say what they think of all this.

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I’ve been writing about Dragonriders of Pern, the ground-breaking series by Anne McCaffrey where humans and dragons are not enemies, but allies. One of the most appealing concepts involved is that of Impression. Upon hatching, dragons are joined with human partners. These bonded pairs are best friends and intimates who can react together in battle on an instinctive level.

Not just anyone can be a dragonrider. A strong psychic sensitivity is necessary. Even though many people will stand ready when the hatchlings emerge, those who are not sensitive will not be chosen. One or two characters in the books had such a strong psychic presence that they could affect people even before they impressed their dragon. Lessa, heroine of Dragonflight, is the stand-out there. McCaffrey must have thought better of having too many psychic bolts flying around, and she pretty much dropped the idea after the first book.

Much is made of the hatching rituals and the mystery of why dragons choose as they do. A candidate who is outwardly charismatic and handsome may still be left standing in favor of someone skinny and gawky. This equal-opportunity aspect was a sure hook for readers, who all knew that of course, if dragons were real, we would be among the chosen! The question was only what color of dragon we wanted to ride.

Although supposedly an equal partnership, the dragon-human pairing is weighted in different directions at various times. At first, the dragons are relatively small and helpless. The humans have a lot of work caring for their partners. Later, however, it’s the humans who give directions and the dragons who obey.

As a reader, I always wondered why the dragons didn’t argue more. Especially when the rider might have been badly injured or too inebriated to make good decisions.  In the long run, as most of the stories deal with human politics and destinies, the dragons are definitely subservient to the riders.

A final aspect of the mental bond is that, once established, both dragon and rider are dependent upon it. Dragons cannot live without their partners at all. If the rider dies, the dragon will commit suicide immediately. Humans are able to survive, but only in constant torment. If the dragon dies, most humans either commit suicide or fall into a coma and waste away. In more than 20  books, only two characters survive this terrible loss.

Come back next week for more about Dragonriders of Pern. For young readers who are eager to start the series, check out the Harper Hall Trilogy: Dragonsong (1976), Dragonsinger (1977), and Dragondrums (1979).

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A reader’s comment recently reminded me of  what is perhaps the ultimate series of dragon books: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. I mentioned the series back in January, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.

McCaffrey often said in interviews that she decided to write a story where dragons were not evil, but good. The series grew from one short story, “Weyr Search,” into a saga that she “was not allowed to stop writing.”

McCaffrey’s core concept was that the dragons would be mentally bonded with humans to fight Thread, a mindless alien life form that threatened to destroy all life. There were no wild dragons on Pern; they could not survive without a human partner. Granted, most of the novels focus on the human characters, and the dragons are merely steadfast companions. Their perspective on human foibles is only hinted at.

And yet, the whole of Pernese society was based on dragons. The riders lived apart from other humans, in high volcanic Weyrs where conditions suited their dragon friends. Without land for agriculture, the Weyrs depended on Hold and Craft to send food and supplies in the form of a tithe. In return, the riders took their magnificent steeds into battle against Thread. Naturally, there was constantly tension with non-riders who didn’t understand dragon behavior, or who thought the dragonriders were asking for too much tithe.

I’ll talk more about Dragonriders of Pern in my next post. However, if you’d like to start the series, I recommend Dragonflight (first published in 1969), Dragonquest (1970), and The White Dragon (1978).

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Ray Bradbury has passed away, leaving the literary sky much dimmer. His books were among a handful by SF writers in school library when I was in middle school and high school, along with Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein.

I loved Norton’s adventures, but Bradbury always had more of a point. Fahrenheit 451, for instance, is about censorship in a twisted future where Firemen burn books instead of saving lives and property. Bradbury’s novels challenge younger writers, like me, to think more deeply about what we’re saying in our books.

Yet his work was beautifully poetic, like singing written down on the page. Myself, I could never write that way for the length of a novel, but I admire those who can. For those who claimed science fiction was cheap fare, Bradbury always our answer (along with Ursula K. LeGiun, later on).

Did he write any stories with dragons? Just one: The Dragon, a fun send-up of Arthurian fantasy. It’s included in several of his short story collections, including R is for Rocket and Bradbury Stories.

Although the emotion in his stories is vivid and sometimes intense — Something Wicked This Way Comes terrified me when I was 12 — the material is suitable for all ages. Parents can be comfortable letting their kids read anything by Bradbury. I especially recommend Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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