Why So Many Dragons?: Fantastical Science Fiction and its Appeal
I’ve just been reading this book by Anne McCaffrey.
It’s set in an unbelievably distant time in the future when we’ve colonised several star systems.
And now — we’re riding dragons and living in castles.
Why use science fiction for a purely (it seems) fantasy setting? What does the author gain by this?
For one thing, we’re rooted in a world with laws similar to our own. A fantasy setting implies magic may reign and pigs may fly. Not so in this world.
Despite the aerodynamic impossibility of these overweight lizards (they’ve got really big wings, ok) they’re still bound by rules. Rules that belong to a future science of telepathy and time travel, but they’re still rules. Dragons must be bred and they can die.
It’s the same logic Jack Vance uses in The Dragon Masters (1962).
It also gives agency to the backstory. Someone has engineered these dragons for a purpose. In this story’s case, to defeat an evil that needed some biological firepower.
Society has also collapsed many times on this planet until the technology to re-engineer dragons is gone. Hence, a society raised in ruins with limited technology reverts to a medieval-type system.
All of which are fascinating to work out.
We’ve also got a star, which is always called a star and not a sun. So we’re operating in an expansive universe in which the normal laws of physics apply to stars.
That’s what we get from such a world history.
A fantasy setting would give us a different matrix by which to judge the rules. Perhaps magic reigns or another form of logic.
But in Dragonflight, we’re meant to use our understanding of our technology and situation today to decode the world we read about, inferring how it then came into existence.
It’s a common troupe that has been used by many authors in the past. Science fiction as a framing device.
It’s even been used for characters passing into fantasy worlds, who bring their system of logic to bare in this strange new realm. We sympathise with them and try to decode the new laws of logic through them.
To bring another dragon-y example in, look to Peter F. Hamilton’s The Dreaming Void (2007).* H. G. Wells popularised parallel world building with Men Like Gods (1923), positing a multiverse and parallel world travelling machine.
Because if this world exists in our future or alongside us as a parallel dimension, X must be true also for it to happen. And X is where we derive a lot of the story and excitement from.
Another terrific example is The Incomplete Enchanter (1941) by Sprague L. de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. The plot surrounds psychologists who discover a formula for stepping into various literary alternative worlds, including scenes of Norse mythology and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The rules of the universe change depending on where they go and on the literary reality of the work they’re stepping into.
It’s similar in scope, although perhaps more literary and witty, to Andre Norton’s Witchworld (1987), in which quasi-scientific means of transport are used to move the protagonist from a world of science to a world of magic. We can enter a world of magic and have its existence explained due to parallel universal laws.
But really, we just need the logical, non-magic protagonist who shares our similar worldview to help us navigate these rather alien perspectives. The mode of transport could just as easily be planetary, as seen in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld (1960–1968) series, in which each new planet fall offers the protagonist a new worldview and a new set of challenges to escape and tame said planet.
Such is the mental exercise of this type of writing.
But, in all fairness, I think Anne McCaffrey just really, really wanted to write about dragons. Science fiction or not.
*I’m sorry for all the millions of references I’ve missed out, the uneducated hack that I am.