In Defense of Lessa18 Apr 2017
I spent the weekend at Frolicon and all but one of the panels I attended were on the Ink Track (ie, writing). In fact, the one panel I attended not on that track was one I was on. I had a great time.
If there was a brief negative point it was on one panel when science fiction as a genre came up. One panelist said fifty years ago in science fiction there were barely any female characters much less strong ones. This is an ongoing fight concerning women in science fiction that played a roll in items as diverse as Sad Puppies and the wonderful Baen anthology Women of Futures Past.
However, those fights were about diversity primarily, although not exclusively, of authors. They contained, at least on the side that claimed to champion diversity against the racist, misogynistic homophobes that made up everyone in science fiction until last week, an inherent assumption that only women could write women, blacks could write blacks, and gays could write gays and thus were, to a degree, about female, non-white, and non-straight characters. Still, much of the conversation focuses on the writers and not the characters.
After that panel comment, however, I feel the need to champion not the forgotten female writers of science fiction past but the forgotten female characters. My go to for such defense is usually Jirel of Joiry although Hazel Stone and Wyoming Knot are also favorites. Strong women who achieve great things all three are perfect counter points to such claims and Jirel dates back to nearly the very beginning of the pulp era.
However, the panelist said fifty years ago and the current year is 2017. That means she was claiming science fiction lacked strong female characters in 1967. If we are going to fight about 1967 then fight about Lessa.
In 1967 Anne McCaffrey published two novellas featuring the same protagonist, Weyr Serach in October and Dragonrider in December (actually, the first of two parts). Both appeared in Analog. They would win the Hugo and Nebulla for best novella respectively in 1968 and unlike many award winners are still read 50 years later as part of the novel Dragonrider. They would spawn a series with 23 novels (some written by McCaffrey with her son Todd and after her death by Todd alone) and several short stories.
At the center of both of these stories was a woman, Lessa, last daughter of a murdered family who would gain revenge in Weyr Search and set herself on the path to be the most powerful woman and arguably the most powerful person on the planet Pern. In Dragonrider she would save that same planet nearly at the cost of her life.
What did Lessa do in the process of all these things? She would disrupt an entire household entertaining its lord by a small manipulation here and a tiny change there. She would insure that an evil man would challenge a good man to a duel he could not win. The good man, F’lar of Benden, realized Lessa accomplished these things due, in not small part, to latent telepathic ability and an iron will.
In other words he saw in her a strong and capable woman.
Strong and capable women were what he was seeking when he came to the hold. He needed a strong and capable women to ride the soon to be born queen dragon as Pern faced the return of evil creatures from the sky whom the dragons were sworn to fight. In the hatching of the queen dragon Lessa did not disappoint and developed a strong telepathic bond.
F’lar, although somewhat liberal compared to his fellows, still fought Lessa’s demands to be trained as male riders were. Only her iron will, her strength matched against his, lead him otherwise. One of the large things to learn was to travel between. A rider could telepathically instruct a dragon on a place to teleport and the dragon and rider would fly between.
What no dragonrider had ever learned was you could fly not only between places but between times. It was Lessa who discovered this ability. When the dragon riders of her time were too few to fight the attack of the thread it was Lessa whose used that ability. It was Lessa who calculated the star signs needed to mark not a place, for she would not move a milimeter in space, but to mark time, specifically 400 years in the past. It was Lessa who solved the riddle song which hinted she could find veterans of the last fight against the thread willing to come forward in time to fight again.
I was Lessa who travelled 400 years alone and in the frozen dark of between to save her world. It would nearly kill her and Ramoth, the great golden dragon she rides (and herself a great female character). She saved her world at nearly the cost of her life just as a legendary queen writer in the books (later a subject of one of those 23 novels herself) Moreta did. Lessa’s Ride would become as famous and as celebrated as Moreta’s Ride to deliver medicine that had earlier saved the world.
So, how can we say there were no strong female characters in Science Fiction, and despite the dragons these books are sci-fi through and through. What are her sins against being strong? Is it she was headstrong in doing 400 years in one leap while coming forward the mass of riders would jump about 20 at a time? Is it her love for F’lar which was part of her motivation was to find him aid when he was killing himself fighting with limited resources? Is it that her biggest fear was upon return F’lar would be angry with her and shake her?
I would respectfully submit that if any or even all three of those things make her weak in your mind you’re full of shit and a worst misogynist than most.
So why is Lessa not counted as a strong female character? It cannot be from obscurity. The novellas she helmed won the major science fiction awards. They would be combined into a very successful novel that would kick off a series with 23 novels. She would be one of the main characters in the second novel as well as the first. She appears in many more.
As of my writing here are its Amazon ranks:
- Kindle SFF Fantasy classics: 20
- Kindle SFF Science Fiction time travel: 52
- Kindle Teen and Young Adult SFF Fantasy: 398
- Books overall: 59,991
- Books SFF Science Fiction Colonization: 521
- Books SFF Fantasy Epic: 2425
Not bad for a fifty year old story.
I think she is forgotten because she is inconvenient. There are people invested in the idea that SFF has excluded women until last week or last year or last decade at the most both in authors and characters. Just as the women in the Baen anthology are forgotten to be able to sell this claim so are Lessa and her many many sister.
Well, I’m sick of it. Call me a misogynist. Call me a dudebro douchebag. Call me whatever and then go fuck yourself.
But you damn well will respect Lessa. You will respect Jirel. You will respect Wyo, Hazel, and all their sisters. They are your betters.