|In Short:||Pern’s origin story is probably better than you think it is.|
Sorka turned her head and
suddenly she, too, felt the indescribable impact
of a mind on hers, a mind that rejoiced in
finding its equal, its lifelong partner. Sorka
was filled with an exultation that was almost
My name is Faranth, Sorka!
Rachel said: “Dragons!”
I said: “Cool!”
Rachel said: “Pern?”
I said: “Okay!…Which?”
Rachel said: “Choose!”
I said: “Oh my God in Heaven. How?”
There are just so many, you see. The first full-length Pern novel, Dragonflight, was published in 1968, and Anne McCaffrey -- and more recently her son, Todd -- have produced new installments on a fairly regular basis since then. So which of the 20+ chapters in Pern’s storied history did I want to tackle?
Dragonflight is where the whole phenomenon started, but a quick peek at the customer reviews on Amazon reminded me that certain aspects of that particular one might be sufficiently bothersome to my feminist self that I’d be better off avoiding it. One of the celebrated Harper Hall trilogy? I loved those books back in the 80’s, but as much as I respect well-written YA fiction, I was in the mood for something for grownups. What about The White Dragon? -- But then I’d have to talk about the monster crush I used to have on Jaxom. (I was THIRTEEN, people, and he rode a WHITE. FRACKING. DRAGON. You know you loved him too, so LEAVE ME ALONE.) Masterharper, perchance? Ha. Robinton always bored the poo out of me. A more recent effort? One of the new ones by Todd McCaffrey, maybe?
In the end, I decided to revisit the Pern origin story, Dragonsdawn. Don’t ask me why. I’d last read the thing probably 20 years ago, and I remembered exactly two things about it, neither of them particularly complimentary: 1) The fact that the geneticist who designs the dragons makes the females incapable of breathing fire, thereby basically reducing them to flying golden broodstock and 2) A truly cringe-inducing scene in which a guy changes his name to Telgar and thereupon leads the entire colony in a rousing chant: “What is my name?” “Telgar! TELGAR! TELGAR!”
But you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It was kind of... fun. And interesting. And… I kind of have to recommend it, okay?
So. Six thousand colonists out of the Federated Sentient Planets have spent the past fifteen years vegetating in deep sleep as their three massive ships have made a beeline for Pern, a distant planet that will -- per the results of a centuries-old Exploration and Evaluation Survey -- be a paradise planet, far from the greed, wars, and widespread corruption of the Federation. And for a while, things are pretty perfect. But -- as you certainly know by now -- the colonists’ idyll is disrupted by the sudden and devastating appearance of Thread, spores that fall from the sky and devour everything in their path. The deadly spores are relentless and things aren’t looking too good for the colonists, until someone realizes that some of the local beasties (tiny flying dragonets who have been widely adopted as pets) spontaneously fight Thread, breathing fire and teleporting away from danger. If only the dragonets were just a little bit bigger…
The rest, as they say, is Pernese history. It’s great fun to meet the original Benden, Tillek, Telgar, Bitra, et al. (Avril Bitra is one of the Bad Guys, btw. We know this right away because she swings her hips provocatively when she walks.) We also find out where agenothree got its odd name, discover the source of the mysterious “Eureka! Mycorrhizae” plaque, and witness the earliest glimmers of the arrogance for which the Dragonriders would eventually become … well, not exactly celebrated.... (Alas, we don’t learn the source of the honorifics – F’lar, N’ton, etc. Those must have come later.) The early development of the colony seems fairly realistic -- the colonists are full of hope and excitement, but there are nevertheless disputes, secret agendas, personality conflicts, factions, and madness. There are far too many characters and basically zero character development, but a few characters stand out: brave Admiral Paul Benden, who wants to retire his leadership role but can’t; pilot Sallah Telgar, who falls in love with a hot geologist only to find herself eventually saddled with a remote, neglectful husband; and Sorka Hanrahan, a resourceful youngster who grows up to become one of Pern’s first Queen Riders.
One thing I had completely forgotten about Dragonsdawn is that -- much more than the Dragonriders or Harper Hall books -- it’s true science fiction. There’s a large amount of technical discussion about various biological and astronomical phenomena; you get a lot of dialogue like “It computes to come in farther than the usual fourth planet position and actually intrudes on the Oort cloud at aphelion” and “Yuen apparently believes that with such an eccentric, almost parabolic orbit, this Pluto body may exit the star system again, or fall into the sun.” Since I remembered the Pern books as being fantasy books with, you know, dragons and such, this was kind of a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise!
Yes, geneticist Kitti Ping and her granddaughter, the improbably named Wind Blossom, do introduce a gender bias into the strain, just like I remembered. What I had forgotten was that most of the characters are pretty seriously pissed off about this, and that the female Riders are promptly outfitted with flamethrowers so they can fight Thread with the men. And yes, the whole business with Telgar does end up astride the pinnacle of Velveeta Mountain… but it doesn’t start there. Up until all the fist-pumping starts, the scene is actually pretty affecting. And the ending gives me chills… the good kind.
The Pern books are certainly crowd-pleasers, but there’s enough biogenetics and Oort clouds and whatnot that I tend to wonder whether McCaffrey ever turned her hand to anything more, let us say, hard core. Very possibly she did; I’m on my way to her web site to check. Either way, I’ll be scouring libraries and used bookstores in the coming weeks, looking for old friends and possibly even making some new ones. It’s high time I rediscovered Pern.
-- Kate Nagy