Re-visiting Pern: Still Life With Dragons

Since handing in the corrections on the PhD, I’ve recently found myself managing a remarkably long commute. If I’m lucky, and all the connections are on time, I can do it door-to-door in 2.3 hours. If I’m not lucky – “if”! he says it like misfortune is in doubt! – then it can explode to any length of time you want to imagine.

The trains between Hertfordshire and Cambridge are truly terrible. I’ve been genuinely astonished by how bad they are. I suspect that one could swallow some rails and sleepers and vomit a better railway line.

Anyway, 4.6 hours of commuting per day has given me a lot of time to read. As well as new books, I’ve also been re-visiting old favourites. One of them is Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series.

These books were one of the first serious, ‘grown-up’ sets of SF novels that I encountered as a child. As a kid they had a lot to recommend them. An entire alien planet. Dragons. Psychic powers. Dragons. Adventure. Dragons. Life-or-death meaningful epic struggles against an enemy that didn’t bother you with any annoying moral complexity (no, not R’gul, I meant Thread, of course). Oh, and did I mention that there were and are dragons? I’m sure you get the idea by now šŸ™‚

But it’s been a long time since I looked at any of them – more 15 years, in fact. To an extent, I’m actually coming to them with a blank slate. Reading them again has proven interesting. Needless to say, there are some unorganised comments after the cut…

(I’ll note that I have the usual mix of squee and criticism. I should point out that the dragon books are a series that I like, hence I’ve thought them over quite a bit. Although I do have some points of quite sharp criticism, that’s actually a side-effect of being a fan of the series – if I disliked it, I’d have less to say because I would have dismissed it from my mind long ago. Anyway, now that disclaimer is out of the way, let’s proceed…)

(Also remember that these are just the opinions of another random person on the Internet, and this not to be taken too seriously.)

(One final note: I’m not dealing here with the Todd McCaffrey novels. Classical Pern or bust, dammit!)


I haven’t finished re-reading all of the series; I’ve got about as far as ‘All the Weyrs of Pern’, and there are several more after that. Keep that incompleteness in mind throughout the following discussion…

1. “Dragonflight”, the very first of the dragon books, is interesting on several levels. First off, Lessa’s life as a drudge actually touches on something that the Pern novels mostly pass by – what about the less fortunate?

2. Still on “Dragonflight”, there was always something that I found oddly bothersome about Lessa’s Impression of Ramoth. When I re-read it, I had one of those lightbulb moments: frankly, the Impression sequence read a bit like a rape scene. I was startled by just how squicky I found it. When I was sat on the train with it open on my Kindle, I actually wanted to skip over the page in case anyone looked over my shoulder and got the wrong idea about what I was reading.

I have no idea if this is inadvertent (have I got oversensitive to social justice issues?) or if AM was attempting a stealth satire of some of the dodgier stuff in ’50s and ’60s SF. (Given her stated motivations for writing another novel, Restoree, the latter is possible.)

3. “Dragonquest” felt very disjointed. I wonder if this novel was actually compiled from a sequence of short stories? I also didn’t pick up any clear sense of theme from this book.

4. “The White Dragon”: although I liked this book as a kid, I didn’t really understand it. Now I get it; it’s about Jaxom growing up.

5. The Menolly duology (is that even a word? spellchecker tells me no!): unlike Dragonquest, there is a clear theme here, and that’s the need for music. I was surprised by how emotional I found these two to be – the catharsis scene in particular, in Master Oldive’s room, almost had me in tears. (As I was on the 19.30 to King’s Cross at the time, that would’ve been somewhat embarrassing!) These two books are also interesting because they show us some of the non-dragonrider life on Pern, something that I didn’t wholly appreciate when I first read them, many years ago. Menolly’s character development is also quite interesting, as she goes from shy and a rather vulnerable to more confident and assertive.

6. “Renegades of Pern”: this book could have been so much more. I think it was intended as a look at the downsides of Pernese life, but unfortunately all of the ‘renegade’ characters were so obviously-evil that they were hard to take seriously. It’s telling that the bits I like in this book don’t occur until it gets to the sections set at Landing.

7. “Dragonsdawn” – this book is wonderful, but also frustrating. It’s wonderful because it’s one of the sole few glimpses we ever get of the wider galaxy beyond Pern. It’s also frustrating because it’s one of the sole few glimpses we ever get of said wider galaxy. (I find it strange that in the subsequent 25 centuries, apparently no-one ever re-visits Pern, with the single brief exception of “Rescue Run”. Makes you wonder if something bad has happened in the outside.)

8. AIVAS. I know that AIVAS is a divisive topic in the fandom, but let me air a deeply unpopular opinion: I’m actually rather glad that AIVAS turns up. Want to know why? Look no further than the next bullet-point…

9. Something I’ve realised about the series as a whole: Pern is basically a sort of conservative utopia.

Consider. The dominant social institutions are pseudo-military (the Weyrs). The first couple of novels are all about recovering the lost glories of the past and holding to old traditions. With the possible-and-limited exception of the Crafthalls, Pern’s politics are thoroughly undemocratic and based on aristocratic privilege. According to Dragonsdawn, the early colony had economic inequality baked into it right from the start, through the Contractor/Charterer land rights split (no wonder they wound up with an aristocracy). Also, the only people you see who rebel against the social order – Thella et al. – are clearly mad, bad and dangerous to know. In many (not all, but many) cases; the Complainer Is Clearly Wrong (see for instance “Dragonsdawn”, and the people who want contact reestablished with Earth). With all the talk of “Blood” and “bloodlines” (Ruathan etc.), breeding and heredity are apparently considered all-important. Sometimes it even also brings pesudo-magical powers. Also, the founding of the initial colony was apparently as a sort of back-to-the-land-IN-SPAAACE! thing. There’s also a convenient outside existential threat hanging over the whole scenario, which keeps everyone on the straight-and-narrow through their fear of it, and as a bonus happens to be something for which there is no need to feel any sympathy or moral engagement. (I do wonder if Thread has a bit of the fear of the Devil about it, only minus the overt Christian mythology?)

All of these are basically conservative memes.

This is why I actually like the AIVAS plotline – it takes the medieval stasis-esque equilibrium state, and decisively kicks it into the long grass. Whatever happens after the end of the Ninth Pass, it is *not* going to be the same as the preceding couple of millenia. It also nagged me that because we see so little of non-Pern civilisation, it’s also never really clear what it was that the initial colonists were unhappy with; rather we just seem to be expected to take it on faith that they had good reason to vote with their feet.

Yes, I like the AIVAS plotline. Please don’t shoot me!

10. Eep, continuity errors! The dragon books do seem to have quite a few, don’t they?

11. Oh yes, one last point – I could write an entire post about the astronomy of Pern and the mechanics of Threadfall. (Hint: the way it’s described in the books just wouldn’t work.) Perhaps I will write that post, if there’s interest.

Summary:

I think those conclude the main set of points that I want to make. The Pern series is a major work, and certainly deserves its place in the SF cannon. If you haven’t read them, I can certainly recommend them (with some caveats as noted above).

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