In Anne McCaffery's universe Pern originally stood for Planet Earthlike Resources Negligible (from her novel Dragonsdawn. Alternate interpretations have been found in her short stories), which was why a non-commercial group was able to colonize it.

A Short Description of Pern

The third planet of the star Rukbat, Pern somehow has an atmosphere and supports native life.    Complicating matters is the fact that the second planet, also known as "The Red Star", has its own native life, a kind of fungus. Every 80 years or so, The Red Star comes close enough to Pern to send streams of spores called "Thread" across to colonize it.  Thread is nasty stuff, burning anything it touches and destroying any Pern or Earth life it manages to infest.

Humans settled on the planet long ago, but forgot all of their technology. Before that happened, however, the human colonizers of Pern set up some mechanisms to combat Thread.   The most important of these was breeding the native tiny "fire lizards" into large fire-breathing dragons.  There are five kinds of dragons, known mostly by their color: golden Queen Dragons, the only female dragons who lay fertile eggs; Bronze dragons, powerful males who do most of the fertilizing, the smaller male Brown and Blue dragons, and finally Green dragons, females who lay sterile eggs.

Fire lizards and dragons have the ability to fly, and also to teleport from place to place, via an extradimensional space known as between.  More importantly, however, they imprint on the first being they see, becoming psychically linked for life.  So colonies of human-dragon teams known as "weyrs" dot the surface of Pern's northern continent.   There are also "holds", stone fortresses dominated by medieval-style lords, and Craft Halls dedicated to preserving any handcrafts and skills which still persist.

The series appears to have started with a novella, "Weyr Search", which appeared in Analog magazine in 1967, and won McCaffrey the Hugo for Best Novella in 1968.  A second novella, "Dragonrider", won the 1968 Nebula Award.

Pern and I Have a History

Way back in the 1970's, before some of you were born, I received a collection of Anne McCaffrey stories as a birthday present. The 19771 anthology Get Off The Unicorn introduced me to the world of fantasy beyond J.R.R. Tolkein and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Get Off The Unicorn contained a reprinting of McCaffrey's 1973 story, "The Smallest Dragonboy".  A bronze dragon rider, F'lar, is excluded from participating in the mating flight of the last queen dragon, and thus cannot become leader of Benden Weyr.  He is desolated, knowing that the new leaders are going to send the world to hell in a handbasket, but his friend Robinton, a harper, convinces him to keep faith and hope.  Just the sort of thing a 13-year-old loves to think about himself.

Several years later, I received one of those "Select five free books, we'll rip you off later" offers from The Science Fiction Book Club.   It happened to have come during the first few weeks of my first summer job ever, and of course the money acquired was burning a hole through my pocket.   So I sent the form in, signing my name to future book slavery.

"The Smallest Dragonboy" whet my appetite for McCaffrey's writing.  So, in addition to an omnibus of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, I selected an omnibus of The Dragonriders of Pern.

Accompanying this was a "bonus" omnibus called The Harper Hall Of Pern, containing three of McCaffrey's later Pern novels:

Interrupting this first taste of self-reliance was a two-week bout of chicken pox.  This was a perfect opportunity to read all of the books at once.   And so I let Pern work its pernicious effect on my young mind.

Weyr Search (and thus Dragonflight) begins about 10 years after "The Smallest Dragonboy".  Things are in a bad state: It has been so long since the last Pass that most people have forgotten the danger from Thread.   The next Pass is soon to come, and the long delay means that it will be a doozy.  The last queen dragon has died, and the only hope for the Weyr's survival (and Pern's too, although only F'lar cares) is a single queen egg in the last clutch the old girl laid.  F'lar goes on a search for a suitable rider for the queen when it hatches, and eventually finds Lessa, the lone survivor of Ruatha Hold's  after its conquest by a neighboring Holder, Lord Fax.  F'lar really dislikes Fax; he has the audacity to conquer other Holds by force of arms!  He tells him this, and Fax goes into a fit of apoplexy, or chokes on a sausage or something. Anyway, he's dead, leaving a posthumous child, Jaxom, the only heir of three major Holds.

F'lar is thus free to pursue his political agenda, building the Weyrs up to fighting strength.   Lessa is reluctant about dragon mating flights at first: her body says no, but her dragon says yes (this is where a more mature person would have thrown the whole series away in disgust).  Through Dragonflight and Dragonquest, F'lar and Lessa slowly turn the Holds and Halls to their way of thinking. Through all their travails, their constant ally is Robinton, Masterharper of Pern. The White Dragon follows the life of Pern's young political linchpin, Jaxom, who has managed to get a dragon of his own, a runt he felt sorry for, and rescued from a Hatching.

The second trilogy follows the career of Mennolly and other apprentices in Pern's Harper Hall, more or less a guild of musicians, but also Pern's information infrastructure.  Menolly is the daughter of a Sea Lord, who minimizes her musical talent and takes steps to keep her from developing it.  This causes Menolly to flee her Hold, and miraculously wind up in the care of Masterharper Robinton at the Harper Hall, picking up the company of seven fire lizards along the way.

The series has continued to be popular, and that Ms. McCaffrey has expanded her franchise2 to include

but I'm off the bus.

Why Pern Is Not My Favorite Fantasy Milieu

My siblings were naturally curious about the books I was devouring, and asked to read them after I finished.  They actually fought over who got to read them first.  Afterwards, however, they were quite terse with their comments about The Dragonriders of Pern. My younger brother, always a little ahead of me in the maturity department, dismissed them as "complacent", and my sister only gave me a dirty look when I asked what she thought.

The whole Pern saga has serious problems.  Problems in the plot department are similar to flaws in many other novels you may have read:  The main characters are always right. They faithfully pursue their goals based upon lofty values, which somehow justify their position in society.  Bad things happen, but only to unfaithful bad people, consequences of their own irresponsibility.  And I really take issue with the whole art for art for art's sake's sake's sake deal, the misery of the misunderstood artist.

The constant hammering of "just be virtuous, and everything good will happen to you" was a great help in the Pern-themed Commodore 64 game that appeared around 1985.  That was how to win: Be virtuous, treat everyone fairly, and act in good faith. I was through the game in 2 hours, to my floormates' amazement.   Then fun of the game came from being devious to a point, and seeing how deep a hole you could dig yourself out of.

Despite this theme of virtue, Pern has serious problems in the morality department, too. The incident I mentioned earlier, undermining any claim to feminist values that the story of Mennolly may bring up, is but a taste. You see, at convenient times, people called "drudges" magically appear and do all of the scut work, then disappear into the shadows.  Sort of like the army that appears at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now look, I'm not asking for McCaffrey to write The Wretched Proletariat of Pern Throw Their Masters Into the Dustbin of History and set up a Socialist Paradise based upon a Dialectic of Permanent Revolution5. It would be nice, however, if the majority of Pern's population were more than just furniture.  It would have been OK to portray the Weyr, Hold, and Hall characters as creatures of a medieval society, justifying their position on an attitude of superiority; Jaxom's checkered career of going around and rutting with various peasant girls would have fit with that.   But McCaffrey certainly seems to want us on the sidelines cheering them on. There are no attitudes of superiority, the inferior folks don't even exist! Exactly one "drudge" is mentioned by name.  One. Camo, a halfwit.  A halfwit whose sole pleasure in life is feeding Menolly's fire lizards. And, as it turns out, Camo is an illegitimate child of Robinton's.

As I said, no more for me.   The Pern novels are sterling examples of what one writer6 described as "stories of medieval societies with characters who behave like 20th Century Americans".

1A later printing than this.
2The Dragonriders of Pern® is a Registered Trademark of Anne McCaffrey, etc.
3I think I have this, one of those SFBC selections I didn't send back and had to pay for.  I never read it, though.
4No, it's not about a Communist takeover of Pern.
5But you know, wouldn't that be something?
5I wish I could remember who this was.

The Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase FAQ,

The Nintendo Reverse-Engineering Project (

An officer in the U.S. navy gives a bunch of vague tutorials with inefficient code for programming the Nintendo Game Boy Advance. Script kiddies cut and paste code found here to claim they have created their own Game Boy Advance games.

Pern (?), v. t. [See Pernancy.]

To take profit of; to make profitable.




© Webster 1913.

Pern, n. Zool.

The honey buzzard.


© Webster 1913.

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