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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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