All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
Cover art by Michael Whelan
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
There is strong evidence in the conclusion of The White Dragon that Anne McCaffrey probably intended it to be the final Pern book. Not only had she completed the Buildungsroman story arc with Lord Jaxom being acknowledged as Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold in his own right and as a fully-qualified dragonrider, but she also brought about the retirement of Masterharper Robinton (whose role had grown far beyond the original walk-on appearance in Dragonflight, particularly in the Harper Hall trilogy of young adult books) and had the principal characters of all six existing Pern books discover the ships by which their distant ancestors had originally come to Pern millennia earlier.
However, the economics of publishing made it easier said than done to write finis on Pern. One can only imagine the consternation between author and publisher as negotiations proceeded on what works would be contracted next. In any case, the historical record is clear on what happened next: Anne McCaffrey agreed to write another Pern book, and she decided to look into Pern's past for its setting. Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern was such a success that she followed it up with a young adult companion novel, Nerilka's Tale, the one and only Pern novel to be written in the first person, as the titular character's Record of the event (rather like Sherwood Smith's Over the Sea and Mearsies Heili Bounces Back are presented as records written by the main character of her own adventures).
After a foray to the very beginnings of Pern with Dragonsdawn, Ms. McCaffrey finally returned to present-Pass Pern to write a novel telling the stories of a set of characters who had only been glimpsed in the original two trilogies. However, the writing of Renegades of Pern seems to have re-ignited the desire to bring the Pern series to its conclusion and move on to other projects in fresh universes. Thus she concluded Renegades of Pern by moving the rediscovery of Pern's history storyline from The White Dragon just a little further, uncovering humanity's original settlement on that world and revealing a still-working connection to a computer on one of the colony ships.
That is the situation that prevails at the beginning of All the Weyrs of Pern -- Pernese humanity has in its grasp a treasure-trove of knowledge, all the stuff that was lost over the millennia of disasters, not to mention technical information the colonists didn't choose to bring to the surface with them. However, this opportunity also poses a profound risk. Pernese society has been relatively stagnant and traditionalist for the past thousand or more years, with social change coming relatively slowly, over a matter of generations. As a result, their culture has lost the meme complexes for dealing with rapid social change and integrating it into their culture. Even the relatively slow change of the Long Interval was enough that the Oldtimers who came forward had severe difficulty adjusting, so much that it was a major plot point in both Dragonquest and Dragondrums. To release this sort of knowledge, particularly the technical information that would change the relationship of Weyr, Hall and Hold, could be so socially disruptive as to disrupt the Weyrs' ability to protect Pern from Threadfall.
Even as Pern's leaders are debating how to deal with the social dynamite in their keeping, they are handed an even bigger bombshell. Before the original colonists shut down their settlement on the Southern Continent and sealed off the building with the AIVAS interface, they set the semi-sentient computer to the task of finding a long-term solution to the threat of Thread. Since it had not come up with a solution by that time, Pernese society's attention became focused upon what was originally intended to be a short-term solution: Kitty Ping's transformation of the tiny fire-lizards into dragons large enough to be ridden and wise enough to function as partners instead of pets. Even knowledge of the Thread-eating grubs which were intended as a medium-range solution to the protection of field crops became distorted to the point the farmers were actively destroying them as a threat rather than a beneficial symbiont.
However, the centuries and millennia which were an enormous amount of time in terms of human lives and generations was simply a huge opportunity to think for AIVAS, which had plenty of energy from the solar collectors on the ship in which it was mounted. Time enough for it to come to the conclusion that focusing on destroying Thread after it reached the Pernese atmosphere could never be more than a stopgap. Thread had to be stopped at its source -- the resentful Lord Holders in Dragonquest who had demanded that the dragonriders go to the Red Star were on the right track, even if their understanding of the situation was so limited that F'nor's one attempt ended in disaster.
After observing the two Long Intervals, in which interaction between the Red Star and other bodies in the Pern system altered the Red Star's eccentric orbit sufficiently to keep it from dropping Thread, AIVAS concluded that a permanent solution must involve a sufficient alteration of the Red Star's orbit that it would never again approach Pern with its deadly cargo. The only way to do that is to use the nuclear engines of the colony ships as explosives, which means that dragonriders will have to transport them to the surface of that quasi-cometary body.
Except to do that, they must be properly equipped to protect them from the hideous conditions that nearly killed F'nor and Canth. And that will require teaching large numbers of people not just the skills necessary for producing the equipment, but the theory behind it. So many people that there is simply no way to prevent the ripples of social change from reaching every corner of Pern.
It is particularly interesting to see Lord Jaxom no longer a youth struggling to find his place in the world, but as a man who has come fully into his own in all the various aspects of his identity: as a Lord Holder, as a dragonrider, and as a husband and father. Because his runt white dragon Ruth is capable of an unusual degree of independent thought and initiative, Jaxom will be taking on a leadership position that will distinguish him even above many senior dragonriders -- and the fact that his leadership is accepted with minimal controversy or complaint just goes to show how well he has proven his maturity and suitability for senior leadership roles, a far cry from the young man who struggled to prove himself worthy to fly his dragon against Thread.
If the ending of The White Dragon had the feeling of the author's attempt to draw her series to a close, it resonates throughout this entire novel. The whole plot is about permanently eliminating the threat of Thread, the whole reason for the existence of dragons and their partnership with their riders, not to mention the relationships between Weyr, Hall and Hold. If dragonriders no longer provide Pern with protection against Thread, there is no longer any reason for the productive population of Pern to tithe for their support. And the final scene really underlines the sense of closure, of letting go and saying good-bye.
Unfortunately, it worked about as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's throwing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach falls, or Marion Zimmer Bradley's attempt to destroy Darkover ecologically. Soon Ms. McCaffrey was writing a collection of short stories dealing with the period of the original colonization. I say "unfortunately" because that book marks the point at which we see a movement away from having new and unique things to say about Pern to endlessly rehashing the basic elements in new arrangements in books that feel as if they were written solely for the money. Or as one critic has termed it, "extruded book product."
Review posted August 19, 2010.
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