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The Dolphins of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Dolphins of Pern carries the Ninth Pass chronicles several years beyond their seeming end in All the Weyrs of Pern (when that book came out, I remember thinking that this must be McCaffrey's equivalent of throwing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, her way of tying up the series for good so that no more novels could be written in it). The first several chapters overlap with All the Weyrs of Pern, but only tangentially relate to it in terms of storyline.

This storyline concentrates on the re-opening of the old relationship between humans and dolphins, which had laid fallow since the First Interval, when a plague among humans had wiped out most of the dolphineers and forced the surviving few to concentrate their energies on helping their fellow humans. This situation is summarized in a brief prolog written from the dolphins' point of view, which gives us a fascinating glimpse into what the oceans of Pern look to a self-aware species for which it is home rather than a hostile environment to be visited at great risk.

At the beginning of the actual novel, Alemi (Menolly's sympathetic brother from Dragonsong) and Readis (eldest son of Jayge and Aramina from Renegades of Pern) go fishing for redfin only to be caught in a storm which capsizes their vessel. As they flounder in the heavy seas, they are rescued by shipfish, so named because of their habit of coming alongside ships at sea and sporting in the bow wave. In the course of the rescue, the humans realize that the shipfish are speaking to them, distorted but recognizably. Startled, Alemi asks them questions and is even more astonished to receive answers -- this is no mimicry at work, but actual intelligence. And the Pernese, accustomed by millennia of cooperation with dragons, have become accustomed enough to the concept of sapience coming in non-human packages that the notion of the shipfish as intelligent beings is treated in a matter-of-fact way.

After this initial contact, Alemi and Readis want to continue and develop their relationship with the dolphins, as they learn is the proper name for the species. However, Aramina becomes violently opposed to this idea, apparently afraid that some other misfortune may befall her son and this time he will not come through so easily. She strictly forbids him to go to the sea alone, which on the surface seems to be a reasonable enough safety precaution, but is in fact intended to cut him off from the sea until he forgets about the dolphins. When Readis finds people who can accompany him, thus enabling him to continue his contact with the dolphins while remaining within terms of the promise, she becomes continually more opposed and piles more and more restrictions on him, to the point it becomes clear she has gone beyond reasonable concern to obsessive behavior.

When an infection leaves him with a withered leg, Aramina blames the dolphins and refuses to listen to his own protestations that the dolphins had identified his injury, but in his carelessness he had ignored it instead of getting it tended immediately. After a storm devestates Southern Continent and Readis helps T'lion with the life-threatening injuries of two dolphins instead of immediately helping his human family salvage property, Aramina loses control and demands he promise to never have anything to do with the dolphins again. Readis cannot make this promise in good conscience, so he leaves to found his own dolphineer hall in a nearby cavern.

In my opinion, Aramina's behavior was the weakest part of the book. It made her come across as a silly, possessive ninny, totally at odds with the strong character in Renegades of Pern. In fact, it read almost like something McCaffrey did solely to give this book a running interpersonal conflict for Readis to struggle with, alongside his struggle to figure out how to work with the dolphins.

Part of the problem may have been the lack of any scenes from Aramina's point of view. Had we been able to see into her mind and understand her reasons and rationalizations for her actions, they might not have seemed so much silliness erected solely for the convenience of the plot. After all, Aramina did have a very difficult childhood, and it had to have left some scars, some irrational fears of looming disaster that would lead her to be somewhat overprotective of her own children in hopes of sparing them the sort of things she endured. If we could have seen those whys and wherefores, that particular story arc could have taken on more depth as a story of growing up and convincing well-meaning but overprotective parents that it is indeed time to loosen up the protective stance and allow their child to grow up, rather than a story of having to deal with an unreasonable parent, or worse, a conflict manufactured by the author solely to bip a box.

At the same time, this novel marks the real beginning of the "pasteling" of Pernese society away from the grittily realistic feudal structures that we saw in the original series to a more democratic, even politically correct one. Part of this shift can be explained within the story-universe as being the result of the rediscovery of the original Charter of the colony, with the resultant determination to return to those principles, along with the social changes that would result from the re-introduction of labor-saving technologies -- although whether such sweeping change could be accomplished in a single generation without massive social dislocation and perhaps even violent upheaval is debatable. However, as I read it, I feel as though the real reason came from without, as Pern became a Phenomenon and editors wanted to make sure that there wouldn't be anything that would be off-putting to modern readers.

In addition, this novel also marks the point at which the series seemed to be losing its way. The early books had been strong, exploring a strange and wonderful world. The next several seemed to be trying to "fill in the blanks," to tell some of the stories that were only hinted at in the original books, but still conveyed the sense of stories that needed to be told, that called out to the author. However, sometime after All the Weyrs of Pern, it seems like the author had run out of new things to say and was writing only out of a sense of obligation, because there was a demand from her fans and she hated to disappoint them, much as she would have preferred to wind up Pern and go on to other projects. At least this one doesn't get to the point we see in some of the later ones, in which they seem to be written solely to keep milking that cash cow that Pern has become in its late and decayed state.

Review posted May 10, 2009

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