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Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After writing eight wildly successful Pern books, Anne McCaffrey decided to go back to events only hinted at in The White Dragon, namely, the origins of the human colony on Pern. As a result, Dragonsdawn has a much more clearly "science fiction" feel, as compared to the more fantasy-like feel of the books set at later times when technology has been forgotten.

Dragonsdawn is rather like Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall. In both cases, the origin book was written after books set far later in the series timeline had become wildly popular. They were both stories of colonists who set out to find a new world unspoiled by overuse and abuse of technology as Terra had become, only to wind up stranded on a planet that proved hostile. And in both, previously untapped psionic powers proved important in the colony's survival.

However, unlike the unwilling colonists who landed on Darkover by accident, Pern's settlers came there deliberately. Weary after years of battling the mysterious alien Nathi, a group of Terrans wanted to establish a colony on the periphery, a colony based upon the minimal use of technology with a primarily pastoral emphasis. It was also to be a refuge for a number of traditional cultures such as the Tuareg and the Irish Tinkers who were finding it harder to continue in their traditional ways in an industrial world.

There was a certain utopian aspect in the organization of the colony, with everyone who had paid into the pot to fund the colony being able to draw supplies from the stores at need, rather than a formal money economy. It was assumed that everyone would understand that the supplies were finite and once they were exhausted, they would be gone forever, and would accordingly use them with moderation. And although there were some complaints, such as certain ethnic groups being accused of having taken a disproportionate share of the brightly-colored cloth for their clothes, the system seemed to be working out well enough. The various stakeholds were thriving, the livestock reproducing at well above replacement rates and the crops returning yields more than sufficient to feed everyone. It looked like Pern would soon become home. Until the day the unthinkable happened.

It began with a grayness on the horizon, and an odd excitement among the fire lizards, the tiny native creatures that had become common pets throughout the colony. Suddenly silver rain was falling on everything, voracious threadlike spores that devoured everything organic. Nothing but stone and some silicate plastics could stand against them. Whole settlements vanished in moments, including at least one nomadic ethnicity who had camped on an open plain, and whose only survivors were two infants who were thrust into an iron oven that happened to be cool -- infants who would have to be adopted into families who would have no way to transmit their heritage to them, meaning that the people would become effectively extinct even if they have physical survivors.

Paradise has turned into a nightmare, and it gets worse when the colony's scientists tell them this deadly rain will continue for the next fifty years. Efforts to fight the Threadfall with flamethrower-equipped airsleds prove deadly, and the colonists know they cannot keep it up indefinitely. They need some self-replicating means of defense -- if only they could make the tiny fire-breathing winged lizards into larger beasts, big enough to be ridden and wise enough to be directed...

Among the colonists are two scientists with knowledge of the Eridani techniques for genetic manipulation, as well as one of the precious microbiological units that will permit them to actually perform the work of transforming a cat-sized fire-lizard into a horse-sized dragon in a single generation. But even when the first clutch of dragons Hatch and Impress suitable young men and women, there is still the problem of training them to work as a team. Most importantly, has the ability of the fire-lizards to teleport between places carried through into the dragons, and can they do it consciously? Just learning how to control it proves easier said than done.

As prequels go, Dragonsdawn is a fairly good one, although it does suffer here and there from the sense that the author is trying too hard to explain the origins of all the elements we see in the original books. In addition we have a remarkable compression of the timeline of those early events as compared to the account given in the prolog to the original books. The two generations the settlers had before the first Threadfall shrinks to a mere eight years. However, this may well have been an artistic choice when the time came to actually write a novel set in that initial period, rather than a mere historical summary. By compressing the time between landing and first Fall, it became possible to have a single set of characters in relatively stable relationships to one another reacting to the external threat, rather than a succession of characters, parents and children, for the reader to keep track of and remain invested in. However, it also turns social changes that had been evolutionary in nature, coming over the course of several generations as the people of weyr and hold coped with successive challenges, into revolutionary ones consciously introduced to transform a technological society into a form more suitable to a pre-industrial society under siege.

Also, the sheer number of characters means that it is somewhat more difficult to keep track of all of them and care about them. As a result, it is not really the best novel to begin one's acquaintance with Pern, even if it is technically the first in the internal chronology of the world. However, for established fans of Pern it is fascinating to see the origins of things that would subsequently become important, even if those stories do not necessarily match with one's own ideas gleaned from hints and mentions in the earlier books.

Review posted May 10, 2009.

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