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Dragonseye by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After telling the story in Dolphins of Pern of how humans renewed the old partnership with dolphins which had been lost in the chaos of the Crossing, Anne McCaffrey decided to write her next Pern book about a completely different era of Pernese history. Maybe she felt that the Ninth Pass was pretty much mined out for story possibilities, or maybe she just wanted to explore a new era and see what kind of stories could be told there. It's a problem that will be faced eventually by the author of any popular long-running series -- the longer one goes, the harder it become to keep writing fresh books, yet keep giving readers the elements that make the series desirable.

In the case of Pern, that last part is pretty well defined. Every Pern book will have at least one Hatching scene. It's an inescapable must, since the bond between dragon and rider is the literary foundation of Pern. The first Hatching scene in Dragonflight was fairly easy to write for the simple reason that it was the first, and there was no baggage of prior art to avoid rehashing. It was necessary only to convey the event clearly enough that the reader understood what was occurring and feel its emotional significance for Lessa. However, once Ramoth began laying regularly, the subsequent Hatchings in that novel were given minimal story time, often just summary mentions.

In Dragonquest we got a new twist on the Hatching scene -- the inauspicious event, in this case the Impression of the runt dragon Ruth by young Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Hold. This event was politically significant because of the critical nature of Ruatha Hold, particularly with Pernese politics already in turmoil as a result of the split in Weyr leadership between F'lar's modern Benden Weyr and the Weyrs of the Oldtimers who were having trouble adjusting to four centuries of slow cultural change. That event also created the problems at the heart of The White Dragon, not just the central plotline of Lord Jaxom's struggle to become both dragonrider and Lord Holder in his own right, but also the subplot of the stolen queen egg and the Hatching at which Ramoth's anger must be appeased before the Impressions can take place.

When Ms. McCaffrey went back in time to tell the story of the Plague, the Hatching in the end of Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and Nerilka's Tale had the especial poignance of being the last clutch of the dead hero Moreta's queen dragon. And of course Dragonsdawn featured the first Hatching ever, with the particular problem that the Candidates on the sand had absolutely no idea of what to expect or how to deal with the events as they unfold, no experienced dragonriders to turn to for guidance. It's only by good fortune and the characters' sound judgment (and perhaps just a little help from the author) that everything goes right enough that no dragons are lost through stupid mistakes when they're so desperately needed.

In Dragonseye we have a new variation on the inauspicious interruption by someone who isn't supposed to be on the Hatching Grounds. In this case young Debera's family come charging out in an effort to prevent her Impression of the green dragon Morath, only to discover the hard way that a dragon set on Impression will not be deterred. It also has the interesting element of the dragon mind-speaking her rider so adamantly that every rider in the vicinity could hear, which would seem to contradict the idea that the ability to hear other dragons is extremely rare and almost always restricted to women who ride queen dragons. However, it is also possible that it should be understood that Morath bespoke her rider with such force that it was transmitted through the other dragons to their riders, since it has been established that dragons can speak with one another telepathically, much as they speak to their respective riders.

More interesting is the mention for the first time that there have been incidents in which a hatchling dragon could find no suitable match among the Candidates upon the sands, or even among the audience in the tiers, and as a result died in anguish. This is a marked departure from all prior books, in which it was simply taken for granted that every hatchling would Impress someone, even if it had to settle for someone who wasn't an ideal match -- particularly in that very first Hatching, when there weren't that many Candidates and nobody knew anything about how Impression would work, except by analogy by the fire lizards, which were not wise as dragons are. Now it is possible that Ms. McCaffrey had been asked repeatedly about what would happen if a hatchling really couldn't find a suitable match at all, and decided to write that throwaway line in to show why it was so absolutely important to make sure there were always plenty of Candidates on the sands. However, it is still enough of a departure from the established storyline that it jars, if not quite so much as the later novels in collaboration with her her son Todd in which we actually see the horror of a dragon not Impressing and flinging itself between to its doom.

However, Debera's story is actually a relatively minor thread in this novel. The real meat of the story is the issue of cultural transmission of knowledge, and particularly the vital knowledge of Thread and the skills to fight it and survive it successfully. The original settlers in Dragonsdawn were completely caught by surprise when the first Threadfall occurred, with horrific results. However, they still had substantial scientific and technological resources at their disposal, and as such were able to research the new menace sufficiently to get a fairly good grasp of what they were facing, including the fact that Threadfall would continue intermittently for the next fifty Pernese years, at which time the end of Thread's incursion would be only a two-century respite, not a permanent peace.

That two hundred years would be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it would be an opportunity for the people of Pern to live instead of just existing, to thrive and spread so that their existence would no longer be so precarious, so confined to a few settlements that could be wiped out by mischance or human error. On the other hand, it would also be enough time for the cultural memory of the horrors of Threadfall and the urgency of preparedness for defense against it to grow dim. Particularly given the sheer amount of resources that would have to be devoted to the upkeep of the Weyrs full of voracious dragons, resources hard to come by in a pre-industrial culture where everything has to be done laboriously by hand, there would be a continual temptation to reallocate those scarce resources to something more profitable in the short term.

Thus at the beginning of Dragonseye we have a mixture of fervent preparation and adamant disbelief. Although some photographic records of Thread injuries remain, the nature of photographic materials mean that they have been particularly susceptible to deterioration and with no means to copy them save by drawing, they have become sufficiently blurred that there is room for a rational person to doubt that they do indeed portray what they say they do. And even if there are written records, the economics of Pernese culture are rapidly becoming such that it's no longer possible to give every child a formal education, even to sufficient basic literacy to read those records. Cultural transmission will have to rely increasingly on oral methods, on received wisdom passed through rote memorization, rather than study of documentation.

When Dragonseye originally came out, it attracted some pretty strong negative criticism from reviewers who felt that it did not have to be set on Pern, but rather used the Pernese background because of the guaranteed fan market for any Pern book. Other critics argued that it was in too many ways a rehash of the basic conflicts of the original books, albeit with some window-dressing changed -- that problem of new stories in an established universe needing to have something fresh to say even as it maintains the elements that brought readers to the series in the first place.

To my mind, the weakest element of the book lies in those parts where it seems like the author is working too hard to explain the origins of various Pernese customs, at the expense of good story-telling. As a result of this focus on showing how important customs like the Teaching Songs came to be, the novel has a certain diffuseness that is apt to disappoint casual readers. There isn't any one single compelling plotline centered upon a character, and one of the interesting ones (frex, the budding romance between Iantine the artist and Debera the green rider) is left unresolved, which is apt to frustrate a reader who really wants to see whether they'll get together in the end.

At the same time, it is interesting to see Pernese society making the transition from a Terran colony that still remembers its origins and retains a modicum of the technology its ancestors brought to becoming a truly Pern-based culture. However, in many ways I'm surprised it took so long. Particularly given the extreme survival pressures of the First Pass, I would not have been surprised if cultural continuity had been completely lost in those first fifty years as all available energy had to be focused upon survival. However, it is not something so severe that it stretches my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, so I'm willing to let it pass as the author's world and her decision.

Review posted September 2, 2010.

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