Dragon's Time by Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey
Cover art by Les Edwards
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When I finished reading the previous installment in the Pern saga, Dragongirl, and found an advertisement for its sequel, I entertained the hope that this book would be the long-awaited grand finale in which Anne McCaffrey would wind up Pern once and for all. After watching the last several volumes of Pern get steadily more disappointing, with problematic plotting, characterizations and worldbuilding, I had reached the point where I really wanted to see it go out with a bang rather than stumbling on to oblivion like the zombie shadow of what it once had been.
I find that the stories I like most are those that leave me wanting more when they are finished, yet are sufficiently satisfying that I could live with the author deciding never to write another one. The early Pern books were like that -- after every one, I wanted not just to read more of what happened to those particular characters, but more about the stories that were only glimpsed at the edges, like Tolkien's far trees that might at most become nearer trees.
However, the further I go with these recent Pern books, the more I find that the eagerness for more has been replaced by a sense of "when is she ever going to wind it up and move on?" Quite honestly, I feel like the authors ran out of significant things to say about Pern several books ago, and have been churning them out solely to fulfill the contracts for additional Pern books. It's not just a sense that the original spirit that drove Pern has been replaced by a mechanical re-assembly of tropes and elements that worked in the earlier volumes, with new names in an earlier period. There's also a sense that the writers have increasingly lost track of just what it is that made Pern itself, and can no longer see it with a clear vision. It's not quite so extreme as some of the later Dune sequels, which have increasingly read more like the Star Wars universe, but it's been going that direction.
Then I finally get hold of a copy of Dragon's Time, and I discover to my frustration that, not only is this book not going to be the grand finale (there's an advertisement at the end for yet another volume, apparently to come out some time in 2012), but it too has reached the point at which it no longer reads like the original universe. Specifically, to my eyes it reads more like Doctor Who than real Pern.
Now don't get me wrong -- I have nothing against Doctor Who. When I was doing my undergraduate work in the late 1980's, I was a major Doctor Who fan, and part of my nightly routine was watching the evening's episode on our local PBS station, after which I would turn in for the night. I bought as many of the books as I could afford, and still have a big coffee-table book that I got as a Christmas gift. However, I do not like reading a Pern book that reads more like a Pern fanfic written by a longtime Doctor Who fan who's just discovered Pern but is still thinking in Whovian terms.
Specifically, I'm talking about the almost obsessive focus of this novel's storyline upon the mechanics of time travel. True, the capacity of dragons to travel between time has been present almost from the beginning. Although the original novella "Weyr Search" didn't, the subsequent novella which was combined with it to create Dragonflight did, when Lessa unthinkingly gave Ramoth an image from her childhood and instead of traveling through space alone to story-present Ruatha, the dragon took Lessa to the Ruatha of that remembered moment, thus inadvertently contributing to the conquest of her native Hold by the treacherous Lord Fax.
However, time travel was always an adjunct to the relationship of human and dragon which was always at the heart of the Pern universe (even the Harper Hall trilogy, which moved the dragonriders to the periphery, because the fire lizards are the original genetic source material for the dragons, and like them can be Impressed by a suitably empathic human, resulting in an ongoing mental relationship). At times it would serve useful functions in the plot, particularly when characters needed to hide things, or to get more time to accomplish something (a practice which had tragic results when overused in Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern).
The growing focus on time travel as a cure-all in the past several books has really been bothering me, but that was more a feeling that it was making things too easy. Need more dragons to restaff your Weyr after Plague or a really bad fall? Just send a bunch of weyrlings back in time to a relatively unknown location to stay for a suitable number of Turns, then have them come back to uptime's tomorrow grown, trained and ready to fight Thread. Need to replenish supplies depleted during hard times? Go to another seldom-visited island and gather what's growing wild there. Time travel was rapidly becoming a rampaging plot device that could let the author resolve any seemingly insurmountable problem -- in direct contradiction to what we saw in Dragonflight, in which efforts to stretch time in that fashion had debilitating consequences, not just annoying ones.
In this volume, it's not just a rampaging plot device any more. Instead, it seems to be taking over the whole story, to the point that the dragons are getting crowded out, no longer being characters in their own right as Mnementh or Ramoth or Ruth in the original series, but just a sort of talking horse that happens to be a winged para-archosaur rather than a hooved mammal. The storyline continually focuses upon the comings and goings of the human characters through time in a fictional universe in which time is fixed, so that one cannot change past or future by time-travel, only fulfill it. Yet there seems to be some hint of free will, for instance in the idea that one character who was doomed to die used his last several days of life to travel forward and visit his beloved at key times in the future -- but she's warned not to use them up too quickly, which would suggest that she can choose when they will have happened, rather than them already being fixed at the moment he left for them.
As a result, I'm left really not caring any more about this storyline, and instead of wanting more, just wanting to see it properly laid to rest instead of dragged out indefinitely. Unfortunately, given the realities of publishing, it's very probable that as long as sales figures remain good enough for these books, the publishers will keep urging Todd McCaffrey to contract and write further books in the series. And now that Anne McCaffrey is gone, will there be anybody to even try to hold him to the original vision of Pern? Which is a real shame. Sometimes there is a time to say good-bye to a beloved world and be satisfied with re-reading the existing volumes rather than forever demanding more, more, more.
Review posted November 30, 2011.
Buy Dragon's Time: Dragonriders of Pern (The Dragonriders of Pern) from Amazon.com