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The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall by Anne McCaffrey

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Anne McCaffrey wrote All the Weyrs of Pern, it's pretty clear that she intended it as the Pernese eqivalent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle throwing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. Even if she wasn't actually tired of writing about Pern, as Doyle was of Holmes, she probably felt that she had written everything that needed saying about it and wanted to be done with it. Thus she decided to write a novel that would remove the danger of Thread forever, thus ending for good the entire rationale of the series.

But Doyle soon discovered that his fans and publishers wanted more Holmes, and could be quite insistent on the matter. So he ended up giving in and writing additional stories taking place before his attempt to put "finis" on his fictional consulting detective. And it appears that Anne McCaffrey found it just as difficult to put her fictional creation to reset for good.

Interestingly enough, the first Pern book to come out after All the Weyrs of Pern is not a novel, but rather a collection of short stories set around the same period as Dragonsdawn. In fact, some of them were originally published in magazines and other typical short-story venues before being brought together in this collection.

The first, "The Survey: P.E.R.N.," tells of the original scouts to discover the planet and determine that while it has few resources to support an industrial civilization, it appears to be hospitable enough for a group of colonists who are actually wanting a more pastoral lifestyle. In a bit of dramatic irony, the scouts do notice evidence of damage to the vegetation which we as readers will immediately recognize as being caused by Thread -- but they don't even think of it as being significant enough to raise any concerns. Far from it, they dismiss it as being the result of some kind of transient plant disease.

Of course it's not surprising that such a cursory, in-and-out survey would overlook things, for the simple reason that there isn't enough time to do the longitudinal studies of the environment necessary to recognize phenomena that may be cyclical or otherwise time-limited. However, Anne McCaffrey has a habit of writing stories that depend entirely upon hasty and inadequate initial surveys leading to colonies being planted where they shouldn't and the colonists ending up in a world of hurt as a result. For instance, the stand-alone short story "Velvet Fields" has a colony being placed on a planet whose original inhabitants appear to have died out, leaving only their empty cities behind -- and apparently nobody had thought to even ask what had happened to the aboriginals, or whether it might still be dangerous to potential human settlers, before authorizing a colonization mission. And of course it turns out that the natives aren't dead at all, that they have a strange life cycle in which they alternate between sessile and motile forms, and the beautiful velvet fields upon which the colonists graze their cattle are in fact one of their sessile forms. But when the error is discovered and all the colonists' efforts to mitigate the harm they have unwittingly done only makes things worse, never once is it suggested that anyone in the Colonization Administration bureaucracy should be called to account for their blunders in authorizing the planting of the colony on the basis of a completely inadequate survey. No, it's only the colonists themselves who are treated as monsters and ordered to submit themselves utterly to the aliens whom they'd unwittingly wronged, and there is no clemency for children too young to form criminal intent, not even toddlers. A travesty of justice that left me infuriated instead of feeling any sort of catharsis at the end.

At least the sloppy survey of Pern led to no such horrors, although the generations-long struggle against successive Passes of the Red Star and its life-devouring Thread were difficult enough. But one has to wonder whether the population pressures in Anne McCaffrey's fictional Earths are all so extreme that such cursory surveys of potentially colonizable planets are routine problems. Compared to the extensive environmental studies which present-day builders are required to submit before building a mere subdivision, we really have to wonder what has led to such inexcusable sloppiness.

"The Dolphin Bell" takes place near the ending of Dragonsdawn, when the original colony on the Southern Continent is being abandoned and everyone is being evacuated to Fort Hold, which is regarded as more defensible with the relatively small number of dragons then in existence. It focuses almost entirely upon Jim Tillek and the role of the dolphins in assisting the seaborne evacuation, with the fascinating element of the bell being left behind in Monaco Bay as a suggestion that communication between human and dolphin was not intended to be severed, although it would in fact soon be, and would remain thus until nine Passes later, when Jaxom and his contemporaries rediscovered the AVIAS and the wealth of scientific and technological information within it.

"The Ford of Red Hanrahan" tells how Ruatha Hold was founded, and how it became one of the premier runnerbeast-breeding centers of Pern, even as late as the time of Moreta and Alessan. The high-tech devices that the colonists brought with them are beginning to fail, and the remaining ones are beginning to be reserved only for special tasks in hopes of conserving them at least a while. As a result, we're beginning to see a shift towards a genuinely pre-industrial culture as the colonists begin to rediscover old methods of doing things. However, some of the remnants of high-tech devices are finding surprising new uses, such as the airlock doors that are emplaced at Ruatha Hold to bar the way to Thread -- and which may well be the same doors that Lessa opened at the beginning of Dragonflight, which brings the story full-circle.

In "The Second Weyr" we get to see not only the founding of Benden Weyr, at least in part as a result of an ugly fight between two queen dragons who rose to mate at the same time as much as pure overcrowding, but also the movement of leadership to a new generation. As the generation who came to Pern as adults passes on, the new generation of rising leaders brings a Pernocentric view of life to the problems they face, and a distinctive Pernese culture begins to develop. In particular, we get to meet Sorka's daughter Torene, who may or may not have been the same Torene mentioned as one of history's great Weyrwomen in Dragonflight -- it's completely possible that Pernese do reuse names over the centuries, and historical figures of the same name become conflated over the centuries, particularly as literacy becomes less common and the bulk of the population rely on oral transmission through Teaching Songs for cultural transmission of historical memory.

The final story, "Rescue Run," ties off the loose thread from Dragonsdawn of the message probe that Tubberman sent off at the beginning of the First Pass with a cry for help. By the time the Federation, occupied with the threat of yet another draining war with the alien Nathi, are able to send a ship, only one family remains behind in the area of the original colonial plan -- a very dysfunctional one with a grasping and tyrannical father lording it over his frightened daughters. His obsession with ensuring that they do not become paupers, poor relations dependent upon charity, nearly causes the rescue shuttle to crash and kill them all. His false assertion that his family are the only survivors, motivated by his greedy hope to avoid having to share his wealth with any of the many people who have fled to the Northern Continent, ensures that Pern is permanently written off by the Federation and there will never be any outsiders coming to visit.

On the whole, these stories are really of more interest to long-time readers of the Pern series who will be interested in "filling in the blanks" rather than someone looking to begin reading the series. Most of the stories assume familiarity with the characters of Dragonsdawn and their relationships with one another, and "The Ford of Red Hanrahan" in particular depends for some of its punch on an alert reader making the connection with items of ancient origin in the original series set far in the future of the series.

Table of Contents

  • The Survey: P.E.R.N.
  • The Dolphins' Bell
  • The Ford of Red Hanrahan
  • The Second Weyr
  • Rescue Run

Review posted May 10, 2009

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