The White Dragon: An A-History

Say hello to the third book of the Dragonriders of Pern’s original trilogy. It is published after Dragonsinger, leaving the Harper Hall in a pleasant state of journeyman-Menolly glow, to come back to Jaxom and Ruth, a loose end not yet tied up.

That said, the recommended order of reading, according to a statement made on The Other Wiki, is to complete the Harper Hall first, then come back to this. We’ll take that route, even though it breaks the order of publication. So, for any characters that we meet here that we’ve explored in Dragondrums, they were first mentioned here and then later backfilled in. I’ll do what I can to try and remember that myself as we go along.

The spoilertext prologue reappears here, but this time does its great to go through a systematic version of all the events of ancient times to the current one, including summaries of the first two volumes that would be roundly denounced as hagiography were they to appear in something claiming to be a historical text. Considering the constants of the Pernese universe, i suppose such fawning was inevitable, but a person starting on this book would have a much better opinion of everyone than we do, having gone through and seen all of the nasty, horrible things that happen.

The White Dragon: Introduction

While Dragonflight and Dragonquest had time and place markers in relation to their actions, The White Dragon introduces us to the idea of a Pernese system of measuring epochs. Turns of the planet, and various Terra-influenced timekeeping divisions of that (sevendays, for example) and of single rotations of the planet (hours) have been introduced and used casually without any backstory, suggesting the timekeeping system hasn’t changed a whole lot. Since there are records of the very distant past available, this makes sense. And while the have been hints of measuring greater lengths of time (Intervals, Long or Short), there hasn’t really been a method for standardizing those measures in place, obliquely or explicitly.

So when Chapter One opens up with a time designation, “Present Pass, 12th Turn”, and so we now finally have a method by which the epochs of Pern are kept. The use of “Present Pass” seems, on its face, to be in the same vein as the various egocentricities of Terra, like “anno domini”, “common era”, or “the xth year of Emperor Y”, except those methods indicate a starting point from which all things flow, or count how many times the epoch has changed since the first.

The choice of “Present Pass”, though, instead of “Xth Pass” is a decision to avoid connecting to history – a way of looking at things that mirrors how the dragons are supposedly uninterested in much of the past or the future. In this kind of system, when the existential threat arrives, everything shrinks to the question of surviving, with little regard for the idea that this has happened before. In a world that didn’t have the past staring them in the face every time Thread came, that didn’t have access to the artifacts and Records of the past, and didn’t have, say, the ability to travel into the past, perhaps the idea of naming everything in relation to the immediate present would make more sense. This sort of timing system might have been workable in the very first book, before anything else was established, but even then, as time and books go on, this same question would appear. Given the ability to move through the past by thinking about the time where one wants to go, most of these Lost Knowledge questions should be answerable. With enough hops backward, and so long as one stays above high enough, the only possible problem would be jumping into the middle of Threadfall. That could be mitigated, though, through the same careful keeping of records. Land at the end of the last Fall, study the records to know which days had Thread where, hop back to the beginning of those records, study new records, lather, rinse, repeat. On the way back, chart out how one is going to get forward again, and then just copy and take forward the missing information. Since our protagonists at Benden have demonstrable curiosity about the ancients, this should be some form of systematic knowledge collection.

If unwilling to risk dragonriders, then surely the Harpers, as keepers of the teaching songs, would have extensive archives about various things that they have been preserving for many years. And many copyists taking the oldest records and recopying them, year after year after year. It’s how the actual medieval period kept knowledge circulating from generation to generation. With knowledge written down, even if encoded in the equivalents of alchemical formulas or the esoteric writings of mystic paths and secret societies, there’s less opportunity for things to die off because the single repositories of knowledge die before they can pass everything on. Even then, the time-travelers could hop back and collect the last of the knowledge before someone dies.

With the setup that we have, there should be no reason for any sort of knowledge to have been lost permanently. The only issues that appear to be affecting temporal travel of the sort you would find in a Connie Willis novel is that being alive where you have already been alive is taxing on the sanity. So that may preclude collecting knowledge in your own lifetime, but since Lessa demonstrated you can travel back to times before your own birth, the gap of knowledge would be recent history, and that should be fillable by those who are the historians of this era. “Present Pass” suggests that world-destroying cataclysms happen a regular basis, and those same cataclysms regularly make the past inaccessible. Or uninteresting, despite the clear utility demonstrated in knowing what the past has to offer to fight Thread and develop plans.

The most forgiving Doylist interpretation suggests that the extent of “the past” that was available to Pern hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet, so the author was making sure they weren’t tied to a particular chronology that would be too limiting. By this point, though, there’s been too much of the past insinuated or uncovered for this ahistory to work out. Even if the full extent of what happened on Pern to this point is never revealed, there’s too much history right now for people to pretend or to believe that the present is really the only thing that’s important.

Let’s call this Pass what it is, in relation to all the other Passes that have happened before.

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11 thoughts on “The White Dragon: An A-History

  1. J. Random Scribbler June 11, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I had entirely forgotten about the whole “Present Pass” thing. Ultimately I agree with your Doylist interpretation; I think Anne McCaffrey had not fully worked out how many Passes had happened since the arrival of the original colonists.

    By the time I was involved in the fandom, that had been settled and most clubs referred to the Passes by number, especially since different clubs were set in different Passes. I still don’t remember whether the people in the books started referring to Passes by number, though.

  2. genesistrine June 11, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    surely the Harpers, as keepers of the teaching songs, would have extensive archives about various things that they have been preserving for many years

    But do they? They have archivists, but we don’t know what the archives contain. What we know of the history that is passed on is that it’s about Heroic Dragonriders (Moreta, Torene); we haven’t heard about any noble Lords or clever weavers or brave peasant girls or crafty detectives.

    Maybe the Harpers are supporting this weird ahistoric culture. We’re talked about Space Amish before, and this could be another way the original colonists intended to keep their society static.

  3. aussiesmurf June 12, 2015 at 1:10 am

    I have been hanging out for this book ever since I discovered this series (partway through Dragonsinger).

    The White Dragon was the book that resonates with me strongly because :

    1. It had a teenaged male protagonist (like yours truly at the time).
    2. Even at my age, I could appreciate how deeply flawed Jaxom was in so many ways. I’ve made this reference before, but I was fascinated by him in the Holden Caulfield-esque kind of way.
    3. There was some serious plot progression in the second half of the book in the Southern Continent.

    I’m looking forward to / dreading (SPOILER IN TERMS OF MENTIONING CHARACTERS) the interactions with Menolly, Corana and Sharra.

  4. boutet June 12, 2015 at 11:27 am

    It’s a bit odd, too, that they put their eras into the hands of natural events. Mostly we do cycles of time that we can’t effect by natural event (day, year) and then build human-made cultural stuff in and around it (7 day week with 1 rest day), and then the really big stuff is culturally chosen rather than nature-based. Like you’ve mentioned with religion-based year 0 and eras by emperor and dynasty.

    Here they’re putting big things into the hands of nature, counting only by natural event. It’s like they’re saying that people don’t control the world but are only trying to survive in it (which is accurate in the literal sense but not how humans as a whole tend to position themselves in the world). Maybe it’s supposed to reflect the fact that humans are not native species to this world? The world’s time is counted by nature and not by people. Doesn’t explain the sevenday though.

    Given F’lar’s positioning in the world (and ego) I would expect that we would be in whatever year of F’lar. Or maybe whatever year of Robinton.

  5. Firedrake June 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    boutet, one might hypothesise that this timekeeping system has been set up deliberately to remind people that Thread is The Most Important Thing – though clearly, given the situation at the start of Dragonflight, it didn’t work.

    I think that part of the problem here (and yes, I’m Doylist by nature) is that the original stories built the world as needed to make particular things happen: we need a lost princess who gets a dragon and a new kingdom, so we need a world where stuff like that can happen. Then they were hugely successful, and more books were needed, and things like Fax’s takeover of multiple Holds get elided into the background because OK, the first book is canonical and we have to admit it happened, but that sort of thing doesn’t fit into the world we’re now building and we’d like to ignore it please.

  6. boutet June 12, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    @firedrake I can see the Doylist stuff but I often find it much less interesting than understanding the world in a Watsonian way. It’s like… a game of history and anthropology. Here are the documents we have! What were these people/this world/this society like?

    Then again I was a lit major. I could only get away with “What was the author of this poem thinking when they wrote this?” “Maybe someone will pay for this and I can eat today!” so many times 😛

  7. Silver Adept June 12, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    @ genesistrine –

    It’s possible, but, as chris the cynic (and others) has mentioned regularly in other times and places, stories are one of the most durable ways of passing along important knowledge. The Harpers, as keepers of songs, should be aware of what other songs are out there, whether as sea shanties, mnemonics for their Craft, or other exercises that humans naturally do so as to keep the right rhythm of a task going. While they may never make it to Teaching Songs, there are clearly other bits of culture around, and if the Harpers have been trying to stomp them out, they’re failing. (Perhaps because not all Lord Holders are Yanus.)

    While a comprehensive cataloging of all the things that have happened from Landing to the now point is going to take time, it is possible with the temporal travel abilities of dragons. Lost knowledge shouldn’t be possible, because someone can always go back and get it. Which means someone in this Pass should be from a future Pass, observing and recording to send forward at the appropriate time.

    @ boutet –

    I’m guessing that we’re always going to get our stories in the middle of a Pass, so that we don’t have to think about the possibility of a “Current Interval” timeframe – with the fact that the intervals can either be 200 or 400 Turns long (on average), that would mean the majority of Pern history is outside the time period where the dragonriders are immediately relevant. Is that just not captured or recorded anywhere?

    It really does seem like everyone that keeps records would do so by measuring the epochs most relevant to them – Hold records in the year of the reign of their Holder, Craft records in the year of their Craftmaster, and dragonrider records in the year of their Senior Weyrwoman (since the Weyrleader changes, potentially, at every mating flight). All of these systems would also allow for flexibility of when, so long as nobody ever recited a list of epoch markers or otherwise fixed the timeline in a way that required continuity, and they would make more sense.

    Yet all we have is “Present Pass”

  8. genesistrine June 12, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    @Silver Adept: It’s possible, but, as chris the cynic (and others) has mentioned regularly in other times and places, stories are one of the most durable ways of passing along important knowledge. The Harpers, as keepers of songs, should be aware of what other songs are out there

    That’s my point.

    The Harpers are the keepers of songs and stories – they decide which ones make it into the canon. What gets told, what gets archived, what’s “important”. We know they haven’t bothered to learn or disseminate some songs, like the sea shanty Menolly has to copy out because the Masterharper has decided it’s time to get Pernese communities to be a bit less insular. Which implies that they knew perfectly well they were insular before and didn’t care if they stayed that way.

    I don’t think they’ve tried to stamp out non-canon songs and stories as such, but if those aren’t being widely disseminated or archived they’re at risk of being mutated, forgotten or wiped out by Harper earworms, especially since they’re obviously not really important since the Harpers aren’t interested in them….

    We’ve never found out how many Pernese can read and write, and it’s a certainty that there aren’t any independent archives (though I like to think of some eccentric Lord or Lady collecting Songs of the Smallholders or suchlike).

    While a comprehensive cataloging of all the things that have happened from Landing to the now point is going to take time, it is possible with the temporal travel abilities of dragons.

    It’s possible, but no-one’s interested in doing it. F’lar and Lessa do some rummaging around in Records in the first book, but it’s all about finding stuff they can use now – they’re not interested in history, in how things might have been different, in how things came to be the way they are, in finding out. And nobody else seems to be either.

    As we’ve said before, Pernese seem to be an astonishingly unimaginative lot. Along with no sense of history no-one seems to have any idea about changing history – no-one’s sending a load of weyrlings back to help Moreta so she doesn’t kill herself lugging vaccine around; Lytol’s never tempted to beg or bribe a rider to get him back to where he can warn himself to swerve left instead of right so his dragon doesn’t die; Lessa doesn’t go back and flamethrower Fax out of existence before he murders her entire family.

  9. Only Some Stardust June 12, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I always managed to head-canon it as ‘pass-interval’ without noticing that was what I was doing before, heh. See, humans record distances of time between natural events, so keeping track of one thread period to another would be important to them. From a dragon rider standpoint, being able to say ‘The weyrleaders of Nth pass started this policy against thread’ would very be useful and important to them (if they ever actually did any innovating like normal humans, of course). I never had any problem buying that. I can even sort of buy why no secondary, more personal system has never developed: there has never BEEN a ‘Christ’, ‘Buddha’, or an Emperor on Pern. Although, you’d think they’d track the number of years since colonization! 9000/1000/whatever P.C (/Post-Colonization) would be a nice, informational number.

    I vaguely remember hearing something about ‘stable time loops’ as a theory, kind of like J.K Rowling. You can only change time if it’s something that ‘could’ have happened or was already meant to happen. They didn’t ‘see’ Sirius die, blah blah blah. (That, and messing with time can drive you maaaddd or cause you to die from you trying to kill your double, blah blah) It’s stupid, especially as you’d think at least one character in universe would ask about it and try it out to find that out for themselves.

  10. Firedrake June 13, 2015 at 2:30 am

    genesistrine: once you start seriously using time-travel, the story becomes about the time-travel, and it’s evidently meant to be a story about dragons. I mean, a society that made full use of time travel could be a really interesting (if challenging) place to write about, but it wouldn’t be (and wouldn’t ever have been) a society that could be host to a story like the original Weyr Search.

  11. genesistrine June 13, 2015 at 3:06 am

    @Firedrake: yes, but that’s the Doylist explanation! 🙂

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