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.