Dragonsdawn: Eccentric Orbits

Last time, the colony ships arrived at their new home, with lots of pettiness, racial stereotyping, and bets coming to pass. And it sounded like the Federated Sentient Planets still had a few issues of their own to work out.

Dragonsdawn: Part One: Content Notes: None noticed

The action returns with Sallah, nearly bored out of her skull on her current watch, inquiring of one of her fellows’ work. It’s on the entity that will be called the Red Star, whose orbit pattern is irregular and presence hasn’t been adequately explained by anything other than a highly improbable sequence of events where everything just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The actual data on where the planet is has it just past the farthest point out of its solar orbit, if I remember the right meaning of “aphelion”, and Captain Keroon comments that there should be a very nice meteorite show of the Oort cloud material the wanderer is pulling with it in about eight years. Knowing what we know about Threadfall, that suggests the colonists will be in for a rude awakening in about eight years time.

Except for something that’s clawing at my brain, insisting that astronomical orbits do not work this way, with the data we have about Pern. Namely, Threadfall lasts about fifty revolutions, then there’s a break of about two hundred revolutions. If the wandering planet takes that long to go around and come back, it doesn’t seem like it should be getting into spore range so quickly after it reaches an apex point, unless that apex point is really close to Pern. If that’s the case, though, it seems like Thread should fall while the wanderer is both coming and going, but also that it seems unlikely that there would be some form of semi-constant fall for fifty revolution cycles – at some point, Pern would have to be out of range thanks to its own orbit. If Pern is dragging the wanderer with it, then the orbit would be utterly messed up and unpredictable, and there would also likely be no relief at all from Thread… I don’t know. The way things are described, with a comet-like orbit attributed to the Red Star, it just doesn’t feel like it would produce fifty revolutions of spores and then take two hundred of them off.

The colonists aren’t taking any interest in the wanderer, suggesting it might either fall into the sun or exit the system again. After that, it’s a quick time jump to the point where landing actually commences, with cheers as the shuttles launch to prepare the new world for its inhabitants.

While Sallah watches, the narrative spins over to Avril Bitra and Stev Kimmer, where Avril is plotting and Stev is her backup plan, now that Benden is uninterested in her. Rather than it being about sex, it’s apparently about gems – Avril has a flawless ruby inherited from a member of her family seven generations back that mined it from Pern on the initial exploratory survey. (Although, with lines like “At his suspicious expression, she leaned gracefully against the small table, arms folded across her well-formed breasts, and grinned.”, I think we’re not supposed to forget that she’s the boohissslut of this book.) Along with the notes from this distant ancestor, Avril has a plan to not “remain at the end of the galaxy on a seventh-rate world.” Stev’s in, because greed, and Avril knows it. All she needs now is Nabol.

I might point out that there seems to be a rather long streak of making the people who will be the namesake of various Holds like the people who will eventually be Lords of them. This seems like a storytelling shortcut, and one I’m sure fans appreciate, but I think sounds a bit like effort wasn’t put in.

The story shifts to the landing of the shuttles, which goes completely smoothly, much to the consternation of the pilot, Kenjo, who had been expecting something to go wrong, and both Benden and Boll hotfoot it to be the first people setting foot on Pern as soon as the shuttle stops. As the pilot lets all the other passengers on board out, Benden and Boll give the formal welcome, claim, and naming of the planet, flanked by the standards of the Federated Sentient Planets and the new banner of Pern: “blue, white, and yellow, with the design of sickle and plow in the upper left-hand corner, signifying the pastoral nature of the colony.”

There’s a chapter break here, and the next section begins with the hustle and bustle of setting up a settlement and keeping everyone busy, as Sallah observes the work – including pictures of a campfire meal and a round of “Home on the Range” started by harmonica, joined by recorder, and then finally by voice – and participates in shuttle runs. Really, the best part of this is the following line: “Some wit had put up street signs with estimated distances in light-years for Earth, First Centauri, and the homeworlds of the other members of the Federated Sentient Planets.” That’s the kind of thing I would expect to see in colonists.

After Sallah’s dry segment, the narrative shifts to the girl Sallah helped when they were unsteady on their feet in the last chapter. Sorka is uninterested in the historic nature of it all and just wants to get planetside, instead of waiting. So she goes to the garden, where she meets a boy that tells her to go away and doesn’t want to say his name. Recognizing their shared accent (Irish), she gets him to open up with his name (Sean) and his love of horses, before this:

“And no more gardai.” Sorka grinned mischievously at him. She had just figured out that he must be one of the traveling folk. Her father had mentioned that there were some along the colonists. “And no more farmers chasing you out of their fields, and no more move-on-in-twenty-four-hours, or lousy halts, and no roads but the ones you make yourself, and – oh, just lots of things you really want, and none of the bad things.”
“Can’t be all that good.” Sean remarked cynically.

The fact that there are still Travelers in this supposed future society, and that they still appear to have the same stigma attached to them says the FSP is pretty clearly not a Trek-like utopia. If Pern is supposed to be utopic, whether in a positive or a Randian way, there’s a lot of work being done here to set up interpersonal conflicts and societal ones. Even if you have an the land you can carry and work, it seems unlikely that everyone will be both self-sufficient and not give a damn about their neighbors.

As it is, the announcement for another shuttle drop has Sean run away after expressing some fear at it, for which Sorka tries to cheer him up with vidscreen show references. After that, there’s more of the logistical drops, the impregnation of livestock (and reference to both Kitti Ping and her granddaughter, Wind Blossom, using genetic manipulation techniques to ensure the next generations can adapt, if nature doesn’t produce the right results), and Sallah conversing again with Sorka’s family after Avril heads off for “gravity ball” with one of the other crew members, about the anticipation of going down to the planet, and then the next day at the shuttle, where everyone goes down and Sorka gets a full view of the new planet, and its associated gravity, as Sallah and her copilot continue to make their runs. The continued insistence on conservation of fuel has Sallah look into the consumption rates and the available fuel left, where the numbers don’t match, by her calculations. Sallah tucks it away as a thing to keep an eye on, after speculating a bit about who might be hoarding or hiding fuel.

What good would it do anyone to hoard fuel? Avril? But Avril and Kenjo were not at all friendly. In fact, Avril had made snide remarks about Kenjo on several occasions, unacceptable ethnic-based slander.
“Of course, if you wanted to put someone off the track …” Sallah murmured to herself.

…from the person who had quite a bit of things to say about Avril and her ethnic heritage, just not in something that she thought looked like racism.

That’s another chapter break, and so we’re going to stop here. I’m beginning to believe these first segments needed an axe and their plot-relevant threads to appear in flashback. That assumes, of course, that I’ve figured out what the plot-relevant threads even are.


15 thoughts on “Dragonsdawn: Eccentric Orbits

  1. Firedrake June 2, 2016 at 8:46 am

    I have heard from Pern fans that somebody did work out some plausible orbits (and indeed that’s why the change in Threadfall patterns in the early books), but I have never seen such a document myself – and that was before the claims made here anyway.

  2. depizan June 2, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Avril has a plan to not “remain at the end of the galaxy on a seventh-rate world.”

    Then why in hell did you sign on to this, as far as I can tell, entirely voluntary enterprise? The stated intention of this settlement IS to be far from the rest of the galaxy on a less than first-rate world (so the rest of the galaxy will leave them alone).

    (Also, what good would jewelry be on an agricultural colony world? Is the character supposed to be acting in completely nonsensical ways or does McCaffrey just suck at coming up with sensible motivations for “villains”?)

  3. genesistrine June 2, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    the farthest point out of its solar orbit, if I remember the right meaning of “aphelion”

    You do – aphelion is the furthest point from the sun, and perihelion the closest. Though, since I feel particularly pedantic today, the preferred terminology for stars that aren’t the Sun is “apastron” and “periastron” (and the general terms are apoapsis and periapsis). Though again, once people are living in multiple star systems vocabulary could easily simplify.

    And yes again, astronomical orbits absobloodylutely do not work that way. If something’s at its furthest point from whatever it’s orbiting it’s going to take half its orbital period to get to the closest point; it won’t take 8 years to get there, hang around for 50 and then take the long way back along the scenic route for 192 years. FFS. We can tell where the “modern” Pernese got their incompetence from.

    If it’s doing that it’s being propelled. It’s being driven. Which in fact would be a really neat explanation for the Red Star’s 50-years-near-Pern orbit – we have descriptions of it shooting and erupting; maybe that’s not shooting Thread – maybe it’s attitude jets!

    Though of course that then raises the question WHY THE HELL AREN’T THEY TRYING TO TALK TO THE DRIVERS?!

    Because Pernese. Pah.

    And as for Avril’s plan – we’re in the Uncanny Valley of get-rich-quick schemes here. So her granny brought one jewel back rather than a boxload? And never sold it? So at some point a descendant could make a 30-year-long round trip to pick up more and get (allegedly) super-rich? (And considering we’ve been making artificial rubies since the 19th century I suspect Avril would make more money if she stayed at home and got a job in McDonalds for 30 years.)

    I do still wonder what her original Underpants Gnome plan of:
    (1) marry Admiral Benden
    (2) …
    (3) PROFIT! was meant to be, though….

    @depizan: because sexyboohissevilsluts love jewellery.

  4. emmy June 2, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    It’s not meant to be any good on an agricultural colony world… but the actual plan is still nonsensical, considering the time and cost vs the rewards.

    It’s implied that her original plan was to be empress of pern, with Benden as Emperor, figuring that he could easily rule the whole place if he wanted to, but even that plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The rewards of being, potentially, the woman with the highest social status on this little agricultural backwater don’t seem like they’d be of much interest to the way her personality is otherwise laid out.

    Well, as long as her personality is only laid out as ‘eeeeevil’ then the inconsistency doesn’t show up as much, but….

  5. depizan June 2, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    No version of Avril’s plan seems to make any sense. Is there any reason she’d even think she could make a return journey? Do they have fuel for that? (Yes, I see the new side plot of fuel hording, but there shouldn’t be enough fuel even with hording for a return trip. Unless one was actually planned into the voyage to start with.)

    And who in hell wants to be empress of a tiny town? Seriously, this is a colony of five thousand* people who all seem to think they’re going to be going it on their own. Did no one mention that part to her? Did she think she could sway them from their anarchic libertarian ways?

    *There are high schools with that population!

  6. Silver Adept June 4, 2016 at 10:55 am

    The plausible orbits documents and discussions probably still exist in a forum somewhere, or archived in a stash meant for Pern fans. I hope they keep a good hold of them.

    As the went they would use “aphelion”, I strongly suspect everyone that’s human in the FSP can trace lineage back to colonists from Terra, so the popular Sol-based weird would probably spread. I’m intrigued about the existence of terms used for other stars, though.

    Although we all assume, based on calendar markings and the like, that the Pern Turn is equivalent of the Terran year, I don’t know that it’s ever explicitly been said that’s true. Yet. So, until these colonists explicitly link it up, we could speculate about different revolution periods that might make it possible. It still seems like the best explanation is… “That’s no moon…”

    As for Avril’s plan, I think we’re supposed to take it on face value that the clearly sexy black woman is also the greedy black woman, and so the plan, such that it was, was to take over and reject the pastoral life in favor of strip-mining the planet of ores and gems and shipping it all off back to the FSP for an immense profit. Because one ancestor made mention of all those things on the planet.

    Never mind the practicalities of achieving this goal, because clearly all Avril needed to do was twist Benden around her little finger and it would all be hers. Until it didn’t work, anyway.

    The plan itself is a forest of cocowhats, and it serves mostly to remind us about Avril as a boohissgreedygolddiggerslut. It’s not like the author has a type for their villains, or anything.

  7. genesistrine June 4, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Oh sure, I can see -helion coming to mean “the star in this planetary system we’re in right now” once humans are piloting starships round other systems, rather than using, say, peri-Rukbat and apo-Rukbat.

    As for different revolution periods, that doesn’t help at all, I’m afraid. However Turns and years are related the ratio between the orbital periods is still the same. Orbital mechanics are actually really simple in essence – you only need a couple of parameters to work out an orbit – the orbital period and the distance from what it’s orbiting are in a strict ratio, for example, and with one of those and the eccentricity of the orbit (the difference between how close it gets at periapsis and how far out at apoapsis) you can work out its speed at any point.

    (It gets more complicated when you’ve got more orbiting bodies, as we’ve already seen from Wansor’s discoveries in DQ, but planets are so much smaller than the stars they orbit that their influence is pretty minor.)

    The problem with the Red Star is that we know its orbital period – 250 times whatever Pern’s is – and that means its average distance from Rukbat is 40 times Pern’s. This means that in order for it to get close to Pern it has to get really close in to Rukbat, which means it should be moving really fast at that point – that’s a cometary orbit, and comets only stay close in for weeks or months. That’s because of how gravity and orbits work. (The mass or size doesn’t make any difference – it’s the feather-and-cannonball-fall-at-the-same-speed thing.)

    I suppose you could try and work out some weird loopy orbit where it gets close enough to the inner planets to have its orbit deflected and hang around in the inner system for 50 years like some kind of perfect multi-cushion billiards shot before being fired out into the Oort cloud again, but it would have to be doing that consistently and predictably for 9 Passes at least, since they’ve got Fall charts and the whole Star Stone/Finger Rock arrangement. It would be a ridiculously delicate setup, and you’d think someone would have thought of ramming a colony ship into it* – you wouldn’t need much to mess up such a complex orbit.

    *Yeah, all right. Any sentence with the words “Pernese” and “thought” also includes the implicit phrase “ha ha are you kidding?”, I know….

  8. Silver Adept June 5, 2016 at 12:33 am

    There’s an extra problem that presents itself with the orbital mechanics – the Long Interval. The cometary orbit occasionally gets deflected by the gravity of the other planets such that no Thread gets dropped to Pern. Unless the other planets are absorbing all the Thread that the Red Star dragged in with it, I would think anything that can move the wanderer like that would disrupt this conveniently perfect orbit for raining death on the colonies, and that a long time ago, before the EEC cane out, the Red Star would be long gone.

    I’m not sure this necessarily qualifies as hard or soft science fiction at this point, because both of them generally require you to have done your research a little bit.

  9. genesistrine June 5, 2016 at 4:25 am

    Oh, it’s science fantasy. Like the Star Wars series. A perfectly respectable genre of fantasy that uses scientific terminology instead of magic terminology.

    I do find it funny that she brags about getting Jack Cohen in to do the ecology (with no notable effects that I remember; we’ll see…) but actually manages to make the orbital mechanics worse.

  10. alexseanchai June 5, 2016 at 8:21 am

    Spoilers for All the Weyrs of Pern: Znxvat gur Erq Fgne pnerra bss vagb fcnpr naq gnxr vgf gnvy bs Guernq jvgu vg vf n ynetr cneg bs jung gur punenpgref ner qbvat va guvf obbx. Vg vaibyirf gvzr geniry, gur ratvarf sebz gur pbybal fuvcf (frg gb rkcybqr), naq fbzr ernyyl fuvggl beovgny zrpunavpf haqrefgnaqvat. Ohg vs lbh cergraq gur Erq Fgne’f beovg znqr frafr gb ortva jvgu, guvf–fgvyy qbrfa’g znxr frafr, orpnhfr gur svefg Ybat Vagreiny fubhyq unir xabpxrq gur Erq Fgne’f nccrnenaprf bhg bs nyvtazrag jvgu gur Fgne Fgbarf! Gaaaah. McCaffrey, why you gotta suck? I used to love you!

  11. genesistrine June 5, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    With, I daresay, some reason qrsvavgryl abg chyyrq bhg bs fbzrbar’f oruvaq jul gung pbhyqa’g’ir orra qbar bbb, fnl, avar Cnffrf rneyvre? V jbaqre, pbhyq vg unir gb qb jvgu fbzr enaqbz obbuvffterrqltbyqqvttrefyhg anzvat ab anzrf?

    Not that the Red Star problem is an easy one to fix, but damn. At least just ignore it, don’t make it worse!

    The only fix I’ve managed to come up with is having the Red Star as some kind of exotic matter and/or extradimensional and handwaving that that means it’s not affected by gravity in the way normal matter is. So you could have the colonists noting that it was in the wrong place in its orbit as predicted by the survey team, huh, weird, that’s a bit worrying, what if the survey team messed up with something else, but since they’re focussing on the immediate colony setup needs they put it to one side.

  12. Michael I June 6, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    I think the reason gung gurl qba’g gel vg rneyvre vf gung orsber gurl pna npghnyyl trg nebhaq gb frevbhfyl cynaavat fbzrguvat yvxr gung, gur arprffnel xabjyrqtr onfr vf ybfg.

    (Abgr gung gurl’er bayl noyr gb znxr gur nggrzcg orpnhfr Nvinf obgu unf npprff gb ybfg xabjyrqtr naq unf nyernql svtherq bhg n cyna.)

  13. genesistrine June 7, 2016 at 12:00 am

    Maybe. But they znantr gb frevbhfyl cyna qentbaf, naq Guernqsnyy punegf, naq zvav-Fgbaruratrf, naq tehof, naq qevyyvat bhg gur byqre Ubyqf naq Jrlef jvgu zvavat znpuvarel, juvpu V’q guvax jbhyq unir na rdhnyyl-yvzvgrq be zber xabjyrqtronfr.

    But we’ll see….

  14. Michael I June 7, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    One of the things that becomes clear, though, va gur Nvinf fgbelyvar vf gung gurl’ir ybfg n YBG bs grpuabybtl.

    Bar jrveq abgr vf ubj fhecevfrq gur “tbbq thlf” ner ng gur bccbfvgvba gung qrirybcf jura Nvinf ervagebqhprf gur sbetbggra grpu. V nterr jvgu gur vqrn bs eryrneavat gur sbetbggra grpu naq nyfb jvgu gur vqrn bs gelvat gb ryvzvangr gur guerng bs Guernq. Ohg nyy bs guvf vf pnhfvat zber fbpvny punatr guna Crearfr fbpvrgl unf frra va praghevrf (cebonoyl fvapr gur urpgvp lrnef nsgre gur svefg Guernqsnyy). Naq gurl’er fhecevfrq gung guvf erfhygf va bccbfvgvba? Vg jbhyq or haoryvrinoyr vs vg QVQA’G.

  15. genesistrine June 8, 2016 at 12:02 am

    There does seem to have been a qrsvavgr crevbq bs Yhqqvgr-vfz va rneyl Crea uvfgbel: gur ynof gurl svaq unir orra fgevccrq. Univat abg ernq nalguvat zhpu cnfg Qnja V’ir ab vqrn vs guvf vf rire nqqerffrq (gubhtu zl org vf abg), ohg V’z qryvtugrq gb urne NZ npghnyyl unf fbzr bccbfvgvba jvgu zber vqrnf guna “zhfg or cerggvrfg, nyfb evpu!”

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