The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall: The Survey: P.E.R.N.(c)

Welcome back. While we’re here in the First Pass, we’re taking a look at this collection of short stories that will look in on Landing and its successors and give us some extra perspective.

The spoiler data for this volume includes a timeline of the stories themselves, including the years of the deaths of major characters from Dragonsdawn, as well as some very interesting events that may or may not be covered in the stories.

The Survey: P.E.R.N.c: Content Notes: Persistence beyond sense

This story opens with the survey team collecting data. More specifically:

“It’s the third planet we want in this pernicious system,” Castor said in a totally totally jaundiced tone, his eyes fixed on the viewscreen.

Hang on a second.

  • Pernicious:
    1. Causing much harm in a subtle way.
    2. Causing death or injury; deadly.
  • Jaundiced:
    1. Affected with jaundice.
    2. Prejudiced; envious; as, a jaundiced judgment.

That’s two adjectives that should not be together – potential death and prejudicial statements. Characters that are flip when death is possible generally don’t end up doing well at all.

Furthermore, the survey team seems to be working under an artificial deadline.

Looking up from her terminal, Shavva screwed up her face for a moment before she spoke. “I’m happy to report that that’ll work out fine. Pity we can’t have a look at the outer edge of the system,” she added. “I’d love to have a look at those heavy-weight planets and the Oort cloud, but that can’t be done when we’ve got to do an entry normal to the ecliptic. As it is, the slingshot will only give us ten days on the surface.”

The explanation for the timetable is that Rukbat Three is the fifth of seven planets to be surveyed on this swing through space. Additionally, this survey team has had approximately one death for each of the planets that have visited, each with an initial at the end of their reports indicating whether the planet would be suitable for humanoids. Two on the last, one on the first, one on the third (and Castor injured), and none on a planet the probes had said was entirely lethal, so nobody went down there to die.

Probes are dispatched to see if Rukbat Three will support life, and a report dispatched back to the Federated Sentient Planets about the recent casualties and reports – using the names of the dead scientists as the names for the planets that claimed their lives. There’s a short discussion about the presence of an Oort Cloud and a theory that suggests there’s some form of space virus that kills life in planetary systems that comes from Oort clouds, with the same name as was used in Dragonsdawn to talk about whether Thread – now we know what the Hoyle Wickramansingh theory is, at least. Thankfully, at least a few of the crew still subscribe to Occam, suggesting that absent observation of a space virus, meteoric impacts are probably the more likely reason worlds get destroyed.

The away team preps for a landing on the planet, with Shavva mentally cursing out Flora, the dead botanist, for not having packed proper supplies on the mission that got her killed, as she offers assistance to help pack supplies. After a run down of the modified and doubled duties of the surviving crew, the probes report back that the planet is very much Earthlike, so much as to warrant a beginning designation of P.E., Parallels Earth, the first half of Rukbat Three’s eventual name.

Before we continue, though, I really want to know why this survey few hasn’t aborted and noped their way back to their origin point. They’ve lost four people and a fifth is injured, and it’s pretty clear they’ve fallen below the minimum threshold needed to do an effective job. Yes, they can do the work on an emergency basis by reassigning roles, but at some point, the mission commander probably needed to assess things realistically and give a great big NOPE and abort.

So what awaits the survey team if they do? Well they be prosecuted or court-nartialed for a dereliction of duty? Would their employers refuse to pay them for the work they’ve done? Or worse, are the FSP such cheapskates that they’ve only given the survey team enough fuel that they have to complete all their gravity slings to be able to get back to where they came from? From what we have heard of the FSP (from our pastorally-biased colonists, admittedly), they’re run by or in thrall to megacorps looking to squeeze every ounce of profit and resources our of their planets. We saw that the colonists were only able to raise enough funds the a one way trip. So there’s a strong chance that the survey team can’t abort but can only press on and get what they can before they all die. How little life means when you have so much of it to use, maybe. This is about half to three-quarters of a whatfruit’s worth of WTF.

The strange circles in the vegetation are noted, but since the crew is so sparse, they think of it as a local fungus and launch the shuttle to investigate further. After a short piece on how Castor, the most experienced climber, feels that he could have prevented the most recent two deaths (by a landslide) if he had been uninjured, that is. There’s a lot of feeling personally responsible for the deaths of others on this crew.

On the planet, the crew takes soil and rock samples as they try to puzzle out why there seems to be overlapping rings of growth in different generations of vegetation. Marine life samples get taken, but the team notes a lack of ruminant creatures and vegetation grazers on the land, although they do encounter creatures first described more like flying barges and a “ten-centimeter-thick, seven-meter-long example” of a reptiloid. Before we find out why those barges are called wherries:

“Wherries, that’s what they were called,” he said suddenly that afternoon. “Vessels that were used to ferry stuff between the English isle and the European continent. Wherries, and call ’em the biggest life-forms seen in the report. Maybe the term’ll stick.” Liu rarely exercised that EEC team prerogative.

This is, in some ways, a testament to the large world built in these stories, that each of these prequel installments can reveal some of the mythology behind how things came to be in Ninth Pass Pern. That said, it would be nice if these bits and pieces were things from other worlds than Terra. We had a whole lot of Governor Emily Boll, hero of a non-Terra world, in the last book. She could have provided something to all of this.

The team also finds evidence of dragonets, by the cracked shells on the beach, but no actual dragonets, of course. Lots of insects, and evidence of the ruminants by bones in a tar pit, which does nothing to assuage the problem of the ruminants not being present in the present moment.

And some diamonds.

Rough stones, one as large as Shavva’s fist, were pried out of the soil. The team kept several as souvenirs; they were not particularly valuable otherwise, for the galaxy had produced many gemstones more exotic than these, though diamonds remained useful in technology for their durability and strength.

And, as if on cue, a reminder that there are other worlds out there. This does make Avril Bitra’s plan to grab gems and hightail it back to civilization look a little less brilliant – if the galaxy has moved on from the precious gems and metals of Terra and the like, then she wouldn’t be able to make it rich with the gems and metals she mines.

The team observes a very stinky creature, with no apparent eyes or mouth, get stuck by a needlethorn plant. Which they are intrigued by, because the plant doesn’t indiscriminately fire needles in all directions, but only in response to a stimulus. After spraying it with a quick-freeze, the team captures a small specimen for examination later. And discovers the glow fungus that night, before being able to observe the dragonets at play, making a rather apt observation of them.

“Sentient?” Shavva asked, wanting and yet not wanting those beautiful creatures to be the dominant sentient life-form of this planet.
“Marginally,” Liu murmured approvingly. “If they’re leaving eggs on a shoreline where storm waters could wash them away, they’re not possessed of very great intelligence.”
“Just beauty,” Ben said. “Perhaps we’ll find large and related types of the same evolutionary ancestors for you, Liu.”

I think that describes the dragonets, and the eventual dragons, pretty well – and also the humans that transformed the dragonets into dragons without implementing safeguards into them.

The continued investigation of the circles supports the idea of meteorite impacts, especially since the circles are planet-wide, but the team is very worried that they can’t find the actual meteorites that made the impact, and the pattern is wrong for a planet to have been whacked by space objects on a regular basis.

The northern continent has metals and gold, and also an interesting tree.

…a vigorous tree whose bark, when bruised in the fingers, gave off a pungent smell. That evening, she made an infusion of the bark, sniffing appreciatively of its aroma. Empiric tests showed it was not toxic, and her judicious sip of the infusion made her such with pleasure.
[…Liu tastes it and approves, and Ben tastes it when it’s ground and filtered like coffee…]
“A sort of combination of coffee and chocolate, I think, with a spicy aftertaste. Not bad.”

Yep, they discover the klah tree.

That pretty well seals it for Rukbat Three, with no casualties, and I appreciate someone actually testing the drink for toxicity before drinking it. With the track record the survey team has, this would turn out to be something that tastes fine, tests okay for toxicity, and then kills the drinker a couple days later, as it turns out that the chemical reactions in human stomachs create poisons, or something, but it was nice to have someone actually thinking about possible problems.

Rukbat Three’s final designation is P.E.R.N. (parallel Earth, resources negligible), with a small c in the corner to indicate it is suitable for colonization.

That is, if any colonial group wanted to settle on a pastoral planet, far off the established trade routes, and about as far from the center of the Federated Sentient headquarters as one could go in the known galaxy.

Which, coincidentally, will be exactly what the folks of Landing want.

That said, the survey team is recommending this planet for colonization despite the meteorological oddity that has just ravaged the planet. Even if it was a one-off, I would have thought evidence of a recent meteor shower would have been something to recommend more caution with regard to that planet. From what we see in Dragonsdawn, though, to the colonists, it seemed to come across as a curiosity of some sort, rather than as a possible issue for colonization.

Also, I’m still not sure how the survey ship doesn’t pass by the Oort cloud on the way in, or doesn’t dispatch a probe or two to examine the interesting parts, after the comment early on that probes are in plentiful supply. They might not have received any useful information either, but the issue of probes being mangled by the Oort cloud would be noticed much earlier in, and possibly a connection made between the probe destruction and the impact circles on the planet. The reason Pern exists is because both survey and colony ship arrive in between a Threadfall, and only the colony stays long enough to discover the truth. It seems like a smarter option for colonization would be to send a second, longer-term survey out to any planets that seemed promising to stay for a full planetary cycle, just in case the summers turn out to bake everything dry or the winters cover the planet in six inches of ice. And then, once the cycle survey is done, one can make recommendations for colonization. It still wouldn’t catch Threadfall, necessarily, but it would catch places that look nice and turn out not to be.

Next week, we get to talk to the dolphins, before they get their own book later.

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20 thoughts on “The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall: The Survey: P.E.R.N.(c)

  1. depizan September 8, 2016 at 10:20 am

    The continued investigation of the circles supports the idea of meteorite impacts, especially since the circles are planet-wide

    Unless the theory is that these are meteorite explosions (ala the theory for what happened at Tunguska), that doesn’t make any bloody sense. Meteorite impacts leave craters, not circles without vegetation.

    (And what happened to the Thread from these falls? What does it do after it eats a circle? Just…disappear? WHAT???)

  2. Wingsrising September 8, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    One minor thing that always bugged me about this story is that you’d think that “parallel Earth, resources negligible” describes a large percentage of the planets that eventually get colonized. You’d think that colonists would want a more original name rather than one shared with lots of other colony worlds.

  3. depizan September 8, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    And the rest of the planets colonized would presumably have been designated “parallel Earth, resources average” or “parallel Earth, resources extensive” (or something along those lines). So you’d have tons of PERNs, PERAs, and PEREs. (Or whatever they used for other quantities of resources.) Not terribly helpful.

    Also…what resources are they cataloging? Resources that would support a colony? Resources that would valuable (minerals or whatever)? Does the story elaborate?

  4. genesistrine September 8, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    The Hoyle/Wickramasinghe theory is an actual thing; they’re real scientists who proposed a panspermia/diseases-from-space theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_Wickramasinghe . (Sir Fred Hoyle is now deceased – fun fact; he’s probably best known for coining the term “Big Bang Theory”, and he deliberately chose a silly-sounding term because he thought it was a ridiculous idea – he was a proponent of Continuous Creation, in which new hydrogen comes into being between galaxies that are moving apart.) I can’t claim to have been even slightly convinced by their book (Lifecloud, 1978), but as a SF conceit it’s cool.

    A particularly weird thing to me is how untechnological these people are. No probes left in orbit to get a long-term view of climate change/weather cycles/vulcanism/etc etc, no telefactor droids that mean they can explore from orbit or altitude without risking personnel dying – they roll up a report and stuff it in a tube to send it!

    Not to mention that, like the vast majority of SF protagonists, they live in a world where no-one reads SF. This “one quick look at a planet then send colonists” thing has an entire subgenre of What Can Go Wrong fiction – Larry Niven’s Known Space series, for example, involves a number of planets that were settled when automatic probes reported back that they’d found suitable atmosphere/gravity/etc, and then turned out to be, for example, one high plateau over an otherwise uninhabitable atmosphere; a world where winds flatten everything in windy season, an “easter-egg” world where the human-habitable bit is the temperate zones. Slow poisons. Seasonal dangers. Wildlife behaviour patterns.

    @depizan: (And what happened to the Thread from these falls? What does it do after it eats a circle? Just…disappear? WHAT???)

    Dragonsdawn Thread gets big and wiggly and then dies. If it’s meant to be a biological weapon it’s a remarkably ineffectual one.

    And it’s so disappointing, as well. Second- and third-stage Thread should do something exciting, dammit!

  5. depizan September 8, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Dragonsdawn Thread gets big and wiggly and then dies.

    If it isn’t a biological weapon, it baffles me as to how it survives as a species. Unless it’s entire effective life cycle is in space and this landing on planets, eating stuff, and dying is an example of it ending up somewhere where it can’t reproduce or pupate or…whatever Thread that was in the right environment would do after eating stuff.

    Actually, even if it was a biological weapon, it’s baffling. Shouldn’t it eventually run out? Is someone restocking the Oort cloud?

    (If it were successfully living in and reproducing in the Oort cloud, it’s continued existence would make more sense. If it’s not, I am super confused.)

  6. WanderingUndine September 8, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    I enjoyed this story, but it is a bit illogical. I’ll give it 0.75 cocowhats. There will be more. *evil grin*

  7. genesistrine September 8, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    Well, the Red Star seems pretty active from what we saw of it when F’nor tried teleporting there. I can see Thread as spacefaring life from out in the Oort and Kuiper Clouds – latches on to comet-head-type bodies with water and organic matter, grows there and fires its spores off to hopefully hit other similar bodies and reproduce there.

    Then you could have it that when it accidentally hits Pern it gets an overdose of organics and oxygen that send it into a growth overdrive, but because of the gravity/air pressure it can’t grow into the spore-shooting reproductive form so it just dies off.

    And to be fair maybe that’s the idea in the books, but there’s no character who has the viewpoint to explain it. But I kind of doubt that….

  8. depizan September 8, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    @genesistrine

    It’s a good explanation. But, like you, I kinda doubt it’s canon. It doesn’t seem that hard to put enough information in the books to clarify that, even without having sufficiently scientific characters. (Also, the settler book would’ve been a good opportunity to HAVE characters with the scientific know how and tools and all, but nope, we can’t have anyone trying to do actual science.)

    Does anyone know why McCaffrey decided to retrofit this as science fiction? It really doesn’t seem like she had any interest in sciencing it up. Were things that were broadly sci-fi just selling better than fantasy at the time?

  9. genesistrine September 9, 2016 at 3:04 am

    @depizan: it’s always used science words and an SF setting, look at the DF prologue. Which I think was even the prologue to the very first story.

    And it works fine on that level; it’s just when AMC tries to do more explicitly sciency science fiction it shows that she really doesn’t get how science WORKS.

    Though it doesn’t help that she seemed to forget how to write interesting characters at some point before Dawn as well…

  10. Firedrake September 9, 2016 at 5:00 am

    This is a level of understanding of astrogation on par with Space:1999. “We only have ten days to explore the planet before the mothership is out of range!” Uh, nope nopity nope. It’s wildly inefficient to build the big ship (which has to have a ∆V reserve high enough to cross star systems, so it needs a high-efficiency and probably low-acceleration drive) without the trivial extra ∆V reserve to get into orbit of a planet it’s going past; you want to minimise what the lander has to do, because the lander needs a high-acceleration drive (to take off from the planet), which has lower specific impulse and takes a greater proportion of the ship’s mass as fuel.

    Also a long pass like this would take years. Think cometary orbit.

    genesistrine: And Larry Niven published those stories in the 1960s-1970s, well before Anne write this for publication in 1993. They were definitely part of the SF common knowledge.

    I went back and checked an early-edition paperback of Dragonflight, and that has the SFnal introduction. I still think I remember reading one without it, but I may well be wrong.

  11. depizan September 9, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    @genesistrine,

    She doesn’t get how science works, she doesn’t get how history works, it’s not at all clear she gets how governments work. Even her people are highly questionable at times. It just becomes this pile of “I don’t think that works that way.”

    Urgh. Couldn’t she have at least watched a few episodes of Star Trek before writing some of this stuff? It was bound to have been on in reruns on some station. Hell, I think classic Doctor Who did science better. :\

  12. genesistrine September 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    It’s in my 70s nubbly-purple Corgi edition that doesn’t mention any difference from the first edition. If there is an intro-free edition my guess would be that it was a later attempt to make the series seem more straight fantasy rather than offputting-rocketship-fiction.

    I had a quick rummage online to see if I could find images of the first magazine publication, just for the heck of it, but could only find the pages with illustrations. But that intro is very Campbellian; the not-myth-actually-SCIENCE! stuff is the kind of thing he adored, not to mention that it won the Hugo and Nebula back in the halcyon days when you could tell SF by its cover hang on a sec….

    And as well as the intro there’s things like agenothree and the eureka Arrhenius mycorrhiza plate that make it clear from the first book that they’re in our future.

  13. genesistrine September 9, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    @depizan: yeah. Oh god, yeah.

    It’s more tolerable when it’s more fantasy-flavoured, at least for me. “Classic” Ninth Pass Pern I can shade over the dodginess and enjoy for dragons and drama, but when she’s trying to do people in a scientific milieu it really, really shows the holes and lack of thought. Maybe I’m just less nitpicky about my fantasy reading, though….

    And I won’t hear a word against classic Dr Who, especially not Hinchcliffe/Holmes/Tom Baker era Who. The science might be dodgy, but it was all in the service of telling a fun story.

  14. WanderingUndine September 9, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Yeah, I can bend my standards for a great story. Some of the oceanography and marine biology in Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane is inaccurate, which normally would really annoy me as a marine education professional, but I nonetheless consider it The Bestest Most Beautiful And Perfect Novel EVAR because the plot and the writing and the everything else are so flipping wondrous. (Didn’t stop me from posting lots of commentary when Mark Oshiro was Reading it)

    With Pern, I didn’t/don’t know enough about astronomy, technology, governments, or even biology to recognize many of the inaccuracies, so they hadn’t really marred my enjoyment of it. Even now, I’m mostly following your collective leads on that.

  15. genesistrine September 10, 2016 at 10:08 am

    @WanderingUndine: Well, we’ve got dolphins coming up next week, so it’ll be your chance to educate us! 🙂

  16. Silver Adept September 12, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    There’s no mention of what resources are sought by the survey team, no, but apparently it’s not ores and gemstones.

    I think the series is aiming for some sort of soft SFness, but it consistently gets wrong the parts that it’s not trying to handwave, which makes it hard to be anything but fantasy fiction trying to pretend to be SF. Even then, fantasy worlds have rules. Pern doesn’t seem to have all that many.

  17. genesistrine September 12, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    And what resources are they that aren’t more easily available closer to civilisation, markets, factories, purchasers etc etc?

  18. emmy September 12, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    One ‘positive’ note to this story is that it breaks the weird implications of destined evil that we had going on before with Avril and Bitra Hold. Shavva is the ancestor of the boo-hiss Avril, but she’s played as a positive character, without (as far as I remember) any sign of secret badness.

  19. saidahgilbert September 13, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    Yay! I have finally caught up. These deconstructions have been very illuminating. I, also don’t have a good background in science both natural and social so some of these technical parts flew over my head. I agree though, that the characters merely act according to the narrative. Which is why when I started reading the books, I was adamant about calling it fantasy but through these discussions, it seems that the preferred genre for these books is science fiction. I find that a pity though. If not for the science fiction genre insistence, it could be a fantasy in the likes of DiscworldTM. Then we could laugh at the characters, instead of having to believe that the characters are in earnest.

  20. Wingsrising September 15, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I have vague recollections of reading an essay by McCaffrey saying that she had’t waned to give the dragonriders a SF-type Terran origin, but the person publishing the first stories ?(maybe Campbell?) suggested that she should because the readers would like it. Thus the introduction was born.

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