The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall: The Dolphins’ Bell: Running Away Really Fast

Last time, we got to set what the survey crew that recommended Pern for colonization saw, and what they chose to ignore. A little more thorough investigation might have caught the Thread phenomenon, but there hasn’t been anything on the planet that would recommend against a colony group arriving. This time, we take a look at what happened with the dolphins during a Fall.

The Dolphins’ Bell: Content Notes: Male Gaze, Racist Language, Possible Speciesism

As with many stories of Pern, this one opens with an emergency – Jim Tillek rings the red alert bell at Monaco Bay, which brings an entire horde of dolphins to ask him what’s going on, with Teresa taking the role of speaker for the dolphins. Jim points out the now-smoking volcanoes and asks the dolphins for help in getting all of Landing northward before it all gets covered in ash. The dolphins come back to the bay, along with much of the fleet of ships generally under Tillek’s direction. Both mammals and wooden craft are put to immediate work loading material from Landing to ship out as far away from the ash cloud as possible.

“Ye daft finnies, you’d burst yerselves,” Ben cried, incensed, wagging his arms at the dolphins facing him to be quiet.
“We can, we can, we can,” and half the dolphins crowding the end of the wharf heaved themselves up out of the water to tailwalk in their enthusiasm. Somehow they managed not to crash into the seething mass of podmates who ducked out of the way underwater with split-second timing. Such antics were repeated by many, all across the waters of the bay.
“Look what you started, Cap’n!” Ben cried in an extravagant show of despair. “Damned fool fin-faces! You want burst your guts?”

I’m guessing this is supposed to be more gruff affection than serious concern, but “fin-faces” and “finnies” don’t sound like affectionate nicknames to me – more like co-opted insults.

Since we didn’t see much of the dolphins in Dragonsdawn, with all the action focusing on the land rather than the sea, we don’t actually know what most of the people of Landing feel about dolphins, or whether the people of Landing really thought that much about the dolphins at all.

As in Dragonsdawn, there’s no real warning as to when the big mountain is going to go boom, so the evacuation plan is on in a hurry. While Tillek attempts to keep the air traffic around Monaco Bay from crashing into each other as they drop off things to be shipped northward, his staff start dividing up the labor and seeking out recording devices to put manifests on. The dolphins get a quick briefing on what they need, and start setting up lanes to streamline the cargo loading and to provide escorts and teams for the rafts and ships. Once they get the basics, the dolphins start immediately organizing and fetching the materials needed for the lane lines and deciding teams on their own as to who will escort and haul, much to the amusement of the humans, who apparently keep forgetting that dolphins are highly intelligent mammals with well-developed language capabilities, which is probably why they were good choices for mentasynth and generic enhancement so as to be more easily able to communicate with the seafaring humans.

The humans have to also contend with the idea that dolphins, despite being able to communicate, are still mammals with different mindsets.

“Busy, busy,” Teresa said and looked happier than usual. “New thing to do. Good fun.”
Jan grabbed her left fin. “Not fun, Tessa. Not fun!” And she shook her finger in front of Teresa’s left eye. “Dangerous. Hard. Long hours.”
Teresa’s expression was as close to a diffident shrug as a dolphin could come. “My fun not your fun. This my fun. You keep afloat. Hear me?”

This could be handled horribly, if the dolphins were being shown as overeager pets that lived to serve, but they are instead established as independent entities that are just interested in the novelty.

Jim Tillek, on the other hand, has his hands full of people who don’t understand that there’s an order to these kinds of things to make them move as smoothly as possible.

“Those clodheaded landlubbers are more trouble than anyone else,” Jim said, striding landward on the wharf, raising his bullhorn to chew out some Landing residents who were adding household goods to the stack of red priority cargo. Some of the colonists who had remained at the Landing site as administrators felt they should have certain perks. Well, not in this crisis, they didn’t. His patience worn out, he strode to the nearest sled, hauled the driver out, and ordered him to put back in what he had just unloaded. When that was done, Jim flew the asked to be unloaded with the other “space available” cargo at the far end of the strand. Then Jim took the sled, despite its owner’s voluble complaints, and used it for the rest of the day to be sure goods carted down from Landing went into the appropriate areas. The sled also gave him sufficient altitude to keep an eye on what was happening everywhere on the Bay.

This kind of sequence is something that we didn’t touch on much in Dragonsdawn, mostly because there was so much other plot going on, but I wonder how the actual provisional government functions here. Is it basically organized by military rank and that anyone of higher rank can basically do what they want? Or is there supposed to be some vestige of autonomy still left, such that people need to be convinced to do what they should? It becomes convenient for plot purposes to have the characters that need to act to be able to do so with impunity, but I don’t think it was ever fully explained what sort of powers would be given to the declared administrators of Landing and their subordinates. Tillek wouldn’t necessarily suffer consequences for this action, because he’s in good with the magistrate and the governor, but it’s doubtful anyone could just commandeer things. Unless we go back to the rule of “my stake, my absolute rules” as the reality, which would make me than a few people unwilling to evacuate using someone else’s stake, especially if they can claim anything you brought into their place is now theirs to use as they like. It’s the same fuzziness involved in figuring out how the Holds are administrated in the future.

After the end of a long day of hauling, the dolphins head off to eat, and the humans of Monaco Bay follow suit, then lay down to sleep. All too early, the dolphins ring the bell to signal a good morning, and the haul begins again, with the humans eventually having to breathe with oxygen in the sulfur and chlorine environment produced by the volcano’s emissions. On day three, Tillek insists on a minimum size of craft participating in the haul, and learns, to his amusement, that the dolphin pods seem to be competing with each other on how much weight they can haul and escort in. One of his subordinates asks about the facilities available for unloading when arriving, is reassured that there will be sufficient space and things available, and points out that there will be, but only because they mentioned it now.

Then the big volcano erupts, with everyone having received the two hours of warning they were promised, scrambling to get as much out as possible, and then coming back to finish the job of hauling after the volcano quiets down enough. As the last ship gets ready to leave, Tillek decides the dolphin bell should be left behind for the dolphins, justifying it by saying Ezra Keroon will want to come back and check the “Aivas interface”, something we haven’t seen by name yet, and that the bell can be collected then.

The staging ground for the eventual haul northward is disorganized as well, but there’s not a time crunch, so a conference between Benden, Boll, and Tillek (and crew) relays the death of Marco and Duluth attempting to avoid a collision, but turns to the need to organize the ships to run cargo, to figure out how to keep supplies running to the people in the South that intend to keep going, like miners, smelters, and several of the island groups well away from the volcanoes, and to keep accurate enough records so that everything is transferred and everyone knows where everything is at any given time. Both Keroon and Tillek swear off becoming the admiral of the navy of Pern and go to work. Which gives us an interlude with Tillek and Theo Force, one of the dolphineers, where Tillek offers some Terran naval history after giving Theo a once-over:

Jim had an eye for a shapely leg, even one generally showing scars from many brushes with underwater obstacles. He was also becoming accustomed to Theo’s subtly attractive face. Well into her third decade, she was not a conventionally pretty woman, but her rather plain features nevertheless indicated her strong character and purposefulness.
[…Jim sets up his tale…]
Theo never found Jim Tillek boring, especially when he started yarning. She knew he had sailed every sea on Old Earth and some on the newer colony planets, as well, in between his interstellar voyages as the captain of a drone freighter. Over the past few days she’d had a chance to admire the qualities of a man she’d barely chatted with before. Now, keeping as watchful am sure on their convoy as he did, she listened with pleasure as he warmed to his tale.

No, wait, the history lesson can wait, because this is still a trend that’s a problem in these books. Women described as classically or exotically beautiful, like Kylara, Pona, and Avril Bitra, are all mean, scheming villains working against the protagonists. Women that are plain, scarred, or otherwise flawed turn out to be virtuous, loyal, and attractive. There’s a big screaming “beauty is evil” message here, which is both Older Than Feudalism and a shitty message to send. Even if you’re trying to appeal to readers that would love to see the popular, pretty, and shallow characters at their school be knocked off the top of the social ladder. It’s only been once that there’s been an actual Mean Girl Squad, but there’s still been plenty of situations where the pretty girl is the evil one.

Furthermore, notice how Theo is described in terms of body and male gaze, instead of her work as a dolphineer, while Jim is described in terms of accomplishments and storytelling abilities, instead of his features. Tillek is falling for a plain and virtuous woman, Theo is enjoying the company of an accomplished and charming man.

Although that woman has the ability to chew out someone if she wants to. After Jim regales Theo with the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second Great Terran War, he spots a ship falling out of formation and sends Theo to bring them back in line.

Theo and Dart reached their destination, and he could almost hear the blistering reprimand she was issuing. She had her arms over the rim of the craft, gesticulating to leave no doubt in the young skipper’s mind as to where he had erred.

Of course, if such a thing were turned onto Tillek himself, the narrative would probably characterize it as something quaint or female or cute, instead of something authoritative or intimidating.

Bad weather forces the flotilla to shelter at Paradise River Hold, which gives the plastics engineers opportunity and time to design and manufacture ways to protect sails and cabins without doors from Threadfall, as well as a way of protecting people from it as well.

…plastic headgear, in a wide conical shape, made with wide weals and outward sloping sides – wide enough to cover most shoulders – with a high crown, to fit on the head, tied under the chin. Once the people were in the water, buoyed by the compulsory life vests everyone wore, these conical “coolie hats” would deflect Thread into the water, where it would drown or be consumed by the fish that invariably arrived wherever Thread feel into the seas. Even the dolphins were known to partake of what they considered an unusual food.
The Paradise River contingent thought Ika’s cone hat a definite improvement over the sheets of metal they were used to using for protection of they were caught out in Fall. Overcome by all the praise, the slender Eurasian insisted that she could not take credit for the design.
“Well, it’s a bloody good adaptation of a – what did you call it? – coolie hat,” Andi said stoutly, “and it’ll work. Won’t be too hard to turn out once we set the matrix for the design.” And she turned back to that task.
“We’re lucky we have people of such differing backgrounds,” Jim told the embarrassed Ika kindly. “You can never tell when something as simple as straw hats from rice paddies on Earth can turn out to be life-saving on Pern. Good thinking, Ika! Cheer up, child. You’ve just saved our lives.”
She managed to send him a shy smile before she retreated one again, but her husband, Ebon Kashima, strutted about the camp as if he had thought of the gear.

Uh…



Cocowhat by depizan

Surely the people of the future know that “coolie” has been used as a racial slur for much of Terran history, and that even if one colloquially would have called it with that name when the book was written, the people in the actual future would likely be beyond that phrase and uncomfortable with its use, with the way that people generally advance past slurs and insults as they become more accepting of diversity.

Speaking of diversity, Tillek praising it after using a phrase like that is a serious gear-grinder for me. The narrative assures us that Ika is just overwhelmed by all the attention, but I wonder whether she’s also embarrassed that everyone is calling the design by such a racist name. Especially when other names would be available to use. “Cone hat” or “Thread helmet” would work just as well. There’s no need to call it by such a name.

As things go, there’s a small concern about whether self-preservation will be enough to get people in the water when Thread falls, and the assembled captains start “brainwashing” (yes, that’s the word in the text) their crews to make sure they’re going to get in the water, with their hats and vests on, under threat of discipline and demotion if they didn’t.

At this point, right before the ships set sail again, as the last of their protective equipment is produced and set into place, we’ll take a break.

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17 thoughts on “The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall: The Dolphins’ Bell: Running Away Really Fast

  1. WanderingUndine September 15, 2016 at 7:58 am

    *eyeroll at Jim* In the real world, a woman’s “beauty” or lack thereof indicates nothing about her “character.” You might know you’re in a Pern book, but you’re settting a bad example for readers.

    Other ‘protagonists,’ e.g. Sallah, are called beautiful at times, but the narrative geerally doesn’t go on about it. Theo gets a bit of a narrative gaze at Jim, though I don’t remember if it’s here or later in the story, but she doesn’t infer his personality from his appearance.

  2. saidahgilbert September 15, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I cringed when they kept using ‘coolie hat’ to describe the headgear. That phrase was unnecessary because they also used other ways to describe it. Then the narrative has to emphasise that it was an Asian who came up with the idea. So basically all those people there are calling the innovator a ‘coolie’.

  3. saidahgilbert September 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Oh, another thing, a ‘coolie’ referred to someone of East Indian descent in my country. The character’s name seems to be Japanese. Were Japanese people really considered ‘coolie’?

  4. Firedrake September 15, 2016 at 11:32 am

    “Why yes, Andi, only someone with my particular cultural and ethnic background could have come up with the idea of putting something over my head to divert the spaceborne parasite into the water. Oh, wait, I’ve forgotten to take my Stupid Pills today.”

  5. genesistrine September 15, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    @Silver Adept: I wonder how the actual provisional government functions here. Is it basically organized by military rank and that anyone of higher rank can basically do what they want? Or is there supposed to be some vestige of autonomy still left, such that people need to be convinced to do what they should? … It’s the same fuzziness involved in figuring out how the Holds are administrated in the future.

    At least with the Holds you can handwave tithes and hereditary wealth and whatnot. Who’s paying the colony admins? What are they living on? If they’re living off hydroponics or something how does everyone else feel about having to grow and trade for their own food? Are they taxing the stakeholders? Are the stakeholders paying for the privilege of being administrated? What are they getting in return for that? There isn’t a police force, and nobody seems to be building large-scale infrastructure like roads. What happens if they stop paying? If the admins have stakes, who’s farming them? How the hell does this all work?

    his interstellar voyages as the captain of a drone freighter.

    OK, what? Wouldn’t a drone freighter, by definition, be an unmanned one? Or is he supposed to have been freighting drones?

    Surely the people of the future know that “coolie” has been used as a racial slur for much of Terran history, and that even if one colloquially would have called it with that name when the book was written, the people in the actual future would likely be beyond that phrase and uncomfortable with its use, with the way that people generally advance past slurs and insults as they become more accepting of diversity.

    I think the more usual attitude in SF has been to assume that racial differences would become less important in the future and racially-charged terms from the present would lose their offensiveness. Obviously this is a walloping great assumption with a huge pile of privilege on the side, so this is an attempted explanation rather than an excuse.

    “Cone hat” or “Thread helmet” would work just as well.

    Threadbrella!

    @saidahgilbert: Oh, another thing, a ‘coolie’ referred to someone of East Indian descent in my country. The character’s name seems to be Japanese. Were Japanese people really considered ‘coolie’?

    By people who think “they all look alike”, I daresay yes….

  6. WanderingUndine September 15, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Wikipedia says that “coolie” was historically a widespread term for hired or indentured Chinese and Indian laborers, now with looser slur and non-slur meanings in various places: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coolie And that the “Asian conical hats” worn in a number of nations are widely called “coolie hats” by English speakers: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_conical_hat I have no personal experience with any of this.

  7. depizan September 15, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    You’ve all covered a bunch of the WTFs, but I’ve got a few more…

    raising his bullhorn to chew out some Landing residents who were adding household goods to the stack of red priority cargo.

    Household goods could mean a whole lot of things, but this is a colony at the ass end of nowhere with no ability to resupply. I can think of a number of “household goods” that would be pretty well necessary for continued survival after the evacuation. This isn’t an evacuation on a settled planet where you can hop over to the Walmart and pick up some pots and pans or needle and thread or the like after you’ve been safely evacuated. I think both Tillek and McCaffrey have forgotten that.

    (Though it would help if we had any idea what does qualify as “red priority cargo.”)

    Then again, they also seem able to fabricate all kinds of things – even in the middle of this evacuation – no problem, so I really have no idea what’s necessary and not on this planet.

    Also, so… plastic and metal provide protection from Thread. Does this mean the colonists built everything out of wood? Because otherwise, I’m a little confused about how the first Threadfall reached the scale of disaster suggested in the previous book. You’d expect a lot of the buildings to have been plastic and metal, especially as it sounded like they were fabricated by their fabricating dealie or brought with the colonists.

    Once the people were in the water, buoyed by the compulsory life vests everyone wore, these conical “coolie hats” would deflect Thread into the water,

    Because this is safer and easier that building some sort of slanting “roof” for the boats? I mean, it’s a great idea to have the hats for anyone caught not under cover, but having everyone (even any young children or babies?) get in the water for Threadfall seems unnecessarily risky.

  8. WanderingUndine September 15, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    Some of the colonists were living in buildings made of experimental plant-based bio-plastic. Thread ate the buildings and the people.

  9. Firedrake September 16, 2016 at 4:03 am

    depizan: a slanting roof for a boat? That’s never been done before!

    (Also, people will stick their arms out of the safe zone under the hats, because people.)

  10. depizan September 16, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    (Also, people will stick their arms out of the safe zone under the hats, because people.)

    Considering that they were (apparently) holding sheets of metal over their heads before, they may not have arms. Or at least be short a few fingers.

  11. Silver Adept September 16, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    One thing I have yet to figure out is that despite being described as rain or thready, I have no idea how Thread behaves in wind. If Thread is light enough that it will blow a long way in a small breeze, then head protection or slanting roofs won’t be enough to be safe, and it makes sense to make everyone jump into the water for full body protection. Of course, it also makes sense to enclose the boats enough that someone can have shelter in case of Threadfall, regardless of the wind outside, but maybe the really big fabrication equipment is already gone.

    I’m guessing Tillek as drone captain is him being the human override in case of failure or robot rebellion.

  12. depizan September 16, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    If Thread blows in the wind, the hats aren’t going to cut it, either. They’d have to go low enough to touch the water – or come very close to it anyway. I can’t imagine Thread to the face being pleasant.

    (But there are so many questions left in all of these stories. That’s half the problem. :\ )

  13. genesistrine September 17, 2016 at 6:43 am

    @WanderingUndine: I must say if I heard someone call someone else a coolie my first thought would be they were going for some sort of weird retro-Victorian effect rather than a racist insult, but I’m white English so….

    @Silver Adept: One thing I have yet to figure out is that despite being described as rain or thready, I have no idea how Thread behaves in wind.

    DF has this description of the fall over Nerat:

    “.. the Threads fell in patches. Not as rain will, in steady unbroken sheets, but like flurries of snow, here, above, there, whipped to one side suddenly. Never fluidly, despite the continuity their name implied.”

    Which implies to me that it’s fine enough to be blown about or drift on the wind to some degree at least.

    I’m guessing Tillek as drone captain is him being the human override in case of failure or robot rebellion.

    Much as I love the idea of a human backup spending the voyage sitting on their arse just in case the autopilot achieves sentience and tries to set off to the Magellanic Clouds with a cargo of diamond-encrusted sporks I don’t think it’s economically feasible – a major selling point of a drone freighter would be not having to carry air/food/shielding etc for a human, therefore more cargo space/faster transit etc. Maybe he sat on the sofa at home with a remote control. (Oh shit! The freighter was heading straight for an asteroid 10 minutes ago! My course correction will take another 10 mins to get there and I won’t know if it’s worked till half past 3!)

    Could be amusing as an SF slacker-comedy thing, though….

    And I tried to read the thing myself, but had to stop for the sake of my sanity when this jumped out at me: “Some of the nine dolphineers and seven apprentices actually took longer to arrive than their marine friends, since the humans had to sled in from their stakeholds.”

    The professional speakers-to-dolphins don’t live anywhere near the dolphins. Of course they don’t. Because this is Pern, where there aren’t enough brain cells for everyone to have one.

  14. WanderingUndine September 21, 2016 at 11:30 am

    I don’t believe AMC intended the early Pernese to all be noodleheads. Are some of their mistakes, like dolphineers living far from water, thus due to *her* not thinking things through? :-/

  15. genesistrine September 22, 2016 at 12:51 am

    Doylistically yes, Watsonically I don’t know WTF is going on. Editor and beta-readers all asleep at the wheel? Was she one of those people it’s impossible to say “you know, you might want to rethink this…” to?

  16. Firedrake September 22, 2016 at 3:03 am

    genesistrine: yes, both because she was famously stubborn and because Pern was a big earner for the publisher, so they didn’t want to risk offending her so that she’d take future books elsewhere.

  17. genesistrine September 22, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Yeeeah, I have rather got the impression of a certain… inflexibility in the writer’s personality thanks to the eternal “protagonists right, everyone who disagrees with them wrong and bad and nasty” motif. I don’t want to get all lay-psych, but….

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