The Renegades of Pern: The Stuff of Nightmares

Last time, we were introduced to a Rogue’s Gallery of holdless characters and a potential leader for some of them, Thella. The holdless are a mix of those displaced by greed, turned out over jealousy, ditched for disability, shunned for crimes, and those that refuse to go quietly into arranged marriages. It’s as good an underclass as any you could create, but since we’ve been seeing things from the aristocracy’s view, both drudges and holdless are curiously absent until needed for the plot. Hopefully this time, we’ll actually get to see how they live and the reasons why they might decide to rebel against a caste system.

The Renegades of Pern: Chapter One: Content Notes: Asshole Riders, Exploitative Holders

(Present Pass, First Turn, Third Month, Fourth Day – 3.4.01)

Not immediately, though. Instead, we get Jayge Lilcamp (descended, no doubt, from Joel Lillenkamp) grinning about having a horse that looks clumsy but wins races and a sufficiently large stash of “credit bits, almost enough to trade for a saddle when next their wagons encountered those of the Plater clan.” Which suggests that yes, there is scrip and alternative currencies already at work at Pern, adding even more confusion to the economy and how things get paid for and exchanged and who sets up the currency baskets and arghlebargle keyboard smash. Apparently everyone mints their own money and this is somehow okay.

And yes, Jayge is totally a Lillenkamp just from that stunt involving horses and laying odds. He’s also part of a family of traveling merchants that are reputed to be honest, and that carry goods to small Holds, some of them without the Crafthall stamp for those that need cheaper things. They’re breaking camp and moving on today, despite Jayge’s desire to bilk a few more unsuspecting characters out of their cash. It’s time for the once-every-five-years trip to Keroon to sell off the lumber they’ve been logging. Jayge hates bullies and those cruel to animals, which we learn from the boy he wrestled (who was bullying little ones to do his chores) and beat last night flicking a whip at him repeatedly, missing every time, but coming close every time. There some nice idling over the scenery that wouldn’t be out of place for a Western before a messenger from the Hold just left catches up to them and urges them to come back at all speed – a Harper message warning everyone that Thread is falling again, with witnesses having seen it and the dragonriders over Nerat.

As befitting someone who hasn’t seen Thread in their lifetime, or several lifetimes before that, Crenden, the wagon leader, dismisses it.

Again Crenden laughed, not at all dismayed, although Jayge felt a spasm of cold uncertainty shiver down his spine. Crenden rolled the message up again and thrust it back at the boy. “Thank your father, lad. The warning is well meant, but I’m not felling for it.” He winked at the boy good-naturedly. “I know your father’d like us to help finish that new level in the hold. Thread, indeed! There hasn’t been Thread in these skies for generations. Hundreds of Turns. Like the legends told us, it’s gone now. And we’d best be going now, too.” With a cheerful salute to the astonished boy, Crenden stood in his stirrups and roared out, “Roll ’em!”
There was such a look of total dismay and fear in the lad’s face that Jayge wondered if his father could possibly have misread the message. Thread! The very word caused Jayge to squirm in his saddle, and Fairex danced under him in response.
[…Jayge argues with himself…]
Holder Childon was not the sort to play jokes; a straight man, he said what he meant and meant what he said. Crenden had often described him so. Childon was a good deal straighter than some holders who looked down on trains as feckless folk little better than thieves, too lazy to carve out a hold for themselves and too arrogant to be beholden to a lord.

I wonder if this chilly feeling for Jayge is like the thrill or chill one is supposed to receive upon hearing The Name of Aslan. Those who believe rightly and are afraid of Thread will be terrified by its name. The rest, of course, will die or be saved by the dragonriders and convert immediately.

Also, it appears the wagon trains all have at least some of the original prejudice against the Tinkers and other nomads that ended up surviving Threadfall. Despite the fact that they are the only way that goods move around Pern with any speed, save dragonriders, who would never deign to be cargo transport except in emergencies. As far as I know, there are no truly self-sufficient Holds, so they should all be a lot more appreciative for the wagon trains.

Jayge reminisces about Crenden explaining to him why he should let insults roll off his back, which fights to take on, and the great joy that someone gets from wandering the world. Before noticing the grey storm rolling in from the east. Crenden, for as much as he disbelieved a person he considered fundamentally honest and trustworthy, is able to come to the correct conclusion when presented with direct evidence and the flashes of dragon flame, and orders the entire wagon train to ditch their cargo and head for the nearest deep pool to submerge themselves and their mounts in. Much as Jayge isn’t quite sure that will work, but it’s also having to deal with the utterly natural panic that happens when a thing that’s supposed to be gone returns. (Even though, as readers, we have seen Piemur manage a similar stunt already, and Sean and Sorka did it again when first noticing Thread. Seems to be a running thing.)

But a pool? That was no real shelter from Threadfall. Jayge knew the Teaching songs as well as any kid of Pern, and it was stone walls and stout metal shutters that one needed during Threadfall.
[…Jayge heads for the water…]
He kept watching the banks and the track, hoping that he might notice a rock ledge or even a burrow. They could put the babies in the burrows. How long did a Fall last? Jayge was so agitated that he could not bring the Traditional Duty ballads to mind.
[…seeing no other options, Jayge tests the pool for suitability as the rest of the train can be heard thundering down…]
Jayge kept his eyes on the cloud as he raced back. What were those gouts of flame? It looked like thousands of flameflies, the nocturnal creatures he and his friends had tried to capture in Nerat’s lush jungles. And then he realized what he was seeing. Dragons! Benden Weyr’s dragonriders were flying Thread! As dragonriders should! As dragonriders always had and now were again, protecting Pern from Threadfall. Jayge felt a surge of relief that was instantly overwhelmed by confusion. If the dragonriders were already flaming Thread from the skies, why would the traders need the river pool?
“Worlds are lost or worlds are saved, by those dangers dragon-braved?” The verse sprang to Jayge’s mind, but it was not the one he wanted. “Lord of the hold, your charge is sure, in thick walls, metal doors, and no verdure.” But Lilcamp folk were holdless.

Creatures that now exist on Pern – fireflies. One would assume there is a vibrant insect life on the planet, of course, but as in many stories, the insects are just part of the noise, unless they need to be present for some plot reason.

More interestingly, a couple lines from a teaching song! Which apparently includes a word for “green” that hasn’t seen a lot of use in the time of the writing, much less in the far future that Pern is supposed to be set in. With the way that Pernese grammar and word construction is, I’m chalking this up to “the plot needed a rhyme” and chanting the MST3K mantra rather than trying to figure out how a word like that would survive two thousand years of culture that doesn’t seem inclined to use language in that way.

That said, this feels like an appropriate amount of panic and confusion for someone confronted with the idea that the thing of their nightmares is actually true. Including the nice contrast of “I know my teaching songs as well as anybody” and yet being unable to recall them without additional effort, and recalling wrong to start with. This is why people drill on unlikely but dangerous situations, such that if they should happen, the information is set far enough into the mind and body that it doesn’t require much effort to recall.

In any case, the entire wagon train makes it to the pool before Thread catches up to them. Cue everyone trying hard to stay under the water, getting to see the destruction that Thread wreaks firsthand, and then this:

Suddenly a fountain of flame washed across the spot. He saw the long, twisting thing in the center of the flame turn black and burn quickly, adding an oily yellow smoke to the clean fire. Jayge almost missed seeing the dragon at all, he was so caught by the terror of the Thread burrow. But the dragon hovered briefly, to be sure if the destruction, so Jayge caught sight of the huge golden body as the dragon – gold was for queens, wasn’t it? – beat strongly upward and flamed again, farther up the hill. There was another dragon farther down the river valley, another good. But someone had told him that gold dragons did not fly. And there was only the one queen in Benden Weyr.

Ah, there’s a temporal reference point. Multiple queens throwing fire means that Lessa has already jumped back in time to bring the remaining Weyrs forward, causing the decline of the Weyrs that will make it more difficult for Benden in the next four hundred Turns.

I’m also interested in the way this is described. Because queens aren’t supposed to be able to use and chew firestone (fuck you very much, Kitti Ping), this queen unit must be equipped with flamethrowers. Yet the narrative describes the dragon as flaming, rather than noticing the rider as flaming or the flames originating from somewhere other than the dragon’s mouth. Some of this can be chalked up to Jayge not being completely observant due to the panic, but just a little while ago, the scene happening is described as “forever etched in his mind”, suggesting that his recall would be accurate and unaltered.

I’m sure this is an inconsistency that has no more Doylist reason than “this work could have used an editor”, but it does make for intriguing possibilities of gold dragon biology, that they might be able to overcome their inability to use firestone in truly emergency situations. If Jayge is accurate in describing the dragon as having flamed, instead of Jayge misattributing the flamethrower fire to the dragon. And since flamethrower equipment is heavy and bulky, from what we’ve seen in Moreta, it seems likely that it would be observed as the source of the fire.

As it is, Jayge’s focus has to become more immediate as he deals with Thread hissing into the water near him and trying to protect himself and Fairex from getting hit by falling Thread, so a full fifteen minutes of fighting for his life happens, because the time-shifted dragonriders don’t usually flame over things that are going to kill Thread anyway. (Yes, it uses the same slur as before, Oldtimer, which Jayge should learn about much later than this point in time.)

The casualties, as one might expect, are numerous, both in trader train, their goods, and the forests around them. As the wagon train is recovering what goods and people are still left, Fairex bolting for no apparent reason signals the appearance of a brown rider, who mistakes them as a ground crew looking to mop up the rest of the Thread. And gives us more useful information.

At first Jayge could not understand the words rattled at him. There was an odd inflection in the man’s voice that startled him. The harpers kept the language from altering too much, his mother had told him when he had first encountered the slower speech of the southerners. But the voice of the dragonrider, so small up there perched between the neck ridges of the big beast, sounded strange to Jayge’s ears. And the man did not look like any man Jayge had ever seen. He seemed to have huge eyes, and no hair, and leather all over. Were dragonmen different than the rest of Pern’s people?
[…the rider does his very best to insult everyone as an inefficient ground crew, since all he’s seen to this point are boys and women…]
Jayge stared, aware of many details that he would recall later with cynical accuracy; except that the rider wore his hair cropped close to his scalp, he was like any other man. Under other circumstances and with later knowledge, Jayge might have forgiven him his irasciblity, and even some of his scathing disapproval. But not that day.

This is going to end badly ,and the rider isn’t helping by treating the train as if they were drudges, then as if they were insane not to heed the warning, and as if they were a horrible ground crew. And for what he didn’t do to protect them from Thread. Even though he only knows the name of the dragon, Rimbeth, Crenden swears revenge once the dragon and rider are on their way, and Jayge is likely ready to assist in that.

Also, what the hell is this about the Harpers trying to keep the language from changing, so much so that a regional dialect, accent, or an older variation is seen as a horrible thing? We’ve discussed reasons before why the Harpers are doing their best impression of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, but all of those reasons basically have to do with a stated and strong desire to keep the population stupid and exploitable.

*beat for comedic effect*

Seriously, though, what’s a good reason for the Harpers trying to keep the language and its pronunciation from drift? Are they worried someone is going to develop a Geordie and become supposedly incomprehensible? Do they have secret Harper lore about how the vaunted technology of the Ancients was powered by the voices of those that could commune with it? Are they using it so that they can fulfill the overt charge of the colony that everything stay low tech, pastoral, and static by restricting the language so that concepts like electricity can’t be thought of, much less captured in a Leyden jar and used to power a telegraph? There has to be a reason that makes sense in the context of the society, and we had three books set in the Harper Hall to have it disclosed. Assuming that the person writing thought that far ahead. We’ve spanned nearly twenty years of writing up to this point, so it’s entirely possible the entire series has always been working on a wing and a prayer, but the more we go along, the more likely these things are going to request to be resolved.

Once salvage is completed and the full extent of the damage known, there’s a thought of returning to Kimmage Hold. Unfortunately, when they get there, Childon, the Lord Holder, gives them a really raw deal of being able to bed in the beasthold, having to be ground crew, and really not providing a whole lot of anything for them. Readis leaves soon after, and Crenden’s wife’s sickness keeps them there until she dies that summer, when Jayge and all the others are out as the ground crew.

That’s Chapter One. A casual reader might notice all the reasons why someone might be more than a bit miffed at the way things have turned out – a disaster on a planetary scale just rendered more than a few people without any goods, few possessions, and with nobody around willing to help them, only exploit them. If the author were trying to set this story up as the how a resistance came into being to overthrow the Lords Holder and their dragonrider allies because they exploited the population underneath them in the wake of a tragedy, this would be an excellent setup. Since this is Pern, however, which has traditionally had no interest in the lives of the proletariat, I’m thinking Jayge is a decoy protagonist of some sort, another in the Rogue’s Gallery, as a setup for whom the real person is that will be driving the narrative.

Tune in next week to find out if I’m right. It would be a shame if I were, and if this book turns out to be the scathing critique of the feudal society that Pern has become.

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3 thoughts on “The Renegades of Pern: The Stuff of Nightmares

  1. MIchael I December 1, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    There actually IS a reason why it is a good thing not to have TOO much linguistic drift. However, the Harpers don’t currently know about this reason (which appears at the end of this book).

    Although I suppose it is possible that the Harpers simply forgot why they were originally trying to keep the language from changing.

  2. genesistrine December 3, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    First thing I want to point out is that this first chapter is really effective. It’s tense, it’s scary and Thread is, for once, a genuine, horrifying menace. And people react sensibly and competently – there’s a quick discussion about whether a rapidly-stripped-down cart with the fastest horses can get the children back to the Hold in time, and after that it’s all “get everyone into the water as fast as possible”. And people are injured, killed and traumatised; it’s harrowing in a way that I haven’t seen AMC manage before, and I find it really impressive.

    Re Jayge’s chilly feeling, maybe, but he is 10 years old and brought up on Harper horror stories, so it might be that rather than the-true-of-heart-get-tingly-author-warnings.

    the scene happening is described as “forever etched in his mind”, suggesting that his recall would be accurate and unaltered.

    Memory research suggests memory doesn’t work that way, though – it’s very heavily dependent on how we interpret what we see as we see it. Jayge has never seen a dragon close-up before, riders are small compared to dragons (asshole brown rider is described as “so small up there perched between the neck ridges of the big beast”), so it seems reasonable to me that Jayge would see flame coming from the neck area and interpret it as “dragons breathe fire; therefore I just saw a dragon breathe fire” in the panic and speed of the incident.

    @Michael I: I suppose it is possible that the Harpers simply forgot why they were originally trying to keep the language from changing.

    Assuming that was the reason, and if it was I’d expect there to be some kind of tradition regarding the importance of Landing to go with it. It seems likelier to me that it’s a side-effect of Harper training – a Pernese equivalent of only having Received Pronunciation on the BBC; all Harpers learn the same “correct” pronunciation at the Hall, and children learn it from them in turn.

  3. Nothing December 5, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Harpers may be invested in preventing lingual shift to maintain their power. There are ways to teach other than songs, after all, and it’s entirely true that Harpers are unnecessary.

    Beyond that, I suppose you would want to make sure that various records remained comprehensible to the public for the long term. Many were lost anyway, but think what might happen had a thousand years resulted in an inability to decipher records regarding Threadfall. … Actually that might have made the entire series more interesting…

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