The Dolphins of Pern: Finally, a new perspective?

Last time, the future came to pass, the Red Star was permanently adjusted, Thread was xenocided, Robinton died, and AIVAS committed suicide before it would face the consequences of its actions.

So, naturally, we’re starting a new book. (It’s 1994 at this point of publication.) And the author, now that the main work is officially done, can focus on writing more books that explore side stories and things that were just details.

Like the dolphins, who have been apparently patiently waiting in the background through all of these tales of dragons, doing what they can to help people. It’s finally your time, fellow mammals. Let’s get going.

The Dolphins of Pern: Prologue and Chapters I and II: Content Notes: ESL Stereotypes, Silly Animals

The prologue starts from the perspective of the dolphins! Yay! A little over one hundred years after Landing, two dolphins are ringing the bell that normally summons the humans to see them. There’s nobody there to feed them or listen to what they have to say, and the dolphins are worried that the humans have all died out, possibly based on the plague (that was mentioned in First Fall). There is a mention of a Dolphin Contract to follow ships and make sure the men on board don’t fall over without a dolphin nearby to help rescue them. Plus, a nice chunk of information about dolphin culture:

Kibbe was one of those who had been chosen to serve time up near the northwestern subsidence, where lived the Tillek, chosen of all the pods for her wisdom. The name given the pod leader was also traditional. He had been taught, as had other dolphin instructors, why dolphins had followed humans to this world, far from the waters of Earth, where they had evolved: the chance to inhabit clean waters of an unpolluted world and live as dolphins had before technology (he had learned to pronounce that word very carefully) has spoiled the Old Oceans of humankind. He knew, and taught this despite the astonishment it caused, that dolphins had once walked on land. That was why they were air breathers and were required by Nature to surface to inhale oxygen. He listened to tales so old not even those who had taught the Tillek knew their origins: that dolphins had been the messengers of the gods, escorting those buried at sea to their special “underworld” place. As dolphins considered the seas to be underworld, this caused some confusion. The humankind underworld was where “souls” went–whatever “souls” were.

…so it is possible, then, to develop a system of beliefs that are plausible and make internal sense, even if they aren’t fully accurate to the reader. What I want to know is why the author waited until a book about dolphins to demonstrate the capability.

There’s a certain amount of echo here about the Silly Animals that Ana Mardoll is unhappy about in the Narnia books, where the otherwise intelligent dolphins have beliefs or somehow need to have humans ruling them because they couldn’t do it in their own, but the dolphins are more capable than their Narnian counterparts. They teach their young the names of the dolphins who made the trek across the stars, and sing it while they travel. And while they don’t understand why the humans needed to sleep for fifteen years to make the journey (because dolphins do not apparently require sleep), they repeat the History (that includes the gift of human speech to dolphins) they have learned.

We also learn the specifics of the contract a little later.

Dolphins would protect humans on or in the water to the best of their abilities, in whatever weather and unsafe conditions, even to the giving up of dolphin life to save the frailer humans; they would apprise humans of bad weather conditions, show them where the schools of preferred fish were running, and warn them off sea hazards. The humans promised, in return for these services, to remove any bloodfish that might attach themselves to dolphin bodies, to float any stranded dolphin, to heal the sick and treat the wounded, to talk to them and be partners if the dolphin was willing.

I’d say the humans really got the better end of that deal. I wonder when it was negotiated, and how long the term of the contract was for. The dolphins are probably more than due a rewrite at this point.

There’s mention of the bell at Monaco Bay, that both dolphins and humans promised to answer if the bell was rung, and the various things explored by the dolphins – “the seas and the deep abysses and the Great Currents, the Two Subsidences, Greater and Smaller, and the Four Upwellings.” Which is good – dolphins would relate to things by ocean currents and other sea markers.

The Tillek tells the calves not to use the derogatory “long-foot” or “finless” when referring to humans, and informs the dolphins that the humans suffer from Thread, rather than being able to consume it the way dolphins do. Which is a thing the dolphins have to accept as a truth, even though it’s not their lived experiences. There’s the story of the sleds and flamethrowers, and the great migration north, and then the Sickness and how it affected the bell ringing at Fort. But even with calves that want to break with the humans because they don’t follow traditions, Kibbe is very much TRADITION with the calves.

With no answer to the bell, Kibbe gives up and heads back to report to the Tillek that nobody answered, and so nobody gets dolphin knowledge.

That’s it for the prologue, and likely the least time we’ll see anything from their perspective. Which is a shame, because I like the dolphins a whole lot better than I like the humans.

Chapter One starts with Alemi, now a Masterfisher, and the young Readis. It’s a little bit of a cute exchange of the child eager to go fishing with his uncle being given a reminder of the need for safety equipment, like vests, by virtue of the uncle pointing out that he wears them, too, even though he’s an adult and a good swimmer.

The fishing is for a gather at Swacky’s, and there’s a quick sketch of a summary of Renegades, but since Readis is our viewpoint character for this chapter, he doesn’t really understand much about what happened. He just enjoys both Alemi (the one who tends to gesture rather than talk) and Swacky (who tends to talk at length, and whose gather is to celebrate turning seventy-five) equally well in his life. The narrative tells us that Alemi has three daughters and a fourth child on the way, hopefully a son that can be taught all of these things, but until then, Alemi practices it all with Readis. Which makes it sound a lot less like a happy uncle-nephew relationship and more like Alemi wanting Readis to be his own child. Even if Alemi has to admit that Readis had never “fed the fishes”, even in difficult waters.

There are fishing “rods of the finest bambu, with reels of the stout tight-stranded line, and hooks hand-fashioned by the Hold’s Smithjourneyman,” which makes me wonder what the biomes are like on Pern that they have both bamboo reeds and hardwood forests. And also, I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the compound word construction for a rank under Mastercrafter. And also, this construction would work so much better for differentiation between a Craftmaster (one who has obtained the rank) and the Mastercrafter (the single elected had of the Craft). Continuity!

Anyway, yes, there is fishing, and Readis hauls one in before Alemi tries to do the same, but the fish is pulling the boat, not the other way around. They get it hauled in before the Great Current, but then comes a squall and the fight is on to keep the ship afloat and upright. That doesn’t happen, but the two are rescued by a pod of dolphins and kept safe by them through the storm.

Afterward, the dolphins express what looks like happiness, and there are several pages of dolphins talking to Readis and Alemi and asking about whether Landing is occupied again. Readis, being tiny, takes it all in stride. Alemi, not so much.

The text, probably trying to convey the linguistic shift that AIVAS apparently automatically compensated for, has doll-fins speaking in a pseudophonetic, grammar-chopped way. “Long tayme no talk,” “Men back Landing?” “Wielcame. Uur duty,” and so forth. Admittedly, Alemi is dazed at this point from the storm and not really paying attention, but the effect at this point is to give the dolphins an accent and a grammar that is often replicated to indicate an ESL (English as a Second Language) speaker that is particularly hard to understand, because they have very little experience with English and can’t string together words into normal-sounding sentences. The problem with that is that the dolphins have been talking human languages since before Landing. And have been teaching it well enough through the generations that they are intelligible to people many generations after humans forgot that dolphins were intelligent companions. This is implausible to me. Dolphins should be suffering the same penalty AIVAS was narratively allowed to sidestep regarding linguistic drift.

But also, the heavy accent and chopped grammar make the dolphins appear stupid, when it’s pretty clear they are anything but. I worry we are going headlong into the problem of Animals in the hands of an author that wants them to be intelligent, but to still need humans to rule over them. The dolphins should not be Silly Animals. But this kind of quote, in the context of the pod relating they had made contact with humans and spoken to them, and been spoken to politely in return –

Afo, Kib, Mel, Temp, and Mul swam fast and proud, with great leaps. And Mel wondered if mans would still know how to get rid of bloodfish, for he had one sucking him that he could not seem to scrape off, no matter how he tried.

– is not encouraging at all.

That’s chapter one, giving us a full account of what we covered in the last books from the perspective of those that experienced it, and a little bit at the end from the dolphins. Chapter two is very short, and essentially covers Jaxom’s visit and Aramina’s very fierce resistance to having Readis strike up friendship with the dolphins, with a paragraph at the end about how the dolphins were disappointed that the humans didn’t come to pick off bloodfish, even though the dolphins did the thing they were supposed to and returned the pieces of the ship, calling it to the humans who came for it. It seems that we might get our dolphin perspective, but only after the humans get their near-complete allotment of pages.

I’d like to be wrong about that, if that’s possible.


11 thoughts on “The Dolphins of Pern: Finally, a new perspective?

  1. genesistrine August 3, 2017 at 1:27 am

    I’d say the humans really got the better end of that deal.

    Didn’t they just. Nothing in there about humans risking their lives to refloat dolphins, just a “yeah, human lives are more important, up yours” clause.

    I am inclined to give her a pass on dolphin diction, though, since at least we’re getting their point of view and seeing that they are mentally competent (if possibly in need of a good contract lawyer). It’s difficult to write “language on the edge of comprehensibility”, though personally I would prefer it just be made clear that the human participants in the conversation just aren’t getting it.

    Re language shift, dolphins have the advantage over AIVAS of having been able to overhear humans talking the whole time; maybe that’s helped them drift the same way.

  2. Silver Adept August 3, 2017 at 8:42 am

    That’s what I would have expected, too – since it’s pretty clear that dolphins have been around the humans on their ships, the linguistic drift that AIVAS had to compensate for shouldn’t have been a problem for them.

    I would also prefer that once the listener’s ear attunes to what they are hearing, the language sounds mostly like language. Possibly with the odd word interruption that doesn’t make immediate sense, but the continued phoneticization of dolphin speech has the effect of making them sound less intelligent.

  3. WanderingUndine August 3, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    I remember reading this book, but have entirely forgotten its contents. Odd, given my generally-memorable Envy Issues with stories of sapient marine beings and humans who interact with them. Perhaps she managed to make it really boring nonetheless. We shall see.

  4. WanderingUndine August 3, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    Pernese technology — mining, farming etc. — has apparently not polluted the oceans much, compared to those on Earth. Makes sense. But I wonder how long that will last in this new age.

  5. genesistrine August 5, 2017 at 6:02 am

    @Silver Adept: of course the real problem is that how come, in TWO THOUSAND YEARS, not one person noticed that dolphins were talking to them and tried talking back.

    Never stop getting stupider, Pernese.

    @WanderingUndine: My guess is “really boring” is going to be a good description. As you see, we shall see.

  6. genesistrine August 5, 2017 at 6:03 am

    Blah. Proffreaidng is hrad. As you say.

  7. Eilonwy Has An Emu August 5, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    @WanderingUndine – Spoiler: the correct answer is “really boring.”

    I read Dolphins back in the 1990s when it was new, remembered nothing of it other than that it contained dolphins, and have re-read it within the past year, without retaining much more than “hey, this one has dolphins!” McCaffrey recycles several of her favorite plot devices, too.

  8. WanderingUndine August 5, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    I’m tempted to reread it and see if I would find it boring now. But I expect to be even more annoyed by people interacting with dolphins than I was when I thought I could someday do an approximation of that. Not to mention the probability of nominally-happy romances, given previous books.

  9. genesistrine August 6, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    I’m pretty sure there’s no romance in this one – IIRC it’s basically Dragonsong with slightly less aggressively horrible parents and dolphins instead of fire lizards. And no music.

  10. Silver Adept August 6, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    @ genesistrine –

    I can almost chart a path of how in that long, nobody would take seriously the idea that the dolphins talked, but it hinges on when the superstition was established that dolphins are bad omens. If it was early on, and all the Records that involve them are all about ships capsizing, then you essentially only have an account of panicked sailors claiming the shipfish can talk. And since they’re bad luck, it’s not like any Masterfisher is going to go out of their way to talk to them. And since there are apparently no scientists in the planet (except maybe the Smiths) and no archivists trying to make records available and useful for researchers, it’s entirely possible that the strong correlation isn’t noticed because the incurious Pernese aren’t looking for it. This should be a ridiculous theory, but it works really well with what we know of Pern.

  11. Firedrake August 18, 2017 at 10:09 am

    “and no archivists trying to make records available and useful for researchers”

    And now you’ve made me think of M. K. Wren’s A Gift Upon the Shore, which is about the only way a story about the Archivists of Pern could work. Sad now.

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