A new book, with a new time period to explore. At this point, it seems almost like a series trend – after the initial two series, it seems like there’s a regular oscillation between Ninth (and Final) Pass Pern and some earlier Pass, sometimes in the service of providing some backstory to a thing referred to from the future. Maybe this one will follow the trend? And possibly help us learn how the society at Landing became the shell of itself that it was at the beginning of the Ninth Pass.
Dragonseye: Prologue and Chapter 1: Content Notes: Misogyny, exoticizing
Oh, Prologue, how I’ve missed you. Since this is a post-AIVAS Prologue, though, this have changed again. The ships that came to this new world have names now, and the science material about how the dragons came to be and the cyclic nature of Thread is much more prominent and detailed (now that another book has laid down the canon). At this point, it’s already established that the First Pass lasted about fifty years, and that the period between passes should be about 250 years. And an insistence that the people who experienced the first one left plenty behind for their descendants to recognize the return and prepare for it.
So this is what happened 257 years later, we’re told. And already there’s some wobble in the calculations, clearly.
And since the Prologue assures us that plenty was left behind, Chapter One opens with Chalkin, Lord Holder of Bitra (quelle surprise!) expressing explicit skepticism about the return of Thread and pooh-poohing the ego-inflated dragonriders that keep appearing at his Hold with lists of instructions to be followed in preparation for another Threadfall. Maybe this is where Bitra Hold gets its infamous reputation from?
So that we can be very sure that Chalkin is ignorant and foolish, he dismisses the increased violence of storms and the seismic activity as natural phenomenon (aided by his science orientation), refuses to post watchers looking for the red star in the sky, and dismisses dragons as a weird experiment and poor replacement for the airsleds (one of which is in Telgar Foundry as an exhibit) and that someone in the College could surely figure out alternatives based on all the records being copied.
Smiths, check. Harpers, check.
- Even at this time, Bitra Hold is already notorious for gambling.
[…]even his gamesters were watching the sight. He’d have a word with them later. They should have been able to keep some customers at the various games of chance, even with the dragonrider display. Surely everyone had seen that by now. Still, the races had gone well and, with every one of the wager-takers his operators, he’d’ve made a tidy profit from his percentage of the bets.
It’s always a great worldbuilding exercise to leave out what those games of chance might be. Since it’s Bitra, I would expect rigged games that never pay out.
- The famous Benden white sparkling wine makes its debut at this particular Gather.
The wine was the only reason he had been willing to come to this gathering: and he’d half-suspected Hegmon of some prevarication in the matter. An effervescent wine, like the champagne one heard about from old Earth, was to have its debut.
- And also, everyone hates Chalkin.
Paulin, Fort Hold’s Lord, had lured one of the best chefs on the continent to his kitchens and the evening meal was sure to be good: if it didn’t turn sour in his stomach while he sat through the obligatory meeting afterward. Chalkin had bid for the man’s services, but Chrislee had spurned Bitra’s offer, and that refusal had long rankled in Chalkin’s mind.
[…Chalkin looks for excuses…]
He’d taken the trouble to go to Hegmon’s Benden vineyard, with the clear intention of buying cases of the vintage. But Hegmon had refused to see him. Oh, his eldest son had been apologetic–something about a critical time in the process requiring Hegmon’s presence in the caverns–but the upshot was that Chalkin couldn’t even get his name put down on the purchase list for the sparkling wine. Since Benden Weyr was likely to get the lion’s share of it, Chalkin had to keep in good with the Benden Weyrleaders so that, at the Hatching which was due to occur in another few weeks, he’d be invited and could drink as much of their allotment of wines as he could. More than one way to skin a wherry!
He paused to twirl one of the bottles in its ice nest. Riders must have brought the ice in from the High Reaches for Paulin. Whenever he needed some, he couldn’t find a rider willing to do him, Bitra’s Lord Holder, such a simple service. Humph.
[…what do the Telgar Weyrleaders think?…]
“Him!” She had absolutely no use for the Bitran Lord Holder and never bothered to hide it.
When the wine is later sampled at the Weyrleader table, Chalkin will appear to ask for a refill from that bottle and be told to go back to his own table. Chalkin instead continues to make rounds of the other tables along from their bottles, so it’s not that there’s some irrational prejudice against the name Bitra this time – Chalkin appears to have earned most, if not all, of his animosity.
There’s a display of aerial feats on dragons, and a particular rescue dive draws admiration from the crowd and a strong set of rebukes from K’vin, the current Telgar Weyrleader, who made the rescue catch, for his partner in the stunt, P’tero, not waiting for the correct signal. There’s a safety harness that would prevent serious injury, which is likely the predecessor to the “riding straps” of their descendants, but K’vin is still unhappy.
We are also told that dragons have “gaps in their ability to correlate cause and effect”, so P’tero’s dragon wouldn’t have connected “new straps” with “safety.” I wonder if that loose causal correlation is what allows for draconic time travel. Doubt we’ll find out.
There’s also an explanation as to why there are less women riding green dragons anymore.
K’vin wished that more girls were available to Impress green dragons. Girls tended to be steadier, more dependable. But with parents keenly interested in adopting for more land by setting up cotholds for married children–and no dragonriders, male or female, were allowed to own land–fewer and fewer girls were encouraged to stand on the Hatching Grounds.
Cocowhat by depizan
That’s claptrap I get to hear all the time about girls getting more mature than boys, especially in the context of classroom learning and reading skills. It’s socialization that makes those girls more dependable, because those girls are being groomed to run a household, to be pretty and demure and to catch a husband so they can be someone else’s problem as soon as possible. Girls have already become a bargaining chip in family power struggles, which I would like to believe makes the Ancients spin in their graves. More likely, though, there’s probably some Randian explanation of how women are weaker and should be grateful that anyone takes them into protection instead of leaving them out to die in their infancy.
There should still be a pretty good supply of women for the Grounds, though – families with too many daughters and not enough dowries, or the headstrong girls that think they can be Lords or Crafters in their own rights, instead of arm trophies for men, and so on. Especially in places where the people would be all too happy to unload those women into the Weyrs, where they stop having to care about them.
There’s a mention of Fort being powered by giant solar panel arrays, even though they lost a few to severe winter storms, and a response to Chalkin’s earlier internal accusation of hypocrisy about Fort both being concerned about Thread and building buildings outside that said Thread would supposedly ravage. The buildings are apparently slate-roofed and with gutters that will drop the Thread into the water supply to drown it, and iron-wrapped wood underneath, along with stout walls. This outer expansion, we’re told, is plan B, as the builders wanted to build in the caves, but cavern collapses and the utter refusal of the watchwhers to explore further has stopped the expansion plans.
Watchwhers, who have to this point been shown as night guards and Wind Blossom’s ugly and apparently useless attempts to recreate the dragon program, are “mutant, blunt-winged, flightless photosensitive” creatures whose refusal to go places indicates “dangers human eyes couldn’t see.” As cave explorers, though, and especially as those things that human eyes can’t see, it’s a wonder they haven’t been mentioned more by, say, the miners and the workers for whom cave collapse would be lethal. The myopia of the narrative on dragonriders is making it very difficult for a coherent worldbuild.
The narrative then tells us how K’vin came to be the Telgar Weyrleader in an open flight that he didn’t expect to win. Mostly because he was sure he didn’t have the experience to lead during Thread. And now that Thread is approaching, he’s got nightmares. And he’s hitting the equivalent of the books left behind by Sean and Sorka about how to fight Thread, recognize it, and the rest as his way of compensating for the nightmares. His Weyrwoman, Zulaya, is reassuring, telling him that his predecessor, B’ner, had worried and had nightmares as well. The narrative gives us an extra reason to believe her.
Zulaya could sound so sure of something, but then she was nearly a decade his senior and had more experience as a Weyrleader. Sometimes her intuition was downright uncanny: she could accurately predict the size of clutches, the distribution of the colors, the sex of babies born in the Weyr, and occasionally even the type of weather in the future. But then she was Fort Weyrbred, a linear descendant of one of the First Riders, Aliana Zuleita, and knew things. It was odd how the golden queens seemed to prefer women from outside the Weyrs–but sometimes a queen had a mind of her own and chose a Weyrbred woman, defying custom.
This is probably the point where I should mention the other series that Anne McCaffery is known for writing by herself, the Talents series, which consists of two books written about a grouping of people with various psychic abilities banding together to become a powerhouse corporation to protect themselves and four books about a particular character, the Rowan, and her family, all of whom have powerful psychic abilities and are employed, essentially, as transporters across the cosmos from space station to space station. (And the alien species they encounter and have to deal with.)
Psychic abilities have always been present in the Pern series, right from the get-go with Lessa’s ability to blur her identity and attempt to influence people. So it’s less “whoa, where did these psychic powers come from?” and more “this might be the closest since the beginning that we’re acknowledging psi powers exist in this universe outside of the dragons.” It would be nice to have more clarity on this issue, but it is at least somewhat consistent that the earlier in Pern’s history we are, the more obvious the psychic abilities are. I’m not sure if the author had a late idea to try and merge Pern into the Talents universe, or whether this is just a thing that has been studiously ignored and is now being picked back up again.
In addition to Zulaya being pretty clearly some form of precognitive, this relationship is one that seems to be both platonic and professional and personally intimate. There’s talk of K’vin being in Zulaya’s bed, mention of his lineage that goes back to Sorka herself (his great-great aunt), but Zulaya is also described as being “so…impersonal…that K’vin had to conclude that she hadn’t gotten over B’ner’s death yet.” and that “she put her hand through his arm so that they would present the proper picture of united Weyrleadership. K’vin stifled a sigh that the accord was only for public display.”
Remarkably unlike previous books in the series, that wasted no time in getting to their male gaze-y description of the Weyrwoman, we’ve spent a lot of time on the business of the Weyr and talking before Zulaya is described in the same way.
Zulaya was tall for a woman, long-legged–all the better for bestriding a dragon’s neck. He was a full head taller than she was, which she said she liked in him. B’ner had been just her height. It was her coloring that fascinated K’vin: the inky black curly hair that, once fed of her flying helmet, tumbled down below her waist. The hair framed a wide, high cheek-boned face, set off the beige of her smooth skin and large, lustrous eyes that were nearly black; a wide and sensual mouth above a strong chin gave her strength and purpose which reinforced her authority with anyone. She strode, unlike some of the hold women who minced along, her steel-rimmed boot heels noisy on the flagstones, her arms swinging at her side. She’d had time to put a long, slitted skirt over her riding gear, and it opened as she walked, showing a well-formed leg in the leather pants and high boots. She’d turned the high-riding boot cuffs down over her calf, and the red fur made a nice accent to her costume, echoed in the fur trim of her cuffs and collar, which she had opened. As usual, she wore the sapphire pendant she had inherited as the eldest female of her Blood.
[…they discuss the earlier stunt fall…]
“You really should learn how to scowl menacingly.” She glanced up at K’vin and then shook her head, sighing sadly. She had once teased him that he was far too handsome to ever look genuinely threatening, with the Hanrahan red hair, blue eyes, and freckles. “No, you just don’t have the face for it.”
We note the difference of description between Zulaya, who gets a full camera pan, including the addition of a functionally useless skirt over the riding pants and boots (presumably to make her look more feminine while the male gaze is active) and descriptions of her jewelry, color choices, and her features, while K’vin gets a literal shortcut – Hanrahan red hair, blue eyes, and freckles. And he’s taller than she is, even though she’s apparently taller than most women. There are very few absolute descriptions of height – Lessa is diminutive, but is that just compared to everyone around her, or is she actually shorter than average? What is the average height on Pern, anyway?
Also, I think this is the first explicitly person of color Weyrleader we’ve had in all of these books. The description, though, wants me to envision an attractive semi-practically clad person rather than a more properly-clad but less feature-showing person, as a dragonrider that would be used to the extreme cold and the likelihood of fighting a skin-devouring parasite would wear. (Like the ones designed for the 2017 Wonder Woman movie.)
In essence, this particular description is aiming for eroticising Zulaya, while also exoticising her. We know that several different ethnicities made the trip to Pern, but even in the far future, we’re still apparently obsessed with making anyone of darker skin colors out to be hot. Even with all that time spent beforehand making her seem much more practical, although I now realize that this description, with the strong mention of her precognitive abilities, makes Zulaya more and more into someone’s harmful stereotypes of a person of Romani descent.
Which would mean it’s a Sean and Sorka story, just genderflipped. This is not necessarily a bad idea, if both characters can ascend out of the possibility of being stereotyped awfully.
And we also have to deal with the part where K’vin is clearly at least in lust with Zulaya, who does not return that feeling to him, at least most of the time.
The actual plot, as it is, proceeds to an innocuous discussion of dragonriding, by teasing a shipmaster’s wife about not having done so, and how riding a ship through storms should mean dragons are a breeze. The heckling stops briefly for everyone to sample the Benden white, and to tell Chalkin to piss off when he comes by to try and get wine from everyone else’s bottles instead of his own. After a short discussion where people worry that Chalkin has enough of a following to make things difficult for those who want everyone ready for Thread, the food arrives, there is dinner, and then the meeting starts. K’vin hopes the music is still going when the meeting gets done, because apparently Zulaya is a great dancer, and she likes K’vin as a dance partner because he’s tall. Zulaya comments on the art looking good, including the chairs and banners that have been created with Telgar Weyr’s colors (black grain on a white field) before the meeting begins in earnest. Present are Lord Holders and their accompanying Weyrleaders, the Chief Engineer (Smith), the Chief Medic (Healer) and the Headmaster of the College (Harper). Of course it’s those three, because of their descendants being so important later on.
With more than a little acid commentary at Chalkin when he makes a rude noise about the imminence of Threadfall, the meeting gets underway. Paulin dismisses the idea that the wanderer would actually collide with Pern, based on calculations and the notes of the ancestors. With support from others, who have done and rechecked the calculations that came from AIVAS, Keroon, and Tillek. Paulin, Fort Lord Holder, and S’nan, descendent of Sean and Fort Weyrleader, go over the pathways the Fall will take when Thread arrives and the timetable of when it is likely to appear. Since this is the first time anyone will have a live-fire exercise, each Weyr will provide personnel for the first few falls to get experience for later on.
B’nurrin, Igen’s Weyrleader, makes a sensible comment suggesting that everyone get their fighting experience by practicing on the Falls that will fly over the Southern Continent before anything comes North, but this is treated as shocking by other Weyrleaders and dismissed. Although K’vin privately supports the idea and thinks that if he were to take a few wings of riders southward, he would find a practice partner in B’nurrin.
The conversation shifts to ground crew logistics – Master Kalvi, the Chief Engineer, says that everyone should get their allotment of HNO3 tanks, but they’ll have to make the flamethrower fuel on site, and there will be demonstration and practice with the ground crews before Thread arrives. The Chief Medic indicates everyone will be trained in first aid and burn control.
A useful note is that the language is shifting at this point – S’nan insists on using “Year” rather than “Turn”, which is coming into use by younger people. Additionally, numbweed and fellis juice are namechecked as part of the standard first aid kit at this point.
The report on the Weyrs is that they are fully staffed and supplied and ready to go fight. The Holds have filed their reports, except Nerat, who is having trouble controlling the vegetation and wild weed growth, and Bitra, who essentially has been flying the middle finger about this, and continues to do so, expressing his disbelief that Thread will return. When asked for what proof he wants, Chalkin says that an AIVAS report would help. (Landing is, of course, buried, and nobody has been able to find the building that houses it because the ash blanket has obliterated anything that might serve as a referent.)
Then, in fine Pern tradition, Chalkin gets to voice all of the things about the return of Thread that should inspire skepticism, as well as several of the plot holes that we’ve brought up before.
Chalkin’s grin was patronizing. “A spaceborne organism? That drops on a large planet and eats everything it touches? Why wasn’t Pern totally destroyed during previous visitations? Why is it every two hundred years? How come the Exploration Team that did a survey of the planet before it was released to our ancestors to colonize…how come they didn’t see any evidence? Ah, no,” Chalkin said, flicking the notion away from him with his begrimed hands, “ridiculous!”
He’s still right that it sounds ridiculous. To the last point about evidence, the others will bring up the rings that the exploration and rescue teams discovered, but that will doesn’t explain away how life survives on a planet where an extinction event happens every two hundred years.
And if Pern’s orbit is roughly the same period as Terra’s, that means that if the last Pass finished when the United States puts its official birthday in 1776, the next Pass would have begun in Jimmy Carter’s first term as President and continued through at least President number 46. That’s a long time of innovation and new things being present, except that Pern is supposed to be degrading gracefully rather than actively driving forward. Skepticism is a thing to be expected when the last ten generations have not had any experience with world-destroying events.
That said, there is precedent that Chalkin is not living up to his end of the bargain.
“Oh, Chalkin believes in the Charter all right,” Paulin said sardonically. “The patent conferring the title of ‘Lord Holder’ on the original northern stake-holders is what gives his line the right to hold. And he’s already used the Charter to substantiate his autonomous position. I wonder if he also knows the penalty for failing to prepare his hold. That constitutes a major breach of the trust…”
“Who trusts Chalkin?” G’don asked.
“…the trust that holders rest in the Lord of their hold in return for their labor.”
“Ha!” said Bridgely. “I don’t think much of his holders either. Useless lot on the whole. Most of ’em kicked out of other holds for poor management or plain laziness.”
“Bitra’s badly managed, too. Generally we have to return a full half of his tithings,” M’shall said. “Half the grain is moldy, the timber unseasoned, and hides improperly cured and often rancid. It’s a struggle every quarter to receive decent supplies from him.”
Cocowhat by depizan
So, apparently, Pern wasn’t intended to continue as Rand’s paradise away from anywhere after Thread fell, but a feudal planet with vassalage as the core method of survival and a hereditary oligarchy that prevents anyone who isn’t already at the top from exercising direct power over their own lives and lands. The narrative attempts to run a distraction in this revelation by following out immediately with the knowledge that Article Fourteen of the Charter has a provision for a Lord Holder to be impeached by the council for dereliction of duty, but that’s essentially the peerage deciding to revoke a title and grant of lands (which would be a function of the Crown) and hope that some other peer would be more suitable for them.
It doesn’t even take a unanimity of the council to impeach; agreement among the “major holders and leaders” is sufficient, and there doesn’t have to be a trial conducted for it. The Benden Lord and Lady Holder offer refugee stories as evidence that Chalkin is
“come as near to bending, or breaking for that matter, what few laws we do have on Pern. Shady dealings, punitive contracts, unusual harsh conditions for his holders…”
[…Paulin wants to see them, and then delivers this gem…]
Autonomy is a privilege and a responsibility, but not a license for authoritarianism or despotic rule. Certainly autonomy does not give anyone the right to deprive his constituents of basic needs. Such as protection from Threadfall.”
I think we have very different definitions of what autonomy means. I also think that this interpretation is flatly contradicted by the material present in the books about the colonists, who very much seemed of the opinion that everyone should be able to have absolute rule within the boundaries of their domains. If the Charter got amended between then and now, that’s worth pointing out, but I think we’re supposed to believe that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, even though the “Die Eurasia Die!” banners are still present.
There’s one additional wrinkle to be smoothed if Chalkin gets the boot. His successor has to be of the same bloodline. Which could mean, practically, that they are deposing Cesare to install Lucrezia. Instead of being able to grant the whole stock to a different bloodline entirely.
All of this is just a giant headache.
Cocowhat by depizan
As for the plot, the remaining business is to approve the construction of a mining hold in mountains where the ore can be gathered and processed faster than it would take to work them in the Telgar mines, so that production on flamethrowers and other equipment can get done in time for Threadfall (approved), and for Clisser to get new students in the scientific arts trained for use in sextants and for everyone to develop a safeguard – permanent, indestructible, and unambiguous – so that later generations will not succumb to viewpoints like Chalkin’s on the validity of Thread. But it has to be essentially usable in a situation where all the technology and learning of the current time has been lost. The chair concurs of the necessity, and tasks Clisser with figuring it out.
There’s an offhand remark about keeping the language pure in relation to the idea of a Rosetta Stone being used to encode the necessary information. Nobody laughs in the face of this remark, even though the Rosetta Stone itself is proof that languages can change rapidly in the same geographic space over time.
With no new business, the meeting adjourns, and so does the chapter. It’s going to be an interesting journey from here to the eventual creation of the stone creations that will eventually be what the Benden Weyrleader uses so far in the future to convince his people of the return of Thread.