Last time, we had to deal with the fact that the previous book was put in place so that someone would feel a bit better about the sudden departure of Robinton, and so that the author could try and make changes to the timeline while pretending not to do so.
Thankfully, as a bit of a breather, we have Runner of Pern.
Runner of Pern: Content Notes: Background Radiation Sexism
In the guide I’ve been using for which things to tackle next, this is slotted in quite late in the sequence, but noted that I could have read it any time after the first book. This suggests a very high degree of stand-alone-ness.
Our viewpoint character is Tenna, an apprentice express delivery runner, who is in the middle of a long-distance delivery run, which gives her a convenient way to gush over the people who founded the runner stations (a practice that arose during First Fall) and their ability to cover legendary amounts of ground on any given day.
Lopers had been able to put themselves in some sort of trance which not only allowed them to run extended distances but kept them warm during snowstorms and freezing temperatures. They had also planned the original traces, which now were a network crisscrossing the entire continent.
Also importantly, runnerbeasts are too expensive for the average person (as they should be), and drums are great for short messages when the weather is good, so letters get carried in pouches by human runners.
The traces are also apparently easy to tell from the space around them – the springy texture changes to something else when you stray from the path.
We are told that Tenna has runner in her bloodline, sufficiently so that her mother tells her “It’s for how long, not will you, for a female” in regard to Tenna’s nervousness about whether she’ll be selected to be a runner. Which is nice – it’s been a while since we’ve seen a group that’s perfectly fine with having women in it and not caring all that much about sexist crap.
Even better, Tenna might be our first explicitly childfree character.
Tenna had decided a long time ago–when she had first been considered old enough to mind her younger siblings–far she’d prefer running to raising runners. She’d run until she could no longer lift her knees. She’d an aunt who never mated: ran until she was older than Cesila was now and then took over the management of a connecting station down Igen way. Should something happen and she couldn’t run anymore, Tenna wouldn’t mind managing a station. Her mother ran hers proper, always had hot water ready to ease a runner’s aching limbs, good food, comfortable beds, and healing skills that rivaled what you could find in any Hold.
I’m quite sure that the narrative will do something about this by the end of it all, but it’s nice to have someone saying they’re not interested in kids, and to have an aunt who didn’t have any sex at all. I knew these people had to exist in Pern. It’s terrible that it’s taken this long to see one.
Mallum, a runner that Tenna is familiar with, is scheduled to give her the Runner final exam, but he comes in hobbling and Cesila immediately sets to healing the heel that’s been injured, and Mallum sets to hitting on everyone that’s helping him heal up.
“And is this the lass of yours as is to be taken for a run?” he asked, relaxing his expression from the grimace he’d made when the poultice was first applied. “Prettiest of the bunch.” And he grinned at Tenna.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” Cesila said. “Looks is all right but long legs is better. Tenna’s her name.”
“Handsome’s not a bad thing to be, Cesila, and it’s obvious your daughter takes after you.”
Cesila sniffed again but Tenna could see that her mother didn’t mind Mallum’s remarks. And Cesila was a handsome woman: lithe still and slender, with graceful hands and feet. Tenna wished she were more like her mother.
So Mallum looks Tenna up and down and pronounces her a good body type for running. The next day, after rest, Tenna and Mallum go out on a short run, after Tenna shows Mallum her runner shoes, which have cleats or spikes on them. The spike length varies based on the toughness of the ground. Mallum also checks Tenna’s clothes to make sure she’s not going to get blisters and that she’s warm enough to run before they set out. And dragons fly overhead by coincidence before disappearing into hyperspace.
The next day starts with Mallum giving advice to Tenna about running, a lecture she has heard many, many times before from other runners and her relatives. Runners are also described as carrying small things like numbweed or poultices and wearing a very specific long-tailed orange headband in addition to their message pouches. And the nuclear disaster-level background radiation of sexism continues, even as Tenna yes keeping good pace with Mallum.
“Running with a pretty girl’s not hard to do,” he told her when they took one brief pause.
She wished he didn’t make so much of her looks. They wouldn’t help her run any better or help her become what she wanted to be: a top runner.
[…and they stop at the destination station…]
Old Irma came out with a grin on her sun-dried face for them.
“Will she do, Mallum?” the old woman asked, handing each a cup.
“Oh aye, she’ll do. A credit to her Bloodline and not a bother to run with!” Mallum said with a twinkle in his eye.
“I pass, do I, Mallum?” Tenna asked, needing to have a direct answer.
“Oh, aye,” and he laughed, walking about and shaking his legs to get the kinks out even as she was doing. “No fear on that. Any hot water for m’poultice, Irm?”
[…there’s water and conversation…]
“Not when I’d a chance to run with such a petty girl,” Mallum said.
“Just like a man,” Irma said dismissively.
Tenna felt herself blushing, although she was beginning to be he wasn’t just teasing. No one else had ever commented on her looks.
I like Tenna a lot so far. (And I’ve checked the copyright on this work – 1999. This might be an author starting to catch up with the times. Or so we can hope.) And Irma, too. Mallum, on the other hand, certainly seems like the kind of person that is right at home on Pern.
So Tenna takes a message back home, where she’s congratulated on joining the runners officially and then comes a quick montage of Tenna running local routes and ending up being the only runner that can take a priority message northward into a snowstorm, which nets her “extra stitches on her belt, marking her rise toward journeyman rank” for her excellent time made. Which is the first time I have heard the Runners are arranged in a guild structure like other Crafts, and now I want to know a lot more about how that gets done. Because presumably it’s all about good time.
When we get back to Tenna, she’s taking a run to Fort, and we learn that runners are good at spotting useful herbs and that they carry tablets that can be chewed to ease cramps in the leg. And there’s the possibility of renegades (which would not have made any sense if I had started with this before doing Renegades of Pern), although the only known acts of violence against runners happened at Lemos and Bitra (no surprises there). Tenna is mostly concerned about the possibility of tunnel snakes, and is hoping that she has enough time to stay over for the Gather at Fort and get some more leather using “runner-station chit.” and possibly bargaining a bit with it.
Something catches her ears, and once she figures it out, Tenna has to fling herself off the runner trail as a person on a runnerbeast thunders by. And then, after the danger has passed, has to make sure that she doesn’t get any complications or needles working their way in from the sticklebush that she threw herself into. Which makes her incredibly cranky about why there was a rider on the runner traces and all the potential damage and delay that could have happened to the messages. No further mishaps happen and Tenna reaches her waypoint, taking some time to heal and complain about the rider, whom the staff of Three Hundred (as all the runner stations are known solely as numbers) know and suggest that he was running an experiment (as well as trying to cut a half hour of time off the trip).
“You’d better tell him. Maybe a pretty runner’ll get it through his thick skull because the odd crack or two hasn’t.”
His reaction made Tenna feel that her anger was righteous. It’s one thing to be angry on your own, another to have confirmation of your right to be angry. She felt redeemed. Though she couldn’t see why being pretty would be an advantage if you were giving someone what-for. She could hit just as hard as the ugliest runner she’d ever met.
This person will later praise Tenna’s good time and say that it “[s]hows you’re not just a pretty face.” So there’s this tension between Tenna being pretty and being effective, which is really much closer to the Terra of our times than a far-future/past society.
Tenna goes up for a soak for her tired muscles, and we note the description of massage tables and oils in a place and time that doesn’t seem like massage of that nature would exist, but perhaps that art survived or was rediscovered quickly as runners become a worldwide network. And because it’s Fort, it has the benefit of easy hot water. The station master’s wife comes by to put some medicine in the tub to help pull out the slivers and figure out how Tenna wants to spend the night.
And also to talk to her about Haligon.
“Pretty runner girl, you are. You give Haligon what-for next time you see him.
“How’ll I know him?” Tenna asked acerbically, though she dearly wished a confrontation with the rider. “And why is ‘pretty’ a help?”
“Haligon likes pretty girls.” Penda gave an exaggerated wink. “We’ll see you stay about long enough to give him what-for. You might do some good.”
Okay, so I’m all in favor of people complimenting an athletic build (as Tenna presumably has, having trained to be a runner from early on) as pretty. It continues to feed the idea that the author has a preference for women with smaller chests and thinks of them more as heroes than women with more classically sexy builds, but apart from that, it’s fine.
That said, the repetition of the word pretty is starting to sound like a plot point. After Tenna soaks, gets massaged and slivers plucked from her by Penda, and has a nap, she shows up to dinner. After everyone shakes their head at Haligon’s recklessness (and tells her that Groghe was informed about the near-miss), the word reappears again.
“You’ll be right then. I’ve seen your kin on the traces, haven’t I? Betchur one of Fedri and Cesila’s, aincha?” He smiled knowingly at the others. “You’re prettier than she was and she was some pretty woman.”
Tenna decided to ignore the compliment and admitted to her parentage. “Have you been through Station Ninety-Seven?”
It’s like the narrative is telling us that we shouldn’t believe Tenna’s desire to be childfree and run, because she’s too pretty to accomplish this task. Given what we know about the author’s willingness to use force as “romance”, I’m edgy about the possibility that Tenna may not get a choice.
Tenna’s remaining injuries are noticed, examined, and a Healer sent for to make sure that she’s going to be fine from the sticklebush. Tenna doesn’t want the healer, because healers cost and that would mean she couldn’t get good leathers at the Gather. Torlo points out that since one of Groghe’s runnerbeasts caused the incident, Groghe will pick up the tab for the Healer. Journeyman Beveny does three good things immediately on arrival – he asks Penda to help, he conducts the examination publically, and he listens to what the runners are suggesting as medicines to draw out the remaining slivers that Tenna might have. (Tenna is embarrassed by the attention, but recognizes it as runner standard, based on her own observations at Ninety-Seven.) Beveny mixes and applies a poultice, notable for not being too hot when applied, and then leaves with the idea of checking on Tenna tomorrow. And then dinner happens, with runners being drafted to get Tenna food, drink, and utensils, on the idea that Tenna shouldn’t move. (The embarrassment returns to Tenna over the attention, but she again remembers it as runner standard.) Others help her to bed.
The next morning, there’s still one sliver stuck in her, so Beveny leaves more poultice, and something to soak in the tub with. Tenna is wondering why all the attention, and Torlo points out that he wants the Healer to see the injuries so that when they complain about Haligon, the Healer will back them up. Beveny also insists Tenna stay resting, lest she re-infect the wound with the dust and dirt of running. This puts her in Fort for the Gather, as she wants, but leaves her without clothes for the party. Rosa and Spacia offer to lend her clothes, except nothing they have would fit her, and in a flash of inspiration, they take Tenna to Silvina at the Harper Hall to get fitted. Silvina has a practiced eye and puts her in a near-perfect dress…but Tenna needs some padding in the chest to fill it out correctly. (Which gets done by Silvina, and then stitched into place.) Spacia has a bit of a laugh about being to pad herself, but preferring that to being top-heavy and bouncing around.
I’m a bit surprised nobody has created a sport bra or a binder that would help with that problem, but I continue to be surprised at the things that Pern lacks that I would have expected to have been developed by now.
Everyone smiles at Tenna, having it in their head that she should look her very best when she gives Haligon the business.
The next day, the last known sliver pops out, and Tenna takes a short run to the docks to collect ship manifests and mail and doesn’t pay much attention to the soreness in her shin on the way back. Day after that is Gather day, and Tenna is enchanted with everything, even if Rosa and Spacia are skeptical about the return of Thread, despite the astronomical indicators working.
The two others point out Haligon, and that makes Tenna get on board with making herself as pretty as possible before she gives him what-for. And admits to herself that she might be pretty.
The girls hatch a plan, based on a lack of runner cords, that Tenna might be mistaken as a Harper when she rattles Haligon’s cage. Rosa’s dress rips, and she sends Tenna to collect Cleve, Rosa’s intended, away from Felisha, who has designs on him as well. Cleve is all too happy to take an excuse to leave Felisha, who acts as a Clingy Jealous Girl.
This is where we get Tenna’s plan: to trip Haligon somewhere publically, like the dancing square. (In addition to charges being leveled like reckless behavior and causing a loss of income.)
Tenna and Cleve wander the stalls, where she gets a glimpse of herself in a Glasscraft mirror and almost doesn’t recognize herself. She Cleans Up Nicely, I guess.
Here’s a good place to stop, before anyone gets up to violence.