Dragonsblood: Making Things Worse

[Mari Ness’s post is about the differences between slow-acting, widespread, small, and sometimes invisible changes that might end up having great environmental impacts versus big flashy loud things that are visible but may not be the most effective at what they’re supposed to do. Which is at least tangentially related to what we are encountering now, where there are characters making decisions about which path to take to provide the most assistance to their descendants.]

Last time…well, we met our main characters last time, found out one of them has the special “talks to all dragons” ability and is a fair hand at both mending bones and drawing whatever she sees, and that the new author was conceiving of the idea that blue and green riders didn’t have to be exclusively gay any more before it showed up in the later works of the series we just finished.

Dragonsblood: Chapter 2: Content Notes: Abusive Parents

(Fort Hold, First Pass, year 42, AL 50)

Which establishes (and retcons the original timeline established in the First Fall-era books, if I remember correctly) that the colonists spent eight years on planet Pern before Threadfall made itself known and forced the abandonment of the Southern Continent. This is a good change, in that it gives the colonists time to deploy and get set up and get used to their way of life before having to make the drastic changes necessary to survive Thread.

Rather than a poem or song fragment, we get prose to start this First Pass chapter.

-ome (suffix): (i) the biological portion of an ecosystem. (ii) the material and genetic information required to re-create the biological portion of an ecosystem. Examples: the “terrome” refers to the biological portion of the Terran ecosystem; the “cetome” refers to the biological portion of the Cetus III ecosystem; the “eridanome” refers to the biological portion of the Eridani ecosystem.

–Glossary of terms, Ecosystems: From -ome to Planet, 24th edition

One of the nice things about science fiction writing is that you get to make shit up, and so long as it sounds vaguely science-y, not that many readers are going to give you grief about it.

Which is to say that I can’t imagine linguistics going in this direction, even in the far future, because Terrans are much better at portmanteau than this, and I can’t see a phrasing derived from, say “biome” to suddenly take on a meaning that is only a small part of what the original was.

The chapter opens with Wind Blossom (daughter of Kitti Ping, fabled Eridani-trained dragon geneticist) being ejected from a dream, but with the important part still intact.

Even with the dream interrupted, as if against her will, Wind Blossom remembered her mother’s last words: “Always a disappointment you were to me. Now you hold the family honor. Fail not, Wind Blossom.”
Wind Blossom had had the same dreams for the last forty years.

Cocowhat by depizan

Do I even want to dive into figuring out which terribly executed, potentially racist stereotypes are at work here?

Actually, stick a pin in that, there’s more. First, the descriptions of the two of them, in comparison, which is essentially Kitti Ping saved everyone by creating dragons, Wind Blossom is “credited with–blamed for–the creation, through similar genetic manipulation, of the photophobic watch-whers.”

“Always a disappointment you were to me,” her mother’s calm, controlled voice came to Wind Blossom’s mind–a memory over forty years old.

And yet more hagiography of the early settlers and how Kitti Ping saved them all.

Wind Blossom stares herself in the mirror as she starts her morning routine.

Her hair was still dark–it would always be dark–as were her eyes. They stared impressively back at her as she examined her face. Her skin had the same yellowish tinge of her Asian ancestors; her eyes had the Asian almond shape.
Wind Blossom completed her inspection, noting once again that the muscles around her face, which had slackened thirty years before, pulled the corners of her lips downward.
Opening her dresser, she saw the yellow tunic at the bottom of her drawer and sighed imperceptibly as she had at the sight of it every day for the last twenty years. Once, an accident at the laundry had left one of her white tunics with a distinctly yellowish tinge. No one had remarked on it. When the day was over, Wind Blossom had carefully put the tunic away in her drawers. She had worn it again, years later–and no one had noticed. Now, as always, she carefully pulled out one of her scrupulously white tunics. From the lower drawer she pulled out a fresh pair of black pants.

Okay, I think that’s enough potentially-racist material for now. Let’s start again at the top, with what were apparently the last words of Kitti Ping to her daughter. Her sentence construction is more Yoda than anything, which is often deployed in a “the funny foreigner doesn’t have a solid grasp on English language and structure” kind of way. But also, there’s apparently no warmth or love between mother and daughter, for Kitti to have said all of this so dispassionately. That sounds suspiciously stereotypical for Asian parents on Terra. Then Wind Blossom describes herself as having a yellowish tinge to her skin, which is a sign of jaundice rather than ethnicity. Yellow skin was a racist caricature of Asians on Terra, and I doubt somehow that Wind Blossom would describe herself in such a way. The almond eyes also lean into stereotype, but those I might believe are descriptors.

And I really don’t know what to make of this yellow tunic story. Did nobody notice or care because she was the failure daughter of Kitti Ping? Because they thought an off-color mistake was perfect for the geneticist who created the mistakes called watch-whers? Because they thought that yellow suited her well, for fashionable reasons? For racist ones? And when she wore it again, nobody noticed the color change then, either, apparently. Same reasons? I don’t know what this is doing here in the story, because there aren’t any signs to point at or reasons why she held onto an “accident at the laundry” for twenty years so she could sigh at it every morning.

What I can see is that Kitti Ping gave her daughter severe mental trauma as she died, trauma that she is dealing with by herself (because again, there are no therapists on Pern and nobody ever comes up with the bright idea to reinvent them, despite the clear need for them every time we check in on Pern), and that, as we find out, she is passing on to her own daughter.

Wind Blossom spared one more moment to glare at her daughter. “Always a disappointment you were to me,” she muttered before she bent over the boy.

Because a terrible thing about abuse is that it tends to cycle and perpetuate itself on the next generation as well. (And also, if I recall correctly, Kitti Ping died slumped over at her workbench, having just created the dragon program, so if those were the last words between mother and daughter, they happened before Kitti died.)

The plot, such that it is, has someone calling Wind Blossom to come out because a child has been mauled by a watch-wher and needs stitches. Wind Blossom is first amused, then acidly annoyed, by the apparently new conception of calling her “my lady”, and then starts barking orders at the interns on what will need to happen, while she mentally complains that there isn’t any such thing as a true, sterile operating theater to work in, even though there are apparently still sterilized gowns for surgery, and that there isn’t any more supply of suture material, so surgery as medical practice is about to go out the window because technology is fading out without being replaced. Wind Blossom will say as much that learning about sutures is pointless because the technology to support that knowledge is fading, and I am wondering why, despite knowing that they wanted to degrade gracefully, the colonists seem to have not packed the necessary things to be able to create such things as sterile environments, sutures, and the like in their target technology level? Or had the knowledge of it spread widely through the populations?

The boy turns out to be a Tubberman (although his father disavows the name that caused so much trouble on Pern), and because of bloodline records, his father can tell Wind Blossom that the child is O positive. So Wind Blossom, after ordering the preparation of the room, and telling M’hall, Benden’s Weyrleader, that this is the last of the suture material, also orders blood transfusions to the boy before/while/after the surgery is going on, from the three people that can give – his father, Wind Blossom, and her daughter, Emorra. The interns are advising against a woman of Wind Blossom’s age giving a unit of blood, but she thinks it would be poetic if she died giving her blood to atone for her “mistake”, in the same way that she thought it poetic earlier for descendants of Kitti Ping to be helping the descendants of Ted Tubberman.

Wind Blossom passes out from giving the unit of blood, and we get another dream of hers where Kitti Ping is insistent that her designed creature, the one she received accolades for because it appeared to save Cetus III from radiation poisoning, was a visible symbiote and the unnoticed, unsung leechworms were really responsible for the salvation of Cetus III, because they ate (and therefore concentrated) things that had been irradiated by the Nathi in their attempt to wipe out all the humans on the planet. The designed creatures ate the leechworms, and were able to process the radiation. But we don’t get very far in the dream before Wind Blossom wakes up. (And is informed she was out for two days from the blood donation.) Purman (the Tubberman who denies his name) and Wind Blossom then have a conversation that M’Hall will eventually join in on, but we have a few things to note before we get there. First, Purman thinks Wind Blossom is being harsh with her daughter.

“Emorra did not leave your side until she collapsed into sleep herself. I had Carelly take her to her rooms.” His expression changed. “I think you treated her harshly. Was Kitti Ping like that?”
Wind Blossom examined his face before slowly nodding. “It is a great honor the Eridani bestowed on us.”

Wind Blossom, for her part, doesn’t try to deny it and acknowledges that her own mother was the same way, and we can see very clearly here a cycle that is being perpetuated on the next generation and yet nobody, save Purman here and now, seems interested in possibly trying to break that cycle. Purman doesn’t persist in his objections, even when Wind Blossom changes the subject by asking what happened to Purman’s son.

After Purman tells Wind Blossom how his son got mauled, M’hall and Emorra arrive. Wind Blossom tells them both to kill the watch-wher, because she thinks it still has an instinctive reaction that she tried to breed out of it. M’hall shrugs and says the watch-wher’s (Bendensk, which means that whers bonded to places apparently take the name of the place, instead of the name of their primary handler) already killed herself from lack of partner. Because her previous handler got Impressed to a dragon, and her attempt to bond with the young child meant he got mauled. Wind Blossom, upon hearing that the son will need to wake soon and not move his mouth, assigns Emorra to handle that issue.

“My lady!” M’hall protested, “Emorra is the administrator here. She should not be ordered about–”
“She is my daughter,” Wind Blossom replied, as if that were enough. Emorra bit off a bitter response, nodded curtly to her mother, and left.
“Mother or not–” M’hall’s indignation suffused his face

I think by now we can safely say that Wind Blossom lost whatever empathy points she may have picked up by having this version of Kitti Ping as her mother, because she’s doing it just as much to her daughter. Like, we can see it as the tragic continuation of a cycle of abuse all we like, but that doesn’t mean we have to like or excuse anything that Wind Blossom is doing with Emorra. And having that same nightmare every damn night seems like it might induce Wind Blossom to make some changes in her life so that she doesn’t turn out exactly like her mother to her own daughter, but that kind of self-awareness has apparently eluded her. (Which is all too realistic.)

Plot-wise, Wind Blossom sent Emorra out so she and M’hall could talk at Purman about the actual function of watch-whers, dragons, and grubs. At least at this point in time, the function of the grubs has not been lost to time, and it turns out that Purman bred a variation that works more closely with the wine vines at Benden so that they aren’t harmed by Threadfall. Which will become important when he actually says it, but for now, it’s a lecture about genetics and why you want to have multiple reasons for introducing a new species into an ecosystem. Watch-whers apparently are meant to fulfill several roles.

“In fact, the watch-whers were created to solve several problems,” she continued. “Dragons, by their nature, would associate with a select few people. But they must become part of the human ecology, if you will. They must not be feared.”
“So you bred the watch-whers as something that most people could see?” Purman sounded skeptical.
“And they’re uglier than dragons, too,” M’hall added. “If you were to try to tell someone who’d never seen a dragon what they were like, you’d say like a watch-wher but bigger and prettier.”
“So their first purpose is psychological?”
“It is not their first purpose,” Wind Blossom replied rather tartly.

The hell is this? There really isn’t any reason at all for the dragons not to be feared – they’re the protectors of the planet and keepers of the way of life. Sean and Sorka seemed to think a healthy fear of dragons and their riders would make things easier for everyone, especially in not having the dragons do mundane things and in making sure their tribute trains stayed uninterrupted. And if Wind Blossom wanted to make people more comfortable with dragons in their midst, she would have done better working with others to try and breed a domesticated fire-lizard. Humans, at least, like small and cute things that are useful to them. Watch-whers fit neither of these purposes, so it seems like, at least for this part, Wind Blossom is talking out her ass.

What follows, however, is something far better, and also makes me wonder if this were something that was strongly fought over or was supposed to be the plan all along, and the first author just never got around to saying so.

“I designed their eyes to be excellent in low-light situations,” Wind Blossom said, choosing her words carefully, “and particularly tuned to infrared wavelengths.”
[…and also that they’re empathic more than telepathic, and that she tried to make them harder-armored, but that didn’t take…]
“Why not incorporate these changes directly into the dragons?” [Purman asks.]
“Two different species are safer,” Wind Blossom said. “Greater diversity yields redundancy.”
Purman nodded but held up a hand as he grappled with his thoughts. Finally he looked up at the two of them. “The watch-whers fight Thread at night?”
“By themselves,” M’hall agreed, eyes gleaming in memory. “I’ve seen them once–they were magnificent. I learned a lot about fighting Thread that night.”
“They breathe fire?”
“No,” M’hall said. “They eat Thread, like the fire-lizards. They don’t need riders, either–the queens organize them all.”
[…The plot gos on to discuss things like “how do they fly?” (The same way dragons do, just with smaller wings to avoid getting Threadscored.) and “why don’t we see them more often?” (it’s usually too cold for Thread to survive when the watch-whers are active.)…]
A look of wonder crossed his face as he recalled the experience. “They swarmed in from everywhere, arranged themselves by their queens, and flew up to the Thread. I was above them at first, and they came up at me like stars coming out at night. And then they were above, swooping and diving for the still-viable clumps of Thread.”
“They see more in the infrared range,” Wind Blossom said. “They can differentiate between the live Thread and the Thread that has been frozen by the night atmosphere.”

Cocowhat by depizan

And yes, that’s why their eyes are terrible, and also, did you know that Wind Blossom thinks of the watch-whers as the second string in case the dragons and their riders die, too?

But we’ve finally established a purpose for the watch-whers other than “Wind Blossom’s failed attempts to recreate the dragons, which she was doomed to fail repeatedly because she was a perpetual and continual disappointment to her mother.”

I’m with Purman, who says in the middle of this new understanding, “Why keep this a secret?” Why, indeed? Wind Blossom’s response is “So that people can sleep at night without the fear of Threadfall while they sleep.” Which doesn’t make sense. I think more people would sleep better knowing that watch-whers were the night patrol during night Threadfalls. And also, not knowing this has basically permitted the wholesale persecution of watch-whers on the planet, instead of understanding their vital role of keeping the planet safe in conditions where dragons and their riders aren’t as effective. I realize that all of the Threadfall mentioned in the books up to this point happens in the daytime, but if it follows a regular pattern, at some point a Hold has to be sieged by Thread during the night. Which would be a problem for the dragons and the riders, but nobody wakes up to find their fields devastated. Now we know why — the watch-whers have presumably been protecting them during the night. But if Aleesa is right and watch-whers have been either turned away or hunted just about everywhere that doesn’t have another use for them, there aren’t enough watch-whers on the planet to eat a full Threadfall. (Unless they breed wild in several parts of the planet and the humans haven’t discovered this.)

Which is to say, all in all, this doesn’t make any sense at all. The night patrol purpose of the watch-whers should be common knowledge, and yes, while they’re ugly, they should be seen as a valuable corps of Thread-fighters. Trying to stitch this knowledge in with the books that we’ve already experienced, near and far, is an exercise in the sort of explanations that comic book continuity is famous for. Expect headaches.

Further patching things on to the world, Purman is able to infer from all of this, and his own experience in having to breed a better grub because a fungus started destroying his grape vines, that Wind Blossom and M’hall suspect that disease vectors that affect fire-lizards could affect watch-whers and dragons, and that since there’s been ample time for mutation, the genetic immunity given to dragons and watch-whers might not be enough against mutated strains. There’s our reason for Talith’s cough, and Wind Blossom, M’hall, and Purman’s worries close out Chapter Two.

That’s a lot of new territory for exploration opened up in a single chapter. I like the way that it redeems Wind Blossom from being unfavorably compared to her mother, because their purposes were different, but something like “watch-whers eat Thread at night” is the sort of thing that should be disseminated far and wide so that, like the grubs, people can always be on the lookout for them and to try and help establish breeding lines and spaces for them. With this new knowledge, Kindan shouldn’t have had any trouble at all finding a new watch-wher to come to the mines, instead of the convoluted plot with Aleesa, Zist, and the others. There doesn’t seem to be any real justification beyond the need to set up the current plot as to why vital information is being kept secret, and other pieces of information weren’t being translated to the desired technology level long before Thread accelerated the loss of that technology.

This is a good chapter for worldbuilding, but it really needed to be in with the previous set of books set at the colony era, and subsequent books needed to take this into account. That way we don’t have to fit it in to the pattern and stare at how poorly it grafts with everything else we’ve seen so far.

Next week, back to the “present,” where there will be more cursing.

6 thoughts on “Dragonsblood: Making Things Worse

  1. genesistrine June 6, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    OK, first thing to say: this chapter makes it explicit that Kitti Ping was EVIL.

    Whers can organize and manage their own anti-Thread defence. So dragons could presumably do just as well. But they’re designed to imprint on humans, and when their humans die they invariably suicide. We have no idea how dragons might live if they didn’t die when their humans did.

    Kitti Ping designed this *deliberately*. She created a species that had to bond to a human partner, and would kill itself when the human died. When there was a perfectly good alternate solution.

    Evil.

    As for the whole tunic thing, it’s incomprehensible. Does she have some kind of “someone should notice this tunic is stained and wash it for me!” thing going on?

    Sean and Sorka seemed to think a healthy fear of dragons and their riders would make things easier for everyone

    Easier for dragonriders at least. Nobody asking them “hey, could you maybe help with this?” between Threadfalls.

    I’m with Purman, who says in the middle of this new understanding, “Why keep this a secret?”

    Not to mention:

    “My mother believes that there are too many secrets on Pern,” M’hall said, looking back and forth between the two of them. “She is afraid that something will happen and that vital information will be lost, to the detriment of all.”

    M’hall’s mother is absolutely bang on accurate and the smartest person in the whole damn series. Grubs are going to be forgotten about. Somehow. Science and technology are being forgotten about because oh no no more sutures (the hell? Use catgut, people!).Wher nightfighting is going to be forgotten so much that a Weyrleader at the beginning of the Third Pass is going to try and wipe out watchwhers to a mighty chorus of indifference. TELL EVERYONE EVERYTHING YOU INCREDIBLY, INCOMPREHENSIBLY STUPID POINTLESSLY KNOWLEDGE-HOARDING ARSEHOLES.

    (Bendensk, which means that whers bonded to places apparently take the name of the place, instead of the name of their primary handler)

    This was covered in one of the earlier books, I think when Nuella was training people – whers bonded to Hold noble families take the name of the Hold; Forsk in Fort Hold for instance.

  2. Silver Adept June 6, 2019 at 7:37 pm

    Right, that wher name detail was covered then. This is the second one we’ve seen, I think, so it confirms that naming convention.

    And there’s so much secret keeping here that’s incomprehensible. And there’s going to be so much hagiographic revision of everything, even though there’s no Ping Hold, thankfully.

  3. genesistrine June 6, 2019 at 11:51 pm

    Oh damn, that should be “how LONG dragons live” in my 2nd sentence above. Oops.

    And – the whole philosophy of Pern is anti-science. One of the most basic tenets of science is “share your data”, and one of the most basic tenets of Pern is “keep your secrets. Hoard them like dragons!”. And this whole series shows how that’s fouled everything up. Nobody organises and shares knowledge, everyone keeps their proprietary secrets and never writes them down, and then everyone who knows something dies in the latest flu epidemic and poof, gone.

    It works pretty well as a Horrible Warning, but I’m not convinced that was what either author was going for,

  4. Silver Adept June 8, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I mean, all of the Pern series novels show how hoarding your secrets like dragons has fouled everything up, but these ones seem to be putting fairly heavy emphasis on it, even if that’s not what was actually intended for them.

    And worse, it seems to be flipping back and forth between “this is a terrible thing, our knowledge is being lost, oh no” and “this was a deliberate plan to get rid of the knowledge we have found most useless, and it is going according to plan.” Pick one and stick to it, unless there’s a reason for both of these things to exist simultaneously.

  5. depizan77 June 30, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Uh…my knowledge of the history of medicine is pretty much only from fantasy and historical fiction, but wikipedia tells me: “The earliest reports of surgical suture date to 3000 BC in ancient Egypt” Why in the galaxy are they losing the ability to stich people up?

    I mean, I think the plan of “go to some uninhabited planet and throw out technology” is a pretty terrible one to begin with, but they seem to be going with the worst possible version of it they could invent.

  6. genesistrine June 30, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    Why in the galaxy are they losing the ability to stich people up?

    I think it’s a Doylistic attempt to “rationally” explain away the Ninth Pass no-surgery taboo as not a superstition (because Word of the Author is “no superstition on Pern they are all super-rational yes everyone shut up I can’t hear you la la la”).

    Unfortunately it just makes the Pernese colonists look even stupider, which considering their actions in previous books is a remarkable achievement.

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