Hello again! We’re truly forging out own path here, having skipped entirely a book published in between, and so it’s time to say goodbye to the Srellim list that’s given us guidance the whole way through and helped us stay on track with major plotlines and characters so that we didn’t have to wait for a later book to make sense of an earlier one. Many thanks for your help. We’ve basically reached the end, as it is, as our storylines between this trilogy and the next one will collapse into a single narrative before we leave the Third Pass.
Dragon’s Fire is copyrighted in 2006, so we’re only a little more than a decade away from our own times. I expect the prose to evolve in that direction as well.
This material consists of two Books, each with Chapters, so let’s get cracking on Book One: Pellar.
Dragon’s Fire: Book One: Prologue and Chapter 1: Content Notes: Classism, Women in Refrigerators,
There is no SFnal Prologue here about how Pern came to be and the terrible situation that befell the colonists. Yes, it’s the second book in a series, but at this point, Pern is also many decades old, and it’s…unlikely, at this point, that someone is joining the series at this point, but this is also potentially a good time to see whether or not Pern can work its own lore into the story without being an infodump at the beginning. (The style of SF and Fantasy at this point, if memory serves, didn’t exactly endorse those radio serial-era material, despite there being one not a few years earlier.)
There are, however, two units to keep track of at the beginning of each chapter: a short verse, as in the previous book, and a timeline marker…of the colonist period, in years After Landing. So, the Prologue to book one is set AL 483.7, with this verse:
A single decimal point makes me wonder whether we’ve established how many monthlike divisions of time there are on Pern. And whether they have names. And all those other questions I’ve wanted to know about how Pern keeps time.
The whole of the Prologue consists of Zist and his wife(?), Cayla, watching a young mute boy named Pellar (abandoned by his parents) go through various exercises with Mikal, a “half-mad” former dragonrider and Healer. Pellar may not be able to speak, but he’s clearly fine otherwise, as he arranges beads in spectrum order after Mikal projects a rainbow using a prism, understands the way that pigments mix to form other colors, and seems able to draw pictures.
Inspired, Pellar produced a multicolored self-portrait in he way of all those who had only three Turns on Pern, exactly the same way that those who were only three years old back on long-forgotten Earth would have done–complete with arms sticking out of hands. The mouth in the big round head was smiling.
So there’s a good way of introducing your lore. Now we know they came from Earth some very long time ago.
Mikal asks Pellar to draw him, and Pellar does, but Mikal is sad. Mikal asks why, and Pellar draws what can easily be interpreted as Mikal’s lost dragon, in the correct color, brown. Mikal immediately calls in Zist and asks how much Pellar already knows about him, because there’s no way that Pellar should know what color to use. Mikal didn’t say, Zist realizes he didn’t know, and when Mikal asks Pellar about it, Pellar points at Mikal’s eyes by way of explanation, which is enough for Mikal to say he’ll teach Pellar everything he can. Thus ends the Prologue.
Chapter 1 is set 490.3, so about seven Turns later, and the verse present introduces us to something that’s been in the back of our heads, but my actually explored.
Sent on hold, sent from craft,
Whether old, whether daft.
Shunned for good into the wild–
Father, Mother, baby child.
Well, I guess I have a better idea of what happens to children and elders that have disabilities, or issues, or no support structures of their own to rely upon. Up until this point, exile and shunning seemed reserved for those convicted of serious criminal behavior, while others might become part of the Holdless population if misfortune befell them. Instead, built around the framing of the now-ten Pellar having a fit (and writing furiously on his slate to communicate) at being left behind while Zist and Cayla travel, we get the understanding that Zist and Cayla are going out to study the Shunned (capital letter and all) because they know that Thread will be arriving soon, and they need to know whether or not the Shunned will attempt to invade the Holds and halls for protection from Thread. “It’s not right to condemn them all to a death no one on Pern should ever experience,” Zist says, and I think that’s the second or third time in this entire series where someone has had sympathy for the people without rank or affiliation and what might happen to them exposed to Thread.
Of course, to get close to them, they have to look like them, and so we find out how someone gets marked as Shunned.
“Do you think we should put an ‘S’ on your head, too?” Master Zist asked, pointing to the purple-blue mark on his forehead.
“No,” Cayla said in a tone that brooked no argument. “And you’d best be right about how to get that mark off.”
“It’s not proper bluebush ink,” Zist reminded her. The sap of the bluebush, used for marking the Shunned, was indelible and permanently stained skin. “Some pinesap, lots of hot water and soap, and it’ll come off.”
“So you’ve said,” Cayla remarked, sounding no more convinced.
Indelible blue to make a permanent mark on the forehead as someone shunned, on a world where the local Lord can probably declare someone Shunned with impunity over whatever measure he would like to do so. The chilling dystopia of Pern reasserts itself and reminds us of its capacity for cruelty.
“I’m glad we left Pellar behind,” Cayla said. “Ten Turns is too young to see the sights we expect.”
“Indeed.” Zist agreed.
“Carissa’s so little that she’ll remember none of it,” Cayla continued, half to answer Zist’s unspoken thought, half to answer her own fears.
“There’ll be children among the Shunned,” Zist remarked. “That’s part of what makes it so wrong.”
And they’re enduring this for…less than half a Turn, and so now I’m pretty sure this is going to look and sound a lot more like poverty tourism trying to determine if there’s an uprising about to happen rather than a serious study about the root causes of the situation, whether the system that creates the Shunned is just and fair, and whether it’s a crime against the people of the planet to engage in that practice in the first place. I’d like to be wrong, but I’m not sure anybody on Pern is even close to that woke.
While we burn pages of travel narrative, I might note this is the second book in this series that has a character in it with a major physical disability that wasn’t related to age or injury. I think we had just Camo before. Now we have Nuella and Pellar. Neither of them is a true viewpoint character in that we’re sticking with them for the whole novel, but we’re starting to acknowledge their existence a lot more than we did before.
And Zist and company get a couple of very unpleasant shocks once they’re back toward civilization proper.
“Go away!” shrieked the first old woman whose cothold they had stopped at, hoping to barter for food. “Would you have me Shunned, too?”
She hurried them on their way by throwing stones and setting her dogs on them.
“Go back north and freeze! We’re hardworking folk down here,” she yelled after them. “You won’t find any handouts.”
That’s, well, that’s Rand’s generosity at work, mixed with the fact that the arbitrary justice system means that anyone can become permanently part of an untouchable class with no rights or recourse against the people who threw them out. And that it is apparently a Shunnable offense to be associating or interacting with the Shunned says that this system is designed to kill people and prevent anyone from helping them without risking their own lives as well.
We have words for that in our history on Terra. Shoah. Ethnic cleansing. Genocide. Because how much do we wager that the people who keep ending up Shunned are people the majority doesn’t like? Or people the Lord doesn’t want around? Or people who are otherwise unable to be as productive as the unfettered engine of feudalism and vassalage demands they be? They stop being useful, or they don’t make tithe, and they’re turned out and permanently marked to die. And there’s no Catholic Church to act as a regulator on these ideas, no power over the soul to demand that these Lords exercise mercy and kindness, or by God, they will declare them excommunicated and bring down the wrath of every other greedy Lord on them until they understand their Christian duties to look after the poor…at least nominally.
As it turns out, Cayla’s insistence on not wearing the mark herself makes it easier for her to bargain alone, although she notes she got overcharged for it, and they get back on the road.
Two days later, they came upon a wagon by the side of the road. It had been burned down to the wheels.
Zist halted. He went to the wreck, crawled around and through it, and came back thirty minutes later, his face grim.
“They were caught while they were sleeping,” he told Cayla.
“How do you know it wasn’t an accident with a lantern?” Cayla asked. While holders used glows, the Shunned had to make do with what they could scrounge, and that often meant candles or lanterns.
“I’d rather not say,” he replied grimly.
“I suppose we should keep watch at nights,” Cayla said.
“Maybe we should turn back,” Zist said. “This is beginning to seem more dangerous than I’d feared.”
“Perhaps this is what happened to Moran.”
“Perhaps,” Zist agreed, his face going pale. With a sour look, he gestured to the burned wreck. “There has to be a better way to deal with the Shunned.”
“We don’t know what happened here. We know that some were Shunned for murder. After being Shunned, what would stop them from murdering again?” Cayla responded. “Perhaps we’re only seeing justice done.”
“No,” Zist said, shaking his head firmly. “That was a wagon much like ours.”
Cayla realized from what he’d left unsaid that the occupants of the wagon were much like them, too–a man, a woman, and a child.
And there’s one possible consequence of what happens when you create those untouchable classes – violence can happen to them, and nobody cares, or thinks they deserved it, and the fact that they are still human goes by the wayside.
That same night, Cayla and Zist trade some music back and forth, but that attracts the attention of some other Shunned, (which it was going to, based on nothing more than the skill of the playing) who turn out not to be hostile to them, and ask if they know any healing, because a terrible fever is ripping through the community and it’s claiming adults and children.
“They weren’t the ones in the wagon a ways back?” Zist asked thoughtfully.
“You found them, eh?” the man replied. Zist nodded and the man peered at him thoughtfully. “Thought it was some holder folk who set fire to the wagon, didn’t you?”
He saw Zist’s reaction and laughed bitterly, shaking his head.
“Other days it would have been,” the man said, and spat toward the fire. “Some of them holders would do it just for fun.”
So Zist’s first instinct is absolutely correct, even if it turns out to have been a plague pyre rather than a violent one. Before that line of thought can go too far, though, the narrative busies itself with the business of trying and failing to heal the people affected by the sickness. It’s cough, perpetual thirst, and diarrhea as the symptoms, which sounds like a terrible pathogen like tuberculosis has gotten into the camp. More people get sick and die including one of the babies, and Malir, the man that approached first, sends them away for very practical reasons.
“The others think it’s your missus’s fault; they’re talking about burning our wagon–and yours.”
“Come with us,” Zist suggested.
Malir shook his head. “I’ll stay with my kind,” he said. He snorted when he saw Zist’s expression. “You’ve had too many meals recently to be one of us,” Malir told him. “The others haven’t noticed yet but they will, they will.”
That’s always the funny thing with people outside the culture – there’s always a tell when someone’s trying to get in. It might not be as obvious as the ones we see here (musical skill and a lack of starvation), but it’s there. But also, we’ve lost the opportunity to really see how the Shunned live, because they have to flee for their lives to avoid being scapegoated. It’s awful convenient they get the warning and a reader could very easily take a reading that the Shunned really are uncivilized brutes at their core who deserved their status, except for the occasional one who isn’t like the others.
If that sounds like a very familiar ring to you, you may be remembering our re-experiencing how White society has historically treated and justified their treatment of Indigineous and Black people in the United States. Hell, the Shunned even have the Mark of Cain on them so that everyone knows they’re inferior and can justify whatever they want to do to them because the Higher Power made them this way as punishment. Our perhaps you are seeing echoes of the Gold Star, the Pink Triangle, and all the other ways that specific groups have been singled out for violence against them, and how the justifications for such things all seem to run to the same ideas – they’re not people, because [X, Y, Zed], so we don’t have to treat them as such. The narrative portrayed Zist and family with the White Savior lens, and when, for plot reasons, there isn’t any saving, it makes sure to give a justification for their flight that relies on the Other turning out not to be grateful, civilized, or even human toward them.
Which is to say, the more things change, the more they remain intersectional.
Back to the plot. Zist can’t come up with a reason to take Malir along, and so they do leave. It turns out not to matter anyway, as both Cayla and Carissa have contracted the fever and die, so there’s a good chance that Malir would have done the same. And, I know that this deserves a cocowhat, so here it is…
Cocowhat by depizan
…but fridging is no better than sexual assault as a trope to rely on for impetus to action in a character, and I’m just really tired that over the many years of this series, the authors haven’t stepped up their game to find new ways of getting plots kicked off or characters moving in the direction of the plot. Would it have been that much harder for Cayla to say that Zist’s work is too dangerous for her liking, and that she’s going to take Carissa and find a nice Harper who won’t be traipsing into dangerous places? Or to say that she’s learned a lot more about the Shunned and she’s going to try and do more with them, so she won’t be following Zist to his next assignment? I’m sure there are plenty of ways to resolve this situation that don’t need Cayla and Carissa to die. And Zist can still be exceedingly sad in front of Kindan later (chronologically.)
That flash of brilliance we saw with Nuella seems to have been thoroughly smothered.
So Zist has Pellar still, and Pellar chooses to deal with his own grief by sticking very close to Zist and helping him with his. (A striking detail is Pellar having to remember that Carissa’s first, and now only, word was his name). Which means that he gets to overhear a lot of conversation between Zist and Murenny, who I think is the MasterHarper, although he’s just styled as Masterharper.
“You should have seen them, Murenny,” Pellar heard Master Zist saying. “Some of them were no more than skin and bones.”
“They were Shunned, they had their chance,” Masterharper Murenny reminded him.
“Not the children,” Zist responded heatedly. “And some of them were Shunned for no more than not giving favors to the Lord Holder or their local Craftmaster. Where’s the justice in that?”
Master Murenny sighed in agreement. “But what more can we do?”
[…there is an interruption where Zist gets Pellar from the other side of the door and brings him into the space, having known he was there already…]
“That’s another thing, what about the children? They’ve done nothing wrong, and yet they’re either separated from their Shunned parents or forced to leave with them–mostly on the whim of their Holder–to starve or die without any hope for a future. Is this the justice of Pern?”
Murenny shook his head. “Those who refuse to do their share of work, who steal from others, who commit murder–what else is there to do with them but to Shun them?”
Zist made a face but said nothing, staring at the floor.
“Holders and Crafters can set fines, but if that doesn’t bring a person to his senses, what else is there?” Murenny persisted. “Is it any fairer to insist that God, hardworking folk support lazy, shiftless thieves?”
Zist shook his head glumly. He glanced up, saying, “But Thread is coming soon, what then? Shall the Shunned be scoured off Pern by Thread?”
[…Pellar shudders to think of Thread…]”?Not that Thread’s their biggest threat–there’s enough disease and fever to be found, as well.”
“Did you get an idea of their numbers, then?” Murenny asked softly.
“No, they were always drifting about, and some of them were mixed in with proper Traders,” Zist responded. “The traders don’t like them because too many of them steal–what have they got to lose?–and feet give the traders a bad name with the Holders.”
“And there’s another thing,” he continued. “They eat so poorly that many of them succumb to the least cold or infection. But they mix enough with crafters and holders that their diseases could be spread to others.”
“Have you a suggestion, then?”
“Not any better than my last,” Zist replied sourly. “Nor the one before it.”
“I thought it was a good idea to get a harper in amongst the Shunned,” Murenny said. “It’s a shame that we’ll never know what happened to Moran.”
“It’s a great shame,” Zist agreed. “I was sure they would have accepted him. Perhaps he could have helped their plight.”
“And given us some better thoughts on how to deal with the long-term issues of Thread and the Shunned.”
Sorry that it’s a long quote, but I wanted you to see the way the conversation went, and how I see this as entirely the New Author recognizing the problems that we’ve been working through in those rare occasions when we’ve gotten to spend time away from the privileged Lords, dragonriders, and the Harper Hall. There is even material addressing some of the points I’ve brought up previously in this post. The way that Zist stresses “favors” confirms to me that there are at least some who get shunned because they have the temerity to refuse to have sex with the local lordling or Craftmaster, or to give them special discount or more tithe. There’s a serious public health problem among the Shunned. What happens to the kids who get separated? Do they get fostered to a new family and told to forget their old ones? That should sound familiar to anyone who has studied the systematic erasure of Indigenous people in the United States and Canada that is only now being formally apologized for.
And yet, the narrative lets Murenny off the hook with a terrible argument about how you have to have this awful system in place because murderers have to be punished, and people have to work to survive, and it’s not fair to the government to take my tax money and give it to welfare queens driving Cadillacs.
Despite Zist telling him from eyewitness experience what the conditions on the ground actually are and making an extremely solid argument that it’s definitely not fair to punish innocent children for crimes, or much more likely, “crimes” their family member committed, and to point out that Shunning is a death sentence, whether by exposure or by Thread.
What can they do, Murenny asks, sitting in what is essentially the most powerful social influence operation and media conglomerate on the planet.
What can they do?
BURN. THE. SYSTEM. DOWN.
It wouldn’t be the work of much at all to craft songs about how Shunning is a barbaric punishment unworthy of the civilized folk of Pern, and any person doing such thing as punishment should be overthrown. To sing that Lords who are generous and take care of their poor and disabled, and who do not demand unjust things from their subjects have wiser, better-managed, and more prosperous Holdings with significantly lower amounts of social problems and anti-social behavior. To spread news from Healers far and wide that there is a public health concern on the planet, and all persons should receive vaccination and medical care, regardless of their status, and to praise Lords that equip those Healers with all the supply they need to heal everyone in their space, Shunned or no.
They could be doing a shit-ton more than “well, maybe we’ll send a Harper apprentice into their midst and he can report back to us what everything is like so that we can decide whether or not to help them.” Because Moran was Zist’s apprentice, and with his disappearance, Zist can take another. He chooses Pellar, who accepts, and volunteers to be the next apprentice sent in, but Zist thinks it a better idea for himself to go and try again to get ingratiated into Shunned society to find out the problem.
As if it were some monolithic thing that can be solved by the redistribution of a few resources, instead of a worldwide campaign to end the practice and to redistribute resources so that everyone can be reintegrated into society. That does mean still having to figure out how to punish those that kill or otherwise disrupt the social good, but there’s also a good case to be made that Lords can’t be trusted with that power, since the abuse of that power is what led to the situation in the first place. Pern may have wanted to believe it could survive without legists. Right now, though, it needs jurists.
This may seem obvious from our times, except that it’s not. We still have problems of these natures in our own societies, they haven’t been solved, and there is a lot of resigned acceptance or active exploitation that these things are terrible, but they are forever. They’re not. And it would help a lot if people who had power actually used it to help, instead of hoarding it to themselves to do more evil with.
Okay, plot again. Pellar gets a fire-lizard, because Zist doesn’t want one, and a report eventually comes through suggesting that a place to find the Shunned is out by Crom, where some new mines are being set up and there are reports of theft of coal and things in that space, along with a report from Jofri (remember him?) that Natalon and Tarik aren’t getting along. So Zist decides to take Pellar with him, but not have him be anywhere near Zist while he investigates in Jofri’s place. That way, we can have the events of the previous book undisturbed.
That said, now we have two people with disabilities being hidden away from the narrative of the previous book, and it casts Zist in a much less positive light.
Also, Pellar is sad that he can’t take his fiddle, which he’s been able to use, along with his fire-lizard, as a way of giving himself voice and tone to what he’s feeling, along with him.
But that’s the first chapter. One can only wonder what happens next.