DRAGONSDAWNA novel by Anne McCaffrey
(1988, Ballantine Del Rey)
Dragonriders: 1st Pass, book 1
A human colony, fleeing a technological and war-torn society, settles on Pern, encountering fire-breathing lizards, the deadly thread, and engineering dragons.
-- First reading (multibook hardcover)
I was surprised to find that this book did not deliver anything really new to the Pern galaxy. The story was run-of-the-mill, and was disappointing for that reason. However, the book was still an enjoyable read, and was only disappointing because of what came before it.
My first complaint came within the first few pages. There were way too many characters, all introduced in the first chapter, and all at once. Although annoying, I am used to that, especially after reading the first chapter of The Silmarillion. I get around it by ignoring most of the character names, and only concentrating on the important ones. We can tell right away who are likely to be the most important characters by their names: Emily Boll, Admiral Paul Benden (Benden Weyr), Sallah Telgar (of Telgar Weyr), and so on.
The story is a typical one that covers many people over the course of many years. There are many broad generalized accounts of what went on, much of it impersonal, so that the author can get the message across. This author is better than that, and we've seen it in the previous novels. This book was supposed to be about discovering Pern, but it wasn't as interesting as it should have been. The most exciting parts of this book can easily be discerned: first Impression of the fire-lizards, first Fall of Thread, evacuation of the main colony as the volcano erupts, the first riding of a dragon, first trip between and arrival of the dragonriders at Fort Hold. Each of those items, however, only take a few pages at a time. It it nice to see the daily life of Landing, including all the stresses, but I didn't feel that it should have been the main story.
It may be surprising that the first Impression of the Dragons is not on that list. I found it to be quite lacking, in most of everything.
The first part of the book deals with the colony arriving at Pern, and establishing a colony. Most of the characters are dull as they go about their daily routines. Of course, most life is dull, anyway. The only characters who really show any kind of passion or emotion, or anything really exciting in their lives, are Sean and Sorka. Next in line comes Sallah Telgar, who tries to get close to a shy and withdrawn geologist. She notices all of the people who are doing things that are out of the ordinary, such as Tenjo, who pilfered all that fuel (we later learn that he built himself an airplane), or cruel Avril (who I will get to later).
Sean and Sorka met briefly on the spaceship before landing. Sorka was social youngster, while Sean was from a wandering Irish culture that didn't mix with others. But once on the ground, Sorka introduces Sean to the new colonial ways, with supplies for all, and the big nightly bonfire, of promises kept, and the benefits of an education. The people on the three ships were moving to a more rural way of life, abandoning their technological society to start anew. Earth had been involved in a recent war, and there was all sorts of politics and other restricting values. There were aggressive and passive alien species, some of which gave humanity the tools to genetically engineer dolphins and other species. There was a True Life movement that prohibited genetic engineering, and so on.
Sean and Sorka, of course, are the first to find a fire-lizard nest, and the first to bond with the creatures. Eventually, many of the colonists bond with the fire-lizards, so the creatures become part of their daily life. They are able to warn of attacks by wherries, and drive them away. They also announce all impending births, something they never miss.
When Thread is impending, the fire-lizards go crazy, almost attacking their human counterparts to try and get them to safety. Apparently water kills Thread, as rock starves it. Their fire-lizards drive Sean and Sorka into water with a rock overhang, and protect them by breathing fire and disintegrating Thread. A mass of fire-lizards covered the house where a woman was ready to give birth, protecting the baby by becoming a huge net of fire to destroy the Thread landing all around. A good percentage of the colony was destroyed by the first Fall of Thread.
There is a lot of speculation about the nature of Thread. Is it an attack by an intelligent species? Where does it come from? None of these questions are answered, unfortunately. I don't know if the author wanted to keep it from us deliberately, or didn't want to think of an answer. They decide Thread comes from the elliptically-orbiting red Oort cloud planet, which trails a lot of material as it passes into the solar system. However, all the advanced probes they send out are destroyed. The ones that Sallah sent out from the bridge of the ship seemed to give better information, but we never heard about it. The one manned trip they sent out to the actual planet to collect material crashed on reentry. There was no reason for all those failures, when everybody was a professional. On the planet, everybody was very professional, and never made a real mistake. In orbit, everybody became an idiot.
I guess it's time to talk about Avril, the one person who was being used in this story to create a bit of conflict. She came on the colony because her grandmother was part of the original expedition, and found hoards of precious gemstones. Being an astrogator, Avril plotted to get as many gems as she could, steal a shuttle, and make her way into the next solar system, hoping to be picked up and brought back to civilization -rich. After Sallah notices her plotting, she disappears until after the first Threadfall. By then, she has double-crossed her co-conspirators, and left them. I liked the way she returned to Landing to find it in an uproar about Thread, which she knew nothing of. She bides her time, and finally steals a shuttle when several people, including Kenjo, are getting ready to go up to the spaceship to inspect some probes. Avril kills Kenjo, seriously injures Ongola, and makes her way into orbit -with Sallah Telgar, who tries to stop her. Avril gets the better of Sallah, who is forced to help Avril dock and make repairs. Still, Ongola had taken the navigation cards out of the shuttle, so Avril plummets into the red planet, leaving Sallah to die on the spaceship.
I didn't see the point of any of it. The side story of Avril was not interesting at all, and her dissent seemed petty compared to what it could have been. Sallah was hailed as a hero, afterwards, but her death meant absolutely nothing. If Sallah hadn't gone, if Avril had been alone, she would have been unable to do anything, including replace one of the faulty navigation cards. She would have been forced to land again, or try to fix a problem she didn't understand, or stay on board the spaceship for the rest of her life. Benden's glee at her death seemed uncharacteristic. Their agony at Sallah's death was understandable, but not calling her a hero.
I found the first part of the book interesting, but less than engaging. The second part started with a bang, eight years later, but degenerated again into a story that didn't exhibit any passion. My main complaint here is that everything is too easy, too well planned. Everybody notices how well the fire-lizards fight Thread, and Benden overhears a comment that they just aren't big enough. So he gets an idea and approaches the renound geneticist to engineer dragons from fire-lizards. There are setbacks, but everything they intended to do was easily accomplished. The dragons hatch and are Impressed, while Sorka and Sean get a gold and bronze, respectively. I kept wondering how they would discover that firestone made female dragons infertile, but they simply threw up the stone, instead. Maybe later.
The third part of the novel started out ho-hum, and became more exciting as the volcano blew and they had to evacuate Landing. Even that was well-prepared, and went off without any real problems -at least no problems that were personal. By that time, fortunately, we are following Sean and Sorka as they train their dragons, and as they learn to skip between, to fly properly, and to breathe fire. By the time they arrive at Fort Hold, they are ready to fight Thread. But they already have all the terms needed for dragons, like between, firestone, and so on. There was no discovery.
Avril's display turned me sour on dissent within the colony, which is why it took the second incident involving Ted Tubberman to make me like the man. After dissenting in the vote to launch a probe to Earth (denied by the majority), he goes ahead and launches it anyway, so he is shunned, which means nobody can even notice him -which means what when he tries to steal something? They would have to notice him then, wouldn't they? Instead, he uses his isolation as secrecy, and develops grubs that can protect vegetation from Thread. He also develops some sort of lethal feline creature based on a cheetah, which kill him, but that I don't recall from any of the books I've read so far.
This is not a character-based book, which would have made everything more personal by depicting, for example, the collapse of a flotilla of essential supplies firsthand. Sean and Sorka are the closest we get to real characters, but their story is scattered around so much, at least until the end, that it doesn't seem like much of one. The story is more of a history, which I can appreciate, but which is by its nature somewhat detached. When compared to the first trilogy about Pern, this one has little originality, and doesn't give us much insight into past events. By design, we know what has to happen. The fun should be, as Babylon 5 showed us once upon a time, in figuring out how it occurs. According to this book, it was all planned, and even when plans went awry (when Thread fell, and when the volcano blew), they all coped better than most would.
My last complaint about this book is a general one from the original trilogy as well, especially Dragonflight -the book ends much too quickly. There is no denouement at all. Fortunately, I know there is another book, a set of novelas that follows soon after this.
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