Prequel Problems: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern

By Thomas Anderson

In my earlier Prequel Problems article about Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood series, I mentioned that reading it as a child somewhat spoiled me by raising my expectations for how most authors would be capable of penning good (and tonally consistent) sequels and prequels. On reflection, much the same is true of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, though that is mostly aimed at adults (with an explicitly young adult spinoff sub-series). I was originally inspired to write this article based on my memory of one very strange prequel inconsistency in the Pern books (which we’ll come to), but on re-skimming them for background research, I was reminded that this was very much an exception to the rule. So, before we get to that, I want to take some time to praise the high notes of this series. A reminder that, as is inevitable in this kind of review, there will be plot spoilers for the series.

Anne McCaffrey was inspired to become a science fiction writer in the 1950s due, in part, to her dissatisfaction with how women were often portrayed in the genre at the time, either as screaming damsels in distress or at least as neutral characters not getting involved in the action. She sought to change that, and made a big impact on the scene, being the first woman to win a Hugo Award and one of the first science fiction authors whose work was listed on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Most of her stories very loosely fit into a science fiction setting recognisable by the present of a government called the Federation of Sentient Planets, but often (as in the Pern series) this is very much a background detail.

Pern began with the novella ‘Weyr Search’ in 1967, which was combined with a second published and a third unpublished novella into a single novel under the title Dragonflight. Pern is an interesting setting in that it is effectively science fiction disguised as fantasy, being set on the titular planet thousands of years after being colonised by humanity, but now more-or-less resembling a mediaeval fantasy setting. I am not sure if this is the first time this idea was executed, but it was certainly a highly influential one (in a future Prequel Problems article we’ll be looking at a more recent effort in the same field). Perhaps surprisingly, as far as I am aware, there was never any attempt to hide Pern’s sci-fi origins from the reader or use it as a plot twist, with the novels coming with a brief rundown of how we got here from the beginning (though it does not impact on the characters in-universe for quite a while).

This rundown was initially vague, a sensible approach if one wishes to fill in details later without wishing to write oneself into a corner. It states that after humans colonised the planet, they found that it was periodically devastated by bombardment of an invasive life form known as ‘Thread’, trailed by a minor planet on a rogue orbit known as the Red Star. The colonists turned to a native reptilian life form known as ‘dragonets’ that naturally attacked the Thread by breathing phosphine flame, and genetically engineered them into full-size dragons that could be ridden by humans. The dragons are also intelligent, telepathically bonded to their riders and can teleport, because shut up. Pern and the Red Star both orbit Rukbat (a real star in the constellation of Sagittarius, though McCaffrey deliberately describes it as different from the real version); their orbits are aligned so that about 200 years passes between each period of Threadfall, which then lasts about 50 years.

This sets up the template for a fascinating society whose feudal rulers rule from protected ‘Holds’ into which people can retreat for safety, whose harpers and singers are devoted to keeping memory of the Thread and its dangers alive in the two centuries between falls, and which is protected by the Dragonriders, an aloof society apart in their high ‘weyr’ fortresses. This basic template, of a fantasy society whose institutions are driven by the need to maintain knowledge of a recurring threat once it has faded from living memory so that the people are not caught offguard when it returns, would become highly influential on the genre. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire features the recurring years-long winters and the Night’s Watch to guard against them, Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive features the Desolations and the Knights Radiant to rebuild society in between them, and so on. We can see a bitter parallel in our own society at present, in that we have gone almost exactly a century since the last major pandemic, and without such institutions ourselves to preserve its memory, lives have been lost because we had to relearn lessons that were already learned during the Spanish Flu.

Before going on, I should clarify my own position as a commenter on this series. I first came across Pern via the Legends collection of short stories from fantasy writers, which I previously mentioned in my article about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Pern falls into the category of fantasy and science fiction settings I am unable to take entirely seriously, because I read Terry Pratchett’s parodies of them before I read the original (see also: Ringworld, H. P. Lovecraft, Dungeons & Dragons), specifically The Lure of the Wyrm in The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld novel. Nonetheless, I found Pern sufficiently intriguing to read around nine of the books about twenty years ago, but not enough to pick them up again until now. So I cannot claim to be an expert on the entire series and may make errors in descriptions here, but nor am I basing this treatment entirely on skimming Wikipedia articles without any firsthand knowledge (after all, I am not a columnist for a major newspaper).

Dragonflight, the first Pern novel, involves a young servant girl named Lessa (actually the heir to a dynasty usurped by the tyrannical Fax) being suddenly rocketed into the unknown when she is selected by the titular ‘weyr search’ to bond with the last queen dragon. We slowly learn that the situation with the Dragonriders has degraded harshly, with only one of the original six Weyrs, Benden Weyr, now left and few people now seriously believing the Thread will ever return. This is initially attributed to the fact that, due to a (then assumed to be random) shift in the Red Star’s orbit, the last Threadfall didn’t happen on schedule and it’s now been four centuries since Thread fell – but now it is on its way again. One weyr isn’t enough to defend the planet. Lessa tracks down through research that the other five weyrs didn’t slowly degrade over time as one might assume; their inhabitants and dragons vanished overnight shortly after the end of the last Threadfall. This is put together with a discovery she makes in the course of the book – that dragons can not only teleport through space, but also time (though this is more hazardous). The other weyrs disappeared because Lessa went back in time to recruit their dragonriders (later called the Old-timers) to come and save the planet from the Thread here and now.

This time travel plot was not planned from the start, but suggested as an addition to the setting by the editor of Analog, John W. Campbell, after publishing the story that became the first part of the novel. While time travel is used more effectively in later novels, you can really tell this was a late addition because it creates the biggest plot hole in the entire setting; after two thousand years plus of people teleporting around on dragons, why did it take Lessa to accidentally discover they can also travel through time? She was not even attempting to do so, but just trying out teleporting to her home Hold, Ruatha, and accidentally finding herself there the day before Fax usurped it (presumably reflecting a spiritual connection that this was the last time it truly felt like home to her).

Anne McCaffrey, the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

At first we might merely shrug and attribute this to her being a chosen-one archetype, but one of the most interesting things McCaffrey does with the setting is actually to subvert this idea. A number of the later Pern books are actually set in parallel with the first three books starring Lessa, featuring the rise of other characters as heroes (Robinton, Menolly, and even Jaxom, the son of her now deceased enemy Fax, plays a very important role in them) and it is only by all working together that these characters go on to change the world in chronologically later books. This is a great and different take on a fantasy setting, but does make it even more baffling why Lessa and only Lessa was able to discover dragon time travel. McCaffrey does attempt to address this in prequels by featuring isolated instances of time travel and implying (though never explicitly stating) that the technique was simply forgotten by the time of Dragonflight. It is worth noting that Pern runs on a ‘stable time loop’ idea and travel into the past is only possible if one’s actions are already part of history (it cannot be changed), which perhaps limited the opportunity for it to be rediscovered, but I’ve still found it the most awkward part of the setting.

As mentioned above, the Pern books do not come in a neat chronological order, with side series frequently being written to be simultaneous with the first trilogy (Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon) to introduce new characters. McCaffrey, unlike most authors, very interestingly supplies a reading order at the beginning of later editions of her books. This is not quite a publication order as I usually advocate, but nor is it misleadingly based on a strict chronological order; the side stories are placed after the original trilogy, while the true prequels come later, but before the (later published) books which play off events in them. Again, as I said at the start, Pern is an example of a series that really spoils you by raising your expectations of what an author is capable of with prequels and sequels. It’s particularly noteworthy that McCaffrey directly penned Pern novels between the 1960s and the turn of the millennium, yet the tone, writing style and setting change impressively little between the books – which makes her advocacy of reading the later-written side stories alongsidethe original trilogy a much more acceptable proposition. It is useful to contrast this with Frank Herbert’s six Dune books, which were also written over many years starting in the 1960s, yet accumulated many more inconsistencies and tonal shifts over their run.

Dragonquest and The White Dragon involve the rediscovery of Pern’s southern continent, inhabited by small ‘fire-lizards’ (the later Pernese’s name for the dragonets) and they start to find the remains left by their ancestors, the original colonists. The idea that they had to shift continents from their original target due to the Thread is a good in-universe explanation for why Pern’s fantasy setting does not take place in the middle of remnants of advanced technology (though traces of these would later be hinted at).

The seventh book (in publication order) in the Pern series was Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, which was McCaffrey’s first attempt at a true prequel. Moreta was a by-then-legendary figure frequently referenced by Lessa and others in Dragonflight as a role model, but this book jumps back a thousand years to cover what her real life was like. I must confess I’ve not read this one so can’t comment on it, but this does illustrate a good example of exploiting a prequel hook (probably not intentional at the time) in the first book.

Almost immediately following this, McCaffrey wrote Dragonsdawn, which is where the real prequel meat comes in. This book, as the name implies, for the first time covers the beginnings of humans on Pern in detail. The colonists from the Federation of Sentient Planets arrive, being back-to-nature settlers led by Admiral Paul Benden (remember that name?), a war hero haunted by his experiences. The reader well-acquainted with the series will be rewarded with many more “hey, it’s that name I recognise!” moments among the early settlers and showing the origins of the later-legendary place names (rather than fans just pretending this is deliberate, see my rant on The Legend of Zelda). McCaffrey is a sufficiently adept writer to play with reader expectations, too; assume a character must survive the prequel narrative because a later weyr or hold is named after them? What if they died heroically and their name was taken by someone else in honour of them? Even though Dragonsdawn covers the events already described in the brief run-downs of the background of the setting at the start of each book, McCaffrey is still able to surprise the reader – a measure of excellence in a prequel.

Dragonsdawn covers how the colonists met with the unwelcome surprise of the Thread and, after finding their limited technology unable to cope with fending off the assault, turned to the dragonets and their mission’s genetic engineer to begin the process of breeding dragons – as well as fleeing to the northern continent. The story involves conflict among the colonists over what to do, with a small group resisting the plan and remaining in the southern continent. A few years later, McCaffrey would write the short story collection The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall, in which we get more information about this. The collection includes an account of the original Federation mission surveying the planet, which gave it its name (Parallels Earth, Resources Negligible) and a Federation rescue mission, led by a relative of Benden, which rescues the last survivors from the southern continent. Because the northern refugees have retreated into Holds and the southern survivors claim they were all wiped out, the Federation assumes the colony was lost, hence why Pern’s mediaeval state is not interrupted by future Federation missions. Other stories also help show where various Pernese peculiarities come from (realistically over a range of years rather than all at once) such as the dragons’ habit of telepathically abbreviating human names being the origin of the characteristic be-apostophe’d dragonrider names like F’lar and F’nor.

Written a few years later, one of McCaffrey’s most interesting choices for a book concept was Red Star Rising, also known as Dragonseye in the US, which is set during the second Fall; not the sort of setting most authors would choose, yet it allows for a neat snapshot of the last remnants of the colonists’ culture and technology being forgotten and the later Pernese culture emerging. It also allows a curious mixture of Earth and later Pernese names (and vague mixtures of the two) being used in parallel, with characters including Bethany, Jemmy and K’vin (as in Kevin).

For now, though, let’s go back a bit. Dragonsdawn was published in 1988 and was then followed by The Renegades of Pern in 1989 and All The Weyrs of Pern in 1991. This arrangement is an excellent example of how prequel writing is served by publication order (and McCaffrey’s suggested reading order preserves this). We go from seeing the origins of the colonists on the southern continent to our contemporary characters (including Lessa) seeing the remaining traces of their doomed colony, over two millennia later. Renegades ends with the powerful moment of our crew rediscovering a preserved command room, complete with a mysterious voice that calls itself the AIVAS: Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System. As the computer adapts to the later dialect spoken by our confused protagonists, the book ends with it reciting the original backstory recap from the start of the books…

The very cover design (in the UK) of All the Weyrs of Pern shows how much it is shaking up the series; it depicts a dragon flying in the interior of a decayed but advanced spacecraft with stars outside. It turns out that long ago, the AIVAS was set a challenge by Admiral Benden and the other founders of the colony, which it made its prime directive: to solve the problem of Thread forever. Though it took many years, the AIVAS has devised a plan to protect Pern, using the engines of the original spacecraft (still in orbit) to knock the Red Star into a different orbit so Pern will no longer pass through its trail. What follows is a fascinating account of the modern Pernese working with this computer they do not comprehend, while some traditionalists inevitably regard it as an abomination. AIVAS’ plan turns out not quite to work – until it is told about the dragons’ time travel abilities, and it turns out those longer periods without Threadfall (like the one that led to the situation at the start of Dragonflight) were caused by dragonriders now travelling back through time to implement parts of the plan early. Thus the whole series is one stable time loop.

In the end, all the protagonists introduced in the side stories must work together to ensure the plan succeeds – though at the cost of the life of one of them. Its work completed, with Pern never to suffer the Thread again, AIVAS shuts itself down so the society will not become dependent on it as an oracle of past knowledge. This is a great concept and a fitting end to the series (I have deliberately not read the follow-up The Skies of Pern, and McCaffrey and her son focused more on writing more interquels set in past Threadfalls). It feels like a more serious take on Deep Thought and the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It has all the more resonance nowadays, when we really are starting to get voice-activated artificial intelligences. For thousands of years, AIVAS patiently worked away, while humans struggled to survive, on a plan for their ultimate salvation, on the orders of their now-legendary founders.

There’s just one problem with this: this scene never appears in Dragonsdawn.

I think I read the book twice before I was convinced I hadn’t turned over two pages, and looking online, I am not the only one to be confused by this. Dragonsdawn is, in almost every other regard, a masterful prequel that is written cleverly and deliberately to set everything up for Renegades and All the Weyrs. So many little things mentioned in it are brought up and referenced in those books. Yet the whole driving plot device of them, AIVAS, is never mentioned once in Dragonsdawn. Some fans have pointed to a very vague, very passing in-name-only reference to an artificial intelligence in the book, which would be all the more confusing if it was actually meant to be the AIVAS. The setup, the clever link that’s so heavily referenced in the other two books, just isn’t there.

I find this absence probably one of the most baffling things in all of science fiction literature; it beggars belief that McCaffrey had not planned for this, considering how many smaller links to Dragonsdawn appear in the other two books in a way that show they were planned together. It almost feels like some massive editing snafu that nobody will admit to. Notably, McCaffrey did put more explicit references to the AIVAS in First Fall and Red Star Rising, so presumably she was aware of this absence. It has just never, as far as I am aware, been explained.

So much for the Pern series. That one baffling conundrum aside, I feel it is a measure of the quality of the writing and the satisfying arc plot that I read these books despite not really caring for the characters or setting themselves. I feel too much of Pern is grounded in the era in which the earlier books were written, the anti-technology and back-to-nature feel of the original colonists (rather than it primarily being them losing technology through the Threadfall), deliberately reconstructing stratified feudal society as an ideal, having superintelligent dolphins—there are evocations of the original Star Trek’s Sixties hippie episode or Eighties humpback whales film. To my mind it felt very dated even in the early 2000s when I was reading it, never mind now. The concept of partnered telepathic dragons also doesn’t appeal to me. It is worth noting that Pern should not be taken purely as a strawman Amish in Space setting (the Pernese even develop and globally distribute a vaccine in Moreta, which puts them ahead of some countries right now…) but it always rubbed me up the wrong way. The characters also never really connected with me, though millions of fans disagree and are entitled to their opinion.

Nonetheless, regardless of such personal feelings and that one flaw I mentioned, I feel the Pern series should generally be held up as an example of well-written prequels and interquels. In fact, though I haven’t read most of them because of my aforementioned lack of interest in the broader setting, the fact that the McCaffreys successfully pulled off so many interquels set in different Threadfalls speaks of a highly regimented and well-planned timeline. Other writers – and, ahem, video game designers – could learn a lot from them.

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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