Dragonriders of Pern Reread

The Constraints of Time Travel: Dragonflight, Part Four

No matter what the method, all works featuring time travel use two premises:

  1. Time—whether past, present or future—can be changed.
  2. Yeah, no, it can’t. Sorry for the bummer.

And sorry for seemingly stopping dead any hope of a time travel story there, since if time can’t be changed, what, exactly, is the point of time travel—or, more specifically, a time travel story?

Perhaps to challenge an author—specifically, Anne McCaffrey, who took on this challenge in the last part of Dragonflight.

Part four of Dragonflight begins with F’lar and Lessa realizing that they already did send or already will have sent—will have been sending?—auugh! Douglas Adams was right. The biggest problem with time travel isn’t how time travel might mess up your DNA and family relationships, but how it screws with grammar. Anyway. They WILL DO SOMETHING (that’s correct English, I think) with several young dragons, sending them back in time in order to let them grow into a fighting force. They also realize that this method will not work—time travel plays havoc on human bodies and minds. Lessa takes a moment to take yet another potshot at Kylara, apparently not realizing that Kylara is experiencing the same Time Travel Stress making this solution impossible and forgetting that she encouraged Kylara to be a queen rider in the first place.

So. This won’t work, but they are going to do it anyway, because they already did it. (That’s the best I can do with the grammar.)

The following day, Lessa and F’nor take off to the Southern Continent to find a place where they can do the already done time travel plan. F’lar, meanwhile, holds a general summit with all the other leaders of Pern. They’re all men. Let’s move past that, and instead focus on what F’lar does correctly here: He tells them exactly what’s going on (outside of the failed time travel part) and requests their help. I’m finally starting to like the guy.

Even better: One of his most helpful comments comes from the Masterweaver, who notes that an old tapestry might be able to provide a design to help recreate the old flamethrowers used to fight Thread. It’s yet another acknowledgement of the technology Pern has lost in the last four hundred Turns (despite not having to fight Thread)—and an example of how history and an apparently unrelated craft can help solve an engineering problem. I love this.

That the entire conversation—and the tapestry—just happens to introduce a major plot point is just a bonus.

Alas, the rest of the summit doesn’t go completely smoothly, what with the various Lords Holder and Craftsmen all sniping at each other, and McCaffrey suddenly deciding to elevate the Harper craft to a more major role, and introducing a good dozen named characters, including Mastersmith Fandarel and Masterharper Robinton. Fandarel is here mostly to discuss possible engineering solutions; Robinton is here to provide the historical context and a few clues to solve the book’s major mystery. I’m not sure when, exactly, McCaffrey realized that in Masterharper Robinton, she had just found the character who could and would be pivotal to several later books, but my guess is that it was at some point during the second paragraph of his speech that mocks, shames, and inspires an audience of terrified men in just a few sentences.

The summit also introduces some new terms, so, time for a few more definitions:

Agenothree: AKA, a slurred pronunciation for HNO3, better known to us as nitric acid, a common, colorless liquid commonly used these days to produce industrial fertilizers. The Pernese also use it as a fertilizer, but in this section, are far more interested in its ability to go BOOM.

Flamethrowers: Ancient devices used to throw flaming HNO3 after Thread, used to kill Thread after it reaches the ground—adding a touch of fertilizer along the way.

The Southern Continent: Not, as I originally thought when reading this book, the place where all of those languid women who so underwhelmed F’lar in the previous section came from, but a separate continent to the south with amazingly good tropical fruit—and no human residents. Or, on this visit, felines.

Craftmasters: Somewhat self-explanatory. That is, masters of a specific craft: Weaving, Mining, Smithing, and Harping. Later books would add Fishing, Herding, Farming, Tanning, Healing, Glass, and Paper—while leaving out crafts that in the books are largely performed by women: that is, Cooking and Baking. Also left out: Brewing and Pottery. I suppose I can understand the lack of a professional chef class, but Pern evidently uses ceramics, so it’s somewhat surprising to see Pottery left out.

However, this isn’t the time to discuss Pern’s craft definition problems: The dragonriders, crafters and Lord Holders all have bigger problems. Despite those problems—and the time crunch—Masterharper Robinton insists on taking the time to play the Question Song for F’lar. The song asks what, exactly, happened to the missing Weyrs. F’lar doesn’t know, and has to rush off to try to kill the Thread that the dragons didn’t. It’s discouraging.

Later that evening, F’lar and Lessa meet up with Robinton. Lessa, listening to a repeat performance of the Question Song—why this couldn’t have been combined into one scene is an excellent question—realizes that the Weyrs must have time traveled. F’lar doubts this. As he has mentioned before, dragons can only go to a place that can be visualized—that is, a place their riders have seen. That rules out traveling to the future since no one has seen the future, yet. If you’re thinking, wait, there’s gotta be a loophole there, well, yes, you’re right. Indeed, two loopholes, although one would not be addressed for a few more books. Lessa points out the first: Someone must go back to give them the coordinates.

And despite F’lar absolutely, positively, forbidding her to do so—since it puts herself and Ramoth at risk—Lessa carefully studies that tapestry introduced during the summit, and travels 400 years back in time, nearly killing herself doing so. She is, however, able to give the coordinates to the five Weyrs. Already missing the excitement of fighting Thread—and realizing that they already left the Weyrs, since the future Records said they did—they agree to jump forward with Lessa. Since doing the entire leap in one go will leave them half dead, they decide to go forward in briefer intervals—using star charts to help them visualize the future. (Did I mention that the “no time traveling to the future” has just a few loopholes?)

And with that, they arrive just in time to save Pern.

I love so much of this. I love just how long Lessa and Ramoth end up between on their 400-year time trip, in a neat acknowledgement that during those 400 years, the solar system that they are in has also moved, vastly increasing the teleporting distance. I love that, in a book just drenched with misogyny, what with the earlier “women don’t read,” and “queen dragons [that is, dragons ridden by women] don’t fly,” and the harems, and the constant mentions of useless women, and the limited number of women with speaking roles (even if this book does manage to pass the Bechdel test), Pern is saved by a woman. Who, while doing this, incidentally proves that 400 Turns ago women did ride dragons to fight Thread, and the supposed “tradition” holding Lessa back was the exact opposite of traditional. Even better, the story she tells in the past is verified, not by a man, but by another woman—with the proof coming from that tapestry again. Medieval technology and decoration to the rescue. Awesome.

I also love McCaffrey’s solution to the dilemma of how to tell a time travel story if time can’t be changed: Turn it into a mystery, forcing the characters to figure out not just that they time traveled, but to where and when, in order to create the current situation.

Still, for all of the fun of this, it fascinates me that not once do F’lar and Lessa ever consider trying to break time. After all, since F’nor has already warned them that the sending-dragons-to-the-past project is doomed, one obvious solution is to, well, not send them to the past, and instead keep the little dragons around as messengers and delivery dragons—letting the Thread-fighting dragons rest between attacks, which could definitely help. Of course, if they decided not to send dragons to the past, then F’nor would never feel the need to warn them, so they wouldn’t realize that the project was dangerous, so they would send dragons back to the past, which in turn would make F’nor feel the need to warn them and—

Yes, I can see why avoiding these sorts of paradoxes was a prime concern for McCaffrey.

But it’s also, of course, the setup for the main event: Lessa’s massive time travel jump, which she also has to do because, well. The Weyrs are gone.

I have quibbles about this—mostly focused on F’lar’s insistence that Benden’s Records from 400 years ago, the time of the time jump, “continue blithely.” Would they? Would they really? More than a thousand dragons, plus their riders, plus support personnel, all vanish, and the Records of the one remaining Weyr don’t display a single sign of panic or concern? What of the disruption to the rest of Pern? Based just on this book, dragons and their riders can perform several roles beyond just fighting Thread—transport services, controlled burns, determine exactly what happened by going back in time to witness it, thus potentially clearing up exciting questions like “Did the butler do it?” and so on.

So it seems to me that the sudden loss of all of those dragon riders would cause some sort of social disruption. And perhaps it did—after all, this section goes out of its way to emphasize that not only has Pern lost technologies, it lost at least some of those technologies and customs after the Weyrs disappeared: specific techniques for making specific dyes, for instance, and the ability to make flamethrowers.

And, also, allowing women to fly dragons.

And perhaps that explains just how Weyr culture, and specifically Benden Weyr culture, could get so toxic and unsupportive, as demonstrated by the reaction of the Weyr to F’lar’s grief when he believes that Lessa is dead:

Someone had the sense to call for Masterharper Robinton.

Ok, so, on the one hand, awesome that someone had the sense to recognize F’lar’s desperate need for emotional help, and Robinton and F’lar have just been closeted together for a couple of lengthy conversations. And the Harpers on Pern seem to provide psychological services as well as musical entertainment. On the other hand, the text of this novel strongly implies that they’d never met prior to the leadership summons. At the very least, they weren’t friends before this—F’lar never even thinks of consulting Robinton for help with his Records research, for instance.

So what does it say about the Weyr that the only one of F’lar’s friends who can be immediately found is someone F’lar has only known—or at least, befriended—for a few days?

True, F’nor is back in the past. But the rest of the older dragonriders are still around. Is Benden Weyr really so toxic, even under the new and improved leadership of Lessa and F’lar, that F’lar hasn’t made friends with any of them? Even if the brown, blue, and green riders are beneath his notice, Benden Weyr had seven bronze riders at the start of this book. Two are the habitual complainers, and one is back in the past with F’nor, but that should still leave at least two or three bronze riders able to provide F’lar some emotional support.

Or at the very least remind him that the five empty Weyrs strongly suggest that Lessa isn’t dead—just doing what, well, she already did.

No one, however, does this. I’m concerned.

The next book, Dragonquest, won’t do all that much to reduce my concerns.

Coming up next.

Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications—including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.

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