Dragonriders of Pern Reread

A Return to Environmentalism: Dragonquest, Part Four

On its surface, Dragonquest is mostly a novel about social change (and dragons) and resisting social change (and dragons) and exploring some not-entirely-thought-out elements of its predecessor, Dragonflight (like dragons).

But Dragonquest was also written during a period of growing concerns about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle these environmental threats. So it’s perhaps not surprising that a novel which on the surface is about duels! dragon deaths! adorable little mini-dragons! questionable gender relationships! turns out, in the end, to be about environmental threats—and arguments about how to handle them.

The fundamental threat to Pern is Thread—that alien substance that rains down on the planet, consuming nearly everything organic that it touches. Thread comes from the Red Star, a nearby planet that the people of Pern can now, finally, observe through telescopes. (Telescopes, just one of many technologies lost to the ongoing fight with Thread and frequent pandemics, hinted at in this book and confirmed in later novels.)

Which means they might—might—be able to tackle Thread at the source.

So, with the continent still in mourning after the deaths of the two queen dragons, Masterharper Robinton heads off to the Fort Weyr telescope to take a look for himself. Robinton believes that given the current tension, no one should be trying to go to the Red Star right now—even though it could provide a decent distraction. Lessa, too, is worried, since she feels that others—say, the people who created that telescope—must have tried and failed. (Plus, she’s annoyed that no one at the telescope site remembered that not everyone on Pern is tall.) The discovery of other planets near Pern, while fascinating, does nothing to make the potential expedition any easier.

Four days later, Jaxom and Lytol head off to Benden Weyr, where Ramoth’s eggs are finally ready to hatch, giving Brekke the chance to Impress another queen dragon. Jaxom redeems himself in my eyes at least by being the one person in this book to spare a kind thought for Kylara, and still more when he notices that the small egg he touched earlier isn’t hatching. Brekke’s fire-lizard, Berd, prevents her from Impressing a new queen—a setup for an upcoming plot point—and Jaxom ends up Impressing the small white dragon that hatches out of the tiny egg, a setup for the next book.

The Lord Holders at Benden hold a brief argument about whether or not the young Jaxom, as a dragonrider, should be allowed to remain a Lord Holder, but since they have another upcoming book to deal with that, that problem is temporarily shelved while the important characters head over to the Only Slightly Secret Rooms to look at the other possible answer to Pern’s ongoing environmental crisis —grubs.

Heading to the Red Star and burning Thread down with dragonfire is showy and awesome. The grubs are… well. They are disgusting, at least according to every character who sees them. (As I said in the last post, insect lovers might want to skip this book.) And yet—as Masterfarmer Andemon confirms—the grubs not only happily eat Thread, they easily adapt to the Northern Continent, and the Southern Continent shows that the grubs haven’t harmed the plant life there. Rather, they’ve helped plant life flourish.

I’m just slightly skeptical—oh, not that insects and worms and grubs can help plants grow and flourish. I feel that’s been sufficiently established. No, what I want to know is just what these grub things eat when Thread isn’t falling, and how, exactly, they manage to survive two to four hundred years without food? Do they eat something else? What? Or are they generalized eaters who find Thread a particular grubby treat?

We never do get a straight answer to this question, but for what it’s worth, the Masterfarmer seems to believe that grubs will destroy crops, which seems to suggest that they will eat anything. And they certainly consume Thread.

Which leaves Pern with three methods for mitigating—and possibly ending—the environmental threat from Thread:

  1. Continue with the status quo of combating Thread in the air with dragons and fire-lizards, and on the ground with flame-throwers, which is a physically exhaustive and dangerous method, with the added threat that it depends upon the willingness and availability of dragonriders.
  1. Head to the Red Star and destroy Thread there.
  1. Put grubs all over the Northern Continent and let them take care of Thread.

Since the first method has been causing problems throughout the book, and the third method is disgusting and not yet generally known, Lord Meron—now bereft of kinky sex—and F’nor—who finds the grubs kinda disgusting—decide to try the Red Star approach. Meron’s attempt to send a fire-lizard sends the poor creature into a terrified frenzy, which should be a warning to F’nor, but isn’t. He and Canth decide to head to the Red Star, without any of the usual gadgets recommended for interstellar travel—things like, say, oxygen, spacesuits, spare water, and first aid kits. Minor things.

Indeed, the trip to the Red Star is basically an object lesson on why it’s generally best to do at least some minor research before travelling anywhere on a whim. The planet isn’t just home to an organism that wants to eat all organic matter it encounters—it’s also hot and filled with electrical storms. F’nor and Canth immediately find themselves pummeled and severely burned, too injured to return to Pern on their own.

What saves them: Brekke, who did not Impress another queen dragon, who has only fire-lizards with her, who is terrified of being alone. Who calls out to them—and in doing so, somehow manages to teleport both of them back to Pern. Not to a safe place on Pern—well up in the sky—but still, Pern. Every dragon and fire-lizard helps with their landing, in one of the most marvelous and powerful scenes in the books.

And a scene well set up by earlier casual mentions that Brekke can hear other dragons. Most dragonriders can’t; the only other one who can is Lessa, who also has the ability to shapechange and influence the emotions and thoughts of other people, suggesting that Brekke, too, must have some extraordinary psychic talents.

This does, however, mean that option two is out, at least temporarily, though that hardly stops F’lar from ending the novel by reminding everyone that the telescope has found other planets, and hinting at upcoming adventures for dragon astronauts.

It’s an uneasy ending—and not because very little in this novel so far has reassured me that any of these people should be taking their dragons to other planets. At least not yet. Or because of the number of plot threads left hanging—everything from what, exactly, might happen with Jaxom and the tiny white dragon Ruth, to how, exactly, the holders down in the Southern Continent are dealing with the unexpected arrival of disgruntled time-travelling dragonriders, to whether or not those dragonriders will remain in the Southern Continent. And just how the people of Pern have somehow failed to notice that five “stars” in the sky move around a lot more than the other stars. I grant that they’re busy fighting Thread, but they do have those Intervals when they are not fighting Thread, and the advantage of not having brightly lit cities or Elon Musk’s satellites blocking their view.

Not to mention the still unanswered question of HEY, IS THAT TAINTED NUMBWEED MENTIONED WAY BACK IN THE FIRST CHAPTERS SAFE TO USE OR NOT?

(In the absence of any answer in the text, I’m going with “not,” but it’s kinda mind-boggling that, given all of the many, many trips to the Smithcrafthall, and the many, many visits of Mastersmith Fandarel, no one ever gets around to answering this question.)

But it’s not so much the unanswered questions that create the uneasy feeling, but rather, the way so many characters feel uneasy and dissatisfied at the end—extremely disappointed that the showy, one-stop-fixes-all trip to the Red Star didn’t work, and unwilling to depend on the rather disgusting grubs. Especially since the grubs are a slow, long term solution—the farmers of Pern have spent the last several centuries desperately trying to eradicate them from the soil, under the distinct impression that the grubs are crop-killing parasites, with the result that they now have to be introduced across an entire continent—something that could take decades, at best.

I’ll just add here that I agree with Masterfarmer Andemon—introducing what is for all intents and purposes an exotic species to the Northern Continent in the hopes of ending one environmental threat may cause a second environmental threat. Sure, life seems to be flourishing in the Southern Continent with/despite the grubs, and the Masterfarmer assures us that the grubs can live in the Northern Continent as well, but this is still an introduced species that could well have unforeseen effects on the insect and worm species of Pern—and in turn on other native species on Pern.

That said, the grubs are attacking a definitely non-native, invasive species that kills pretty much everything in its path, so… the dragonriders may well be onto something here.

It’s not surprising that F’lar, who’s frequently been Threadscored, would be so into finding any alternative solution—even if said alternatives include untested space travel and ugly bugs. It’s also not surprising that the Lord Holders, who have been complaining about the tithes (read: taxes) they pay to dragonriders, which have been particularly oppressive in this book, are also interested in finding alternative solutions. Indeed, the surprise is at the end, when, after pages and pages and pages of complaining about dragonriders, directly and indirectly, a few of the Lord Holders admit that they’d rather be grateful to dragons than to the grubs.

…or is it? McCaffrey here seems to be reflecting a very real response to environmental threats on Earth: a desire for fast, visible solutions—which the dragons certainly are—as opposed to low-key, low-visibility, and often low-tech methods of environmental restoration.

All of this is coupled with an almost desperate message of the importance of teaching, preserving and sharing knowledge—accurately. The farmers of Pern, for instance, remembered to watch for the grubs, but not why—in the process killing the very creatures that could have saved their plants, and creating the need to follow up Thread attacks through exhaustive work with ground crews. A diagram of Pern’s solar system leaves everyone puzzled, and wasting time over that puzzlement until Wansor and N’ton discover the other planets through the newly discovered telescope. The failure to transmit information accurately isn’t just dangerous, but inefficient.

I’m also fascinated by the contrast of the end of this book to its predecessor. Dragonflight opened with dragonriders complaining that they just didn’t get any respect anymore, mostly because of all the multiple non-dragonriders running around complaining that the dragonriders were essentially useless. It ended with dragonriders saving Pern and earning that respect. Dragonquest also opens with dragonriders complaining that they just don’t get any respect anymore, mostly because of all of the multiple non-dragonriders running around complaining about dragonriders and complaining that many dragonriders are basically useless. But rather than ending with a showy demonstration of just how useful and marvelous the live-saving dragonriders are, Dragonquest ends with a failed mission, and by introducing an element that, well, makes dragonriders and their dragons essentially useless.

To its credit, Dragonquest allows a couple of characters to point out the problems with this, as well as ask the inevitable question: With Thread no longer a threat, what, exactly, will dragonriders do? Interestingly enough, not one person suggests “Well, whatever they were doing in the past four hundred years before Thread came,” which… kinda suggests that everyone claiming that the dragonriders are basically leeches on society may have a point here. I mean, gratitude for saving the planet is great and all, but, also, the sort of thing that maybe doesn’t justify continuing to support their descendants 300 years later, especially if said descendants aren’t, well, doing all that much.

And it does seem safe to say that, well, no, the dragonriders weren’t doing all that much, but instead, were counting on their roles as aristocrats and riders of fire-breathing dragons to keep up their luxury lifestyle. (A lifestyle, I must note, that seems restricted just to dragonriders, not to all of those random and largely unnamed “women of the Lower Caverns” who do all of the cooking and cleaning, as well as acting as convenient sexual partners when necessary.) Not dissimilar to those with inherited wealth today, to be fair.

What makes this particularly interesting is that it’s not hard to think of jobs that dragons can do—transport services, certainly. Not just of humans, but also of cargo. Pern is mountainous, after all, presumably making roads difficult and expensive to build and maintain. Or construction and welding projects—I don’t know how hot, exactly, dragonfire is, but it could presumably be useful in constructing metal towers or metal ships.

Or police services—yes, the Weyrs, Holds, and Crafts are all autonomous, and yes, the thought of fire-breathing, teleporting dragons working as a security force does present a few concerns. (At the very least, the small issue of what happens if the dragon and rider assigned to patrol your area are majorly due for a mating flight.) But when not involved in mating flights, the dragons can and do act as small checks on riders, and their very size and form tends to intimidate non-riders—a potential advantage for security services.

Though on that note, I half wonder if McCaffrey’s acknowledgement here that Pern would not need dragons forever, or even all that much longer, reflects a wistful, early 1970s hope—or wish—that technology would free Earth from human armies and mass weapons—with the acknowledgement that human desires don’t change all that much. People on Pern still want to ride dragons. People on Earth are still pretty violent.

Or, it’s a reminder that those battling environmental threats—or claiming to be battling environmental threats—may have different agendas. (Think of Exxon-Mobil funding research into climate change, for instance.) This isn’t just a safety or health issue: As both F’nor and Lord Holder Corman remind us, jobs are at stake.

Or, perhaps this was McCaffrey realizing that the best way to free herself from writing more dragon books—she did have other novels in mind—was to assure her readers that the greatest threat to dragons was gone.

F’lar has no such practical or philosophical considerations in mind. One disastrous trip to the Red Star notwithstanding, he has his eyes bent towards other stars—and exploring the rest of the planet. A theme that McCaffrey would take up in the next book of this trilogy…

The White Dragon, 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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