As I reread these Pern books, I keep asking myself, how does this all work? I’m not just talking about the dragons, although many of the questions often left unexplored by the series are associated with dragons. For instance, how, exactly, is a planet regularly whacked by massive environmental and habitat damage supporting so many huge apex predators? Why do the people of Pern so frequently fail to utilize all of the abilities of said apex predators? And beyond the dragons—really, just how does a world of people and dragons work?
I can’t say that The White Dragon helps all that much with answering any of these questions—although it does show us several glimpses of actual farm work, somewhat unusual for this series. It also gives us a pretty solid look at the health care system on Pern.
And I gotta say, I’m unimpressed.
When last we looked in on the adventures of the Very Privileged Jaxom and his Very Special Dragon, Ruth, D’ram was stepping down as the Weyrleader of Ista, and announcing that Ista’s next Weyrleader would be chosen in an open mating flight.
To be very clear about this, the mating flight involves a number of bronze dragons (male) chasing after a golden queen dragon (female) in the sky, with the “winner” catching the golden queen and mating with her, which is apparently so overwhelmingly powerful that their mutual riders will have wild, passionate uncontrollable sex as a result. So, yes, Ista’s next leader will be chosen not thanks to competence, strength or even popularity, but his dragon’s sexual prowess.
Like, GO ISTA.
To be entirely fair, the previous books had noted that the general feelings of a Weyr towards specific bronze riders could influence the outcome of a mating flight. To be a lot less fair, the previous books had also noted that the specific feelings of the two riders involved often counted for little to nothing, and that mating flights did not always result in the best leaders. And in terms of the fairness of this particular contest, the queen dragon in question has already been flown by a dragon/rider from Ista, apparently making it a touch harder for the other dragons to compete, leading me to ask, why are we even bothering? Are the two riders in question willing to separate, just to have a dragon and a rider from another Weyr take over?
Despite all this, the only group to express serious concerns about this custom are the Lord Holders, who seem to be objecting less to the potential rape, misogyny, and leadership issues and more to the fact that this is explicitly an Oldtimer custom. Even years past the exile of the Oldtimer leaders, the Lord Holders still feel strong grievances: Some even want Benden Weyr to punish the riders and dragons at the Southern Weyr for stealing Ramoth’s egg.
Anyway. F’lar is not interested in any of this. He is, however, concerned that, shortly after making this announcement, D’ram has decided to go back in time to get away from everyone, which sounds eminently reasonable to me, but less so to F’lar. As (nearly) always, F’lar decides that the best person to seek out for advice is Masterharper Robinton. Not because Robinton spent time with D’ram shortly before this (although he did), but more to ensure that Robinton can expound on his Fire-Lizards Have Amazing Memories Theme. This of course directly follows Jaxom’s Prodded By Fire-Lizard Memories Excellent Time-Travel Adventures, and if you are thinking that all of this none-too-subtle “FIRE-LIZARDS HAVE ASTONISHING MEMORIES, EVERYONE” stuff has got to be related to some sort of upcoming twist that will allow these amazing fire-lizard memories to let the characters skip over a lot of plot, you are on the right track. Robinton also kinda shows off to F’lar just how useful fire-lizards can be, while also asking for Jaxom’s assistance because Ruth Is, In Case You Missed It, A Super-Special Dragon, as well as to let readers know that although Menolly has guessed about Jaxom’s time travel adventures, Robinton hasn’t.
This also contains yet another repeat of “looking at stars will help you travel through time,” along with “Wansor’s equations can be used both to help you predict the arrival of Thread and conduct illicit adventures.”
Math. It’s very useful.
Anyway. Since no one, apparently, is in a hurry or anything, even though this is urgent, there’s a lengthy discussion repeating several plot points, a good night’s sleep, and then Jaxom is sent off to find D’ram with… Menolly, of course, though in all fairness, this is about the first time in this book that she doesn’t feel shoehorned in. She has previously traveled to the place on the Southern Continent where D’ram is believed to have traveled back to in time, and with ten fire-lizards she can give Ruth very clear images and coordinates to that place. So this makes sense. Robinton briefly wonders if Menolly and Jaxom will hook up, which is kinda freaky if you’ve read The Harper Hall Trilogy before this book (I had—and yes, Dragondrums technically takes place during the very early chapters of The White Dragon, but, still) and also kinda freaky given his thoughts later in the book.
Anyway, Menolly and Jaxom head down to the spot, which I’ll just go ahead and call Cove Hold to keep things simpler, although at this point, it’s only a spectacularly beautiful place that any resort would be desperate to own and put a hotel on. The pristine sandy beach and the swimming gives Jaxom Ideas About Menolly. I continue to be Somewhat Freaked. Everyone falls asleep, and then, finally, the wild fire-lizards of the area arrive, and inform Ruth that Menolly, Jaxom, and D’ram Aren’t Their Men.
DUN DUN DUN!
See? I knew we’d get to the major plot point of this book… what, more than halfway through?
Ruth confirms that the fire-lizards remember a lot of men, and suddenly, I realize just why Robinton, Menolly and then D’ram arrived at this cove (accidentally and on purpose) in the first place: to introduce the main plot of the book. Ok, I guess we can forgive D’ram for making a major announcement like that and then deciding to go off and die in the past in order not to disturb anyone.
Jaxom ignores the major plot point that’s just been dropped in his lap, instead deciding to jump back in time twenty-five Turns in order to find D’ram. Then, rather than, you know, informing D’ram that he’s been found, and telling the guy that various people want him back, he leaps back forward to find a furious, terrified Menolly—in order to avoid meeting himself, Jaxom left her stranded on the beach for hours. I mean, it’s a lovely beach, and Menolly has several fire-lizards, but I am again reminded about just why I don’t like Jaxom very much. Anyway, they head to Benden, followed by fire-lizards—who are immediately scared off by a furious watchdragon. Jaxom nearly collapses with exhaustion from the time travel, like, THIS IS WHY YOU SHOULD STOP DOING THINGS SO IMPULSIVELY, JAXOM.
The Benden Weyrleaders soon realize that Jaxom has been Threadscored, which leads to another repetition of just why Jaxom can’t be seriously hurt, or a full-fledged dragonrider: Ruatha can’t be in contention. Over dinner the Weyrleaders confess their plans: Fully aware that they will be largely superfluous after Thread stops falling, they want to claim most of the Southern Continent—or at least the best part of it—for dragonriders.
Mind you, they are confessing this to someone who is also a Lord Holder; like, Lessa and F’lar, not always the most forward-looking thinkers.
The next morning, Jaxom has an unfortunate encounter with Mirrim, the one woman riding a green dragon on Pern, where we learn that riding green dragons—that is, the horny dragons—can have a detrimental effect on an already wobbling personality. Menolly and Jaxom then have a heart to heart, and Jaxom returns Menolly to the Harper Hall, where she runs straight into Sebell’s arms.
Well, I feel better. Jaxom does not. Freaked that his dragon is—gasp—not interested in sex right now, and jealous of Menolly and Sebell, he heads to Corana. And when he and Ruth witness the mating flight of a green dragon, and Ruth doesn’t respond, he heads to Corana again—this time much more aggressively, at what is not a great time for her, in a passage that once again reads perilously close to sexual assault. He does at least have the decency to feel thoroughly ashamed of himself later—not all that mitigated by his decision to help her out with her chores. Ruth tells him—and us—that Corana enjoyed it.
And keeps sneezing, even as he draws pictures of Cove Hold, fights Thread with Fort Weyr—at last—and then heads down to Cove Hold.
Where he wakes up days later, in the darkness, his head held between blocks, a wet cloth on his forehead, tended by—Brekke? And Sharra.
Definitely definition time:
Fire-head: a serious, sometimes fateful illness apparently endemic to the Southern Continent, that can leave its victims with permanent blindness. Considerably worsened by going between.
Jaxom: The perfect example of a man you should avoid at all costs, even if he does have an adorable dragon.
Ruth: Jaxom’s only redeeming quality.
Jaxom’s case of fire-head fever is serious enough to keep him trapped at Cove Hold. Here he behaves like, well, Jaxom—immediately hitting on Sharra, and hard, kissing her hand without warning, physically grabbing and trapping her—you know. Romance. Sharra informs him that she’s a healer, not just a random fosterling. That doesn’t make this any better. Jaxom immediately switches his romantic interest from Corana and Menolly to Sharra, without even bothering to send Corana a goodbye message even though he just used her for sex two to three weeks ago because he was jealous of Menolly; like, run, Sharra, run.
(Spoiler: She does not, in fact, run. Oh, Sharra.)
Various other people come by to check in on Jaxom, including N’ton, D’ram, Lytol and Lord Groghe of Fort Hold—this last visitor there to assure the other Lord Holders that the Lord Holder of Ruatha is not, in fact, dead. His visit, however, again raises the question of who, exactly, will get the Southern Continent once the Oldtimers die.
Before anyone can answer that question, Caylith rises to mate. For some reason, despite knowing that mating flights can and do trigger unexpected sexual and other feelings in nearby humans, particularly the bronze/gold matings (Dragonquest specifically mentioned that these mating flights can trigger “commoners,” aka non-dragonriders living outside the Weyr), a number of people who really don’t seem to have a good reason to be there show up—including F’lar, not because his dragon is going to fly Caylith but because he’s F’lar, and Masterharper Robinton, not because he even has a dragon, but because he’s Masterharper Robinton, and various Lord Holders and others. I suppose I can give Robinton a bit of a pass here—he apparently spent quite a lot of time at Ista before D’ram’s death, and he’s a beloved figure who can reassure the public about the results. And F’lar—well. F’lar is F’lar, and the leader of Pern.
I suppose I’m just being grumpy.
Not quite as grumpy as T’kul, who shows up for the mating flight with fellow bronze rider B’zon, who was never heard from before this scene and—spoiler—will never be heard from again, which makes it very difficult to care much about him. T’kul attempts to join the mating flight, but his dragon dies in the attempt, removing T’kul’s last restraints. He tries to kill F’lar, who kills him.
If you’re keeping track, that’s three duels for F’lar so far, with two deaths and one defeat. The “dragonmen don’t kill” concept is not exactly working well with F’lar.
(You’ll note that I’m mostly leaving Caylith’s rider out of this, largely because the text mostly leaves her out too—she keeps her queen from gorging on meat, she’s escorted back to a room by G’dened and T’kul, she completely ignores the fight going on in the very next room, she has a piercing shriek, and… that’s it for Cosira in this book. Nice not to know you, Cosira. Thank you for your part in getting T’kul killed in a duel, I guess?)
The stress of all of this sends Masterharper Robinton, already experiencing mild chest pains, into a heart attack.
Talk about questions. Starting with, given just how much of Dragonflight and Dragonquest were set in the Southern Continent, why is this first time that fire-head—a major illness—has come up? What if another queen dragon at Ista had risen before Caylith and forced the entire Weyr to go without a leader for… for however long it takes for eggs to hatch and for the next queen to rise? Given the number of green dragons and green fire-lizards everywhere else, why doesn’t the Southern Weyr have any green dragons? Are green dragons really mostly useful as sexual relief, and did the green dragon riders, as a group, decide that they were all better off in the North, fighting Thread, instead of just getting used as sex objects down South, even if the Southern weather was much nicer?
(This last may just be me fanwanking.)
Why all this insistence on calling Cosira and Caylith, in their brief appearances, a young queen and rider, given that the text also confirms that they are Oldtimers, who arrived from the past 15 Turns ago—making Cosira 30 at the youngest. Caylith is also called the oldest remaining queen. If she really is, and Cosira and Caylith are in their 30s, what was going on at Ista Weyr to leave a thirty or forty year age gap between the oldest queen riders?
Why suddenly tease a potential relationship between Menolly and Jaxom—a Masterharper Robinton-approved relationship, at that—while knowing Menolly is currently paired up with another man? Just to show that Jaxom can be jealous and is having Various Manly Thoughts? That seems to be already present with Corana.
WHERE DID THESE PILLS GIVEN TO MASTERHARPER ROBINTON EVEN COME FROM?
Keep in mind, just fifteen Turns—that is years—ago the people of Pern lacked telegraph/telephone technology, paper, a printing press and any type of power source other than fires and the occasional windmill. They were using dogs to rotate meat and fighting sword duels. An advanced technological civilization this is not.
To be fair, it’s not entirely clear here what McCaffrey means by “pills.” People in ancient and medieval times did roll herbal medicines into small balls—sometimes with honey, flour or sugar added—somewhat similar to today’s concept of pills. A few enterprising, innovative apothecaries even created various coatings to make these medications easier to swallow. So it’s hardly out of the question that the people of Pern have small round balls and tablets they call pills. So far, so good.
And Robinton’s internal monologue during his heart attack, right down to complaining about how cold all of the medical instruments are, feels spot on—so spot on that I can’t help but think that McCaffrey had either just had a cardiac event shortly before writing this section, or had known someone who had. Indeed, much though I hate to use the word “realistic” when discussing a book with dragons, this all feels realistic. Right down to the detailed description of the pill, which sounds remarkably like a nitroglycerin tablet—a substance first used to treat heart pain in the late 19th century.
Which is not supposed to be taken with alcohol, Robinton, but moving on.
I suppose it’s not completely out of the question that Pern could have nitroglycerin tablets. Even orally disintegrating nitroglycerin tablets, though those are an even more recent invention. But I am skeptical. Deeply skeptical. We are talking about a culture that just rediscovered the telescope and the telegraph, and not all that long ago was using dogs to turn the spits for meat. Manufacturing is limited. Knowledge of chemistry—kinda crucial for manufacturing nitroglycerin tablets that won’t explode—even more limited. And healing professionals—that is, people dedicating their careers to medicine and medical care? Even more limited.
When Lady Gemma is about to give birth to Jaxom in Dragonflight, the only person with any sort of experience or training is a single birthing-woman, who is unable to save Gemma’s life. Later, when the dragons and dragonriders are injured during that first Threadfall, various residents of the Weyr help slather numbweed on their injuries. And that’s as professional as anything gets.
Things don’t improve in Dragonquest. When F’nor is wounded, he is sent to the Southern Weyr, where two Weyrwomen—Brekke and Vanira—work as nurses, with Brekke also supervising medical administration. We know nothing about Vanira other than the name, but Brekke, at least, wasn’t originally trained as a nurse. The two of them have only been Weyrwomen for a few years—in Brekke’s case, less than the time of a standard training program for registered nurses in the United States—and they represent the most skilled care available to dragonriders. When F’lar is wounded, Lessa applies numbweed and bandages. When F’nor and Canth are nearly killed traveling to the Red Star, everyone applies numbweed.
In The Harper Hall trilogy, Menolly’s Seahold has no trained healer available. The Harper Hall appears to have only one Healer, Oldive, the Masterhealer of Pern. Later books state that the Harper Hall is also the Crafthall for the Healers, but Masterhealer Oldive appears to have few, if any students.
The White Dragon confirms that Ista Weyr—whose residents regularly risk their lives fighting Thread— has no permanent medical staff whatsoever. When Robinton has his heart attack, experts—Oldive and Brekke—have to be flown in for his care.
And when Jaxom and Ruth are first injured by Thread, they never consider calling in a Healer, instead choosing to treat themselves, with some later supervision from Lytol. This is partly, of course, because they are trying to keep their activities secret, but also? When Jaxom thinks of the various people at Ruatha, a Healer never comes up. That could of course just be Jaxom being Jaxom. But given that when Jaxom does get sick, no one comes from Ruatha to treat him, I’m inclined to think that Ruatha Hold, like Ista Weyr, doesn’t have a Healer. After all, these huge meetings of Lord Holders and Craftmasters never mention Masterhealers. Maybe they’re just quiet. Or maybe they just aren’t there.
This is astonishing enough in the context of just these three books, which mention all sorts of medical issues—birth and delivery, which kills at least one person and nearly kills a second; fire-head, a very serious illness that can leave victims permanently disabled; heart attacks; duels; clinical depression; and, yes, Thread. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that a trained medical professional—or better yet, a psychologist—might have noticed the danger signs in both D’ram and T’kul, and recommended treatment, avoiding panic in one case and violence and death in the other. So I have to ask, why doesn’t Pern have more trained medical professionals? And, given the lack of trained medical professionals, who is making these nitroglycerin tablets?
To be fair, these questions don’t seem to trouble anyone on Pern, where everyone seems less concerned about health care and more concerned with the ongoing environmental threats—not just Thread, but population pressures and resource deprivation. These concerns are punctuated by the ongoing comments of just how desperate Masterminer Necat is to reach the Southern Continent and Lord Groghe’s visit to Cove Hold—ostensibly to check on Jaxom’s health, but actually to get a look at the Southern Continent and to get a sense of its size and potential.
It’s not just the Crafters and the Lord Holders either: The Weyrs, too, are feeling squeezed. Not surprisingly, given that each Weyr has three to five queen dragons, who each lay a clutch of 15 to 45 eggs every few Turns, meaning that each Weyr is gaining anywhere from 15 to 90 new dragonriders per Turn. Sure, dragonriders are also dying off, but not that quickly—a separate discussion shows that even the Southern Weyr isn’t dying off that quickly.
No wonder the Weyrleaders can so easily assure the people of Pern that yes, a green dragon—possibly several green dragons—could have been sent to the Southern Weyr, preventing the tragedy at Ista. Sure, it sounds unlikely, given that these green dragons and their riders refused to go into exile in the first place, but that was before another hundred or so dragons and riders joined the Weyrs.
Indeed, things have gotten so crowded at Ista Weyr alone that, as a quick sidenote tells us, some of the dragons and riders have left the Weyr to live in the forest areas just outside those stone walls—a shift I’d love to know more about, given the general obsession in most of the rest of Pern with living inside the protection of stone and metal, but I guess if any location on Pern is going to be safe from the devastation of Threadfall, it would be the area just outside the Weyr.
A Weyr without any healers.
No wonder everyone—Holders, Crafters, and dragonriders—are eyeing the Southern Continent so desperately.
Even without knowing the real secret hidden in its jungles. Coming up in the next post.
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.