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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Great Moments in Fantasy: The Hatching

Title:  Dragonsdawn
Author:  Anne McCaffrey
Published: 1989

As discussed in yesterday's post, Anne McCaffrey is a major contributor to the genre, and while her Dragonsdawn reeks of science fiction, it remains a major work of fantasy literature.  I read this book as a preteen, and knew that there was a great moment here.  However, reading through it, I had some difficulty selecting the right one. 

SPOILER:  I was first tempted by the moment in which Andiyar Tarvi, the ship's geologist, realizes that his wife is going to perish aboard the Yokohama, after valiantly sneaking aboard the hijacked ship, to stop one of the books villains, Avril Bittra, from sneaking off with much needed resources.  Having been somewhat of a romantically cold fish, when he realizes his wife was about to die he goes beserk:

"Sallah!" Tarvi had managed to get his voice under control.  "Get out of here, all of you!  She's mine now.  Sallah, jewel in my night, my golden girl, my emerald-eyed ranee, why did I never tell you before how much you meant to me?  I was too proud.  I was too vain.  But you taught me to love, taught me by your sacrifice when I was too engrossed in my other love--my worklove--to see the inestimable gift of your affection and kindness.  How could I have been so stupid?  How could I have failed to see that you were more than just a body to receive my seed, more than an ear to hear my ambitions, more than hands to--Sallah?  Sallah?  Answer me, Sallah?"
"I do love you, Sallah.  I do!  Sallah?  Sallah!  Salllllaaaaah!"

Despite some awkward, and some over the top language, it is a really beautiful moment, set up really nicely through fairly marginal interactions between the two throughout the book.  Ultimately, I decided not to use it as my great moment.  There's no fantasy here, just love.  That's important in fantasy, but not as important as the fantasy itself.

Another great moment was when the Dragons have their first battle against Thread.  But its too brief, and really, its the culmination of the entire book and the explanation for the entire Dragonrider series.  Reproducing that moment would be typing the entire 363 pages here.

The moment I selected was the hatching of Pern's first dragons.  To recap briefly, the dragons were genetic creations, based on a flying warm blooded lizard indiginous to the planet.  With any genetic modifications come a great deal of risk, and a great deal of error.  Added to that the Pernese are just about to run out of resources to combat Thread, silvery snake-like devourers of carbon based life that fall from the skies like rain.  The dragons are their only hope.

By midnight Pol and Bay decided to examine the remaining eggs and slowly did the rounds.  Wooden platforms had been brought out for the candidates to rest on, since the heat in the sand was enervating.  None of the chosen was willing to forgo the chance at impressing a hatchling by leaving the Ground.  When the two biologists returned, Pol was shaking his head and Bay looked drawn.  She went immediately to Wind Blossom and touched her arm.
     "The rest of the group show no signs of life.  But already the outcome is better than projected.  We detected viable signs of life in the others.  We can but wait.  They were not all conceived at the same time.
Wind blossom remained an unmoving statue.

Sean nudged Sorka in the ribs to wake her up.  She had fallen asleep against him, her cheek against his upper arm.  She was instantly alert and aware of her surroundings.  Sean pointed to the biggest of the eggs, which sat almost directly in front of them.  He had taken that position at the outset, and finally, after his long vigil, the egg was rocking slightly.
     "What time is it?" she asked.
     "Nearly dawn.  There's been no other movement.  But listen to the dragonets.  Listen to Blaze.  She'll have no throat left!"
They had noted their own dragonets early during that long day, and Sorka had taken heart from their constant choral encouragements.
     "That egg over there has been moving spasmodically for the last two hours," he said in a quiet tone.  "The one beyond it rocked for a while, but it's stopped completely."
Sorka tried to contain a yawn, then gave in to the compulsion and felt better for it.  She wanted to stretch, but another candidated was draped over her legs, fast asleep.  Beyond, the other candidates began to wake. 
At some point while Sorka had been dozing, the admiral and the governor had left.  Pol and Bay were leaning into each other, and Kwan's head was on his chest, arms limp in his lap.  Wind Blossom had apparently not moved since she had taken up her watch.
      "She's uncanny," Sorka said, turning away from the geneticst.
A single great crack startled everyone, and the egg before them parted into two ragged halves.  The bronze hatchling walked out imperiously, lifted his head, and made a sound like a stuttering trumpet.  Everyone came to attention.  Sean was on his feet, and Sorka pushed at his legs to urge him on.  She need not have worried.  As he locked eyes with the hatchling, Sean gave a low incredulous groan and moved forward to meet the beast halfway.  Their fair was bugling with triumph.
     "Meat, quickly," Sorka called, beckoing to a sleepy steward.  Hoping that the heat in the building had not soured the meat, she ran to meet the man, grabbed the bowl and returned to thrust it into Sean's hands.  She had never seen that utterly rapt look in his eyes before.
     "He says his name is Carenath, Sorka  He knows his own name!"  Sean transferred food from the bowl to Carenath's mouth as fast he could shovel it.  "More meat.  Hurry, I need more meat."
Everyone in the Hatching Ground was awakened by his vibrant voice.  Then the other egg broke open, and a golden femail sauntered forth, chittering and looking about urgently.  Sorka was too busy passing bowls of meat to Sean to notice until Betsy tugged at her arm.
     "She's looking for you, Sorka.  Look at her!"
Sorka tugged her head and suddenly she, too, felt that indescribable impact of a mind on hers, a mind that rejoiced in finding its equal, its lifelong partner.  Sorka was filled with an exultation that was almost painful.
My name is Faranth, Sorka!

One of the reasons this moment is so beautiful is that McCaffery's dragons, "impress" on their human partners at hatching.  This impression is made more forceful by the fact that unlike the Dragonets, who merely form attachments based on who first fed them and cared for them, the Dragons, larger and smarter, can actually speak to their partners on the first day of their birth.  This was a shock to the reader, though we had ample evidence to suggest it might occur.  But mostly it's the fact that we all struggle in our lives to find that great partner, the one who really and truly understands us.  But despite our love for our partners, we can never really and truly understand what is going on in their minds.  If we did, we would never fight, or be hurt, or be jealous, or callous.  We see only the evidence of their thoughts and feelings, the effect, never the cause.  McCaffrey's dragons are empathically linked to their partners.  In fact, they often know better what the human is thinking than the human himself.  And that moment of impression is beautiful, and hopeful, and inspiring, and wondrous, and is the very heart of fantasy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Anne McCaffrey: Dragonsdawn

In an effort to add some classic fantasy from my past, I found myself reading another science fiction crossover.  As stated in the past, I genuinely believe in judging a book by its cover, and though Dragonsdawn did not have a fly cover, the next book in the series, had a truly beautiful cover, reading the jacket indicated to me my mistake, and I picked up Dragonsdawn. However, as I learned from McCaffrey's Wikipedia page, the editors repackaged the Pern books, as they have now done with the Narnia series, making the books chronological.  In fact, Dragonsdawn was published in 1989, a full six years after the dragon riders had been established through various short stories, and Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern.  So Dragonsdawn is actually, a prequel.

SPOILER:  In short, a group of colonists arrive at their new planet, Pern, to find a beautiful, untouched world--with a dark secret.  That secret is Threadfall, every hundred or two hundred years, a nearby planet wobbles by, emitting masses of a carbon destroying lifeforms called Thread.  Thread devours anything it touches.  Fortunately, its non-sentient.  It's basically as if it rained fire for 50-60 years.  Except that fire can be killed, eliminating the threat.  The colonists still have some of their technology in place when they land.  But it becomes exorbitantly resource demanding to defend the populace and their holdings, and so a solution must be found.  Fortunately, the planet's indiginous population is a vaguely pet-like firedrake, warm blooded lizard with wings.  An advanced civilization with a precious natural resource, you put the pieces together. 
There is a grand tradition of dragonriding in fantasy, every bit as prevalent as riding pegasi, or horses, or He-man's boar cat, Tolkien's eagles, or Wargriders.  The entire Dragonlance franchise was predicated on the search for a magic lance that knights would use to spear evil dragons from the skies.  Raymond E. Feist's epic, the Riftwar Saga had an omnipotent race of dragon riders, the Valheru, who became both villain and hero.  With all these predecessors, there are some basic dragon cliches that need to be discussed.  Dragons are intelligent.  It is surprising that the myths about dragons have always made them at least as intelligent as humans, if not more so.  Not so for the vast majority of fantasy fiction monsters.  A unicorn is magical, but its still just slightly smarter than a horse.  Orcs can speak the human tongues, but they use their smarts only to create devices to kill.  In Dungeons & Dragons, and indeed, DragonLance, Dragons are generally genius level smarter than humans.  You can tell, because in that rubric, intelligence is measured by a simple number 1-18 (three roles of a six sided die).  Most humans fall between 8 and 13.  All dragons fall between 15 to 22 (numbers above 18 are called modifiers in D&D parlance) This intelligence allows them to cast spells, to reduce their weight to allow them to fly, and often, to travel to new worlds.  This intelligence is marked by McCaffrey in that humans can speak to their dragons telepathically.  Moreover, this intelligence also allows them to make the calculations necessary to make teleport jumps between places to avoid danger.  Of course, Dragons breathe fire.  On Pern, they do so by ingesting a rock laden with chemicals that the dragon's second stomach converts to fire breathing fuel.

Since, I haven't quite come up with a great rubric for judging SF/Fantasy crossovers, I'll touch on several of the Five Factors first.  Cliche's abound, in fact, SF relies a bit more on cliche's since they don't have the time to develop characters in the same way that fantasy fiction can.  But human dramas are lessened, sideshows to the action.  Still McCaffrey is a master at her craft, and even the few human dramas described are expertly done.  The scope, in a science fiction is the entire galaxy, infinite possibilities, and history is often dumped on the reader for no other purpose than to establish character's personal histories.

In my BattleStar Gallactica review, I posted the following:

Fantasy is about good and evil.
Fantasy is about self-determination and fate.
Fantasy is about standing up against insurmountable odds.
Fantasy is liberalizing.

In comparison, Science Fiction has remarkably different pillars.

SF is about The Big Idea.
SF is reactionary
SF is voyeuristic.
SF is about plot.

A central reason for why Dragonsdawn is a crossover is that it does touch on ideas of good and evil.  Not spelled out as such, but as general rules for living.  There are several human "villains" one of whom is a belligerent scientist driven mad with grief over his lost daughter.  All the villains "get what's coming to them," every single one of them.  They all are rude, at some points unkind, sarcastic, and greedy.  Some are murderers, like the beautiful narcisist, pyschotic Avril Bittra.  And so, like any good fantasy, they get theirs, because the central moral tenet of fantasy isn't about the fight between good and evil, its about choosing to be kind, choosing to be just, and choosing the community over the self.  One of the stories main characters, makes this exact sacrifice, gathering data for the colony while bleeding out from stab wounds.  And yet--there is undoubtedly, a Big Idea.  Namely, what if Dragons were man made?  So McCaffrey takes the Dragon cliche and reworks it to suit her needs.  This is the reason for the cliches, they're flexible models that contain a variety of preconditioned knowledge.

The book continues in the fantasy vein when discussing Self-Determinacy and Fate.  If you've read the Pern books in order of publication, than you know exactly what the fate of the colony is, as the first books and stories take place hundreds of years after the colonists land.  In this aspect, much of Dragonsdawn is preordained.  Yet, the earnest struggle of the characters against the external menace of Thread indicates that its their own resolve that makes this fate possible.

Liberalizing/Reactionary.  The science fiction nature of Dragonsdawn struggles with and eventually loses to McCaffrey's innate liberal tendencies.  Pern is an idyllic paradise, and the colonist's government is generally speaking democratic.  There is a chapter where the governors take martial law to fight the threat of Thread, but they do so by asking the colonists to elect them to this position in a completely fair election.  More, there's no sense in the world of Pern, that "this is what will happen if--" or, "these are the consequences of these actions."  The colonists are trapped, not enough fuel to fly back.  They've made Pern their home, and when it turns out the planet has some unpleasant surprises, they fight back.  And its genetics that allow them to do so.  On the other side of the coin, the Evil Botanist, creates some nasty surprises in his own labs for future generations of Pernese to discover.

Dragonsdawn is a great book, and a quick read.  It does not however have much interest characterwise.  Its an ensemble cast, and many of those members are indistinguishable from others.  Though I have not reread the series in many years, it is my memory that the other volumes more than make up for this lack.  This is after all, a prequel meant to explain the dragon origins of Pern, not a personal struggle about humans growing up and fighting the odds.  I thoroughly recommend it.  And--I will be presently adding a Great Moment in Fantasy to my library from this same book.