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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.

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