Introduction to Pern

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An Introduction to Pern 

First, some background information:

     Pern is a world created by science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey. It all started with a short story which Anne wrote in part to combat the negative image of dragons. "Weyr Search" was published in the Science Fiction magazine Analog in October 1967. This first story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novella, and won the 1968 Hugo Award. 

     Anne did not intend to write any more about Pern, but the editor of Analog encouraged her to write a sequel. "Dragonrider" was published by Analog in two parts, in December 1967 and January 1968. It too was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novella, and it won the 1969 Nebula--consequently making Anne the first woman to win both awards. 

     These stories were put together and expanded into the first Pern novel, Dragonflight. Ten years later another Pern novel, The White Dragon, hit the New York Times Bestseller List, making Anne the very first avowed science fiction author to have a bestseller. Over thirty years and fifteen books later, Anne still hasn't stopped delighting her millions of fans with more tales of Pern. 

So just what makes Pern so special?

     Pern is an earth-like planet settled by humans who wished to escape a war-torn, space-faring society by setting up a low-tech agrarian colony in a remote sector of the galaxy. Initially they took little notice of the red planet which also circled their sun Rukbat, unaware that its highly eccentric orbit would take it from the remote Oort Cloud to the heart of the solar system and back again every 250 years. Eight years after they landed, the path of this wanderer brought it near Pern. The deadly spores it towed in its wake began to rain down in silvery strands, which quickly devoured all organic material--plant, animal, and human--it came in contact with. 

     The panicked settlers suffered heavy losses from this first fall of what they named Thread. Using their remaining technology, they urgently set out to learn as much as they could about it. The bad news: it would fall every three days for six hours, and Falls would continue for 50 years.  After a 200 year Thread-free Interval, another Pass would begin. The good news: it could be killed with fire, water, or freezing temperatures. Pilots were quickly drafted to fly the colony's small collection of sleds to combat the Falls with flamethrowers. But this was only a temporary solution; the sleds would wear out, as would the battery packs that fueled them. The colony had not counted on needing to replace them, and didn’t have the tools and materials necessary to do so. What the colonists needed was a renewable air-force to combat the deadly rain of Thread. The newest inhabitants of Pern looked to a native life-form to supply their need. 

     The small fire-dragonets, so named for their resemblance to mythical Terran dragons, were naturally equipped to fight Thread. They not only could breathe fire (after consuming a phosphine-bearing rock, firestone) but also could teleport themselves out of danger. These engaging creatures had a spark of intelligence, and they empathically bonded with their human owners when they hatched. The fire-dragonets did their best to shield their human friends during that tragic First Fall, but they simply weren't large enough to offer full protection. 

     Enter geneticist Kitti Ping Yung. This extraordinarily gifted woman manipulated the DNA of the fire-dragonets to produce a number of large eggs on which the hopes and future of the colony rested. The eighteen dragons which successfully hatched (shortly after Kitti's death) immediately each Impressed a young adult and surprised them by telepathically speaking their own names to their chosen partner. When they reached their full growth, the dragons would be able to breathe fire and fly to battle Thread with their riders on their backs.

     Like the fire-dragonets, the dragons came in five colors. The golden queens were the largest of the breed and they mated with the bronze or brown that managed to catch them, producing the next generation of dragons. While the smaller blues didn't have the stamina for a gold's mating flight, they proved much more maneuverable against Thread--as did the numerous greens, the smallest of the dragons. The amorous greens proved unable to bear eggs as the golds did, by design of Kitti Ping.

     Kitti tinkered with the genetic code for the dragons in other ways as well. The gold dragons proved unable to produce flame after chewing fire-stone, but this did not keep the breeding queens from battling Thread as Kitti might have intended. The women who partnered them simply carried mechanical flame-throwers. The dragons of each generation were somewhat larger than their forebears, until the optimum size was reached shortly before the Ninth Pass. The differences in size between the five colors also grew more distinct because of this, and in modern times the browns are no longer able to successfully compete against the larger bronzes in the mating flights of queens. These modern beasts are many times the size of the original 18 dragons. 

     The structure of Pern's society developed over the years to one well-suited to support the dragons and riders, freeing them to protect the planet's population from Threadfall. The dragonriders lived and trained in extinct volcanoes they called Weyrs. Each Weyr would be led by the riders of the senior queen and her bronze mate. Food was tithed to the Weyrs by those that farmed the land and lived together in caves and stone buildings known as Holds, each led by a Lord and Lady Holder. Other goods were tithed by the various autonomous Crafthalls which trained their members in particular skills under the guidance of an elected Craftmaster.

     The original story opens just prior to the Ninth Pass. Most technology and knowledge--including their Terran origin--has been lost to the population by this time. The wandering planet that brings the Threads to Pern is now known as the Red Star. Five of the six Weyrs are empty and most of the people of Pern don't believe that Thread will fall again--a result of an extra-long Interval of over 400 years, or Turns as they are now called, since the previous Pass. The return of the Red Star threatens disaster for Pern, unless a strong-willed woman can be found before the last golden egg hatches, and a young, visionary man can find a way to unite and lead his fellow dragonriders. 

A brief summary of the books

     Essentially the tale of this renewed battle with Thread is told in the first three novels of the series (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon; collectively called The Dragonriders of Pern), while the later published The Masterharper of Pern recounts the eventful Turns leading up to the Ninth Pass. Another set of three books (the Harper Hall of Pern, comprised of Dragonsong, Dragonsinger and Dragondrums) follows the story of two characters who join the Harpercraft. These and the much later published The Renegades of Pern all take place in the same time period, fairly early in the Ninth Pass. Events culminate in All the Weyrs of Pern and The Dolphins of Pern, in which the dragonriders try to forever end the incursions of Thread with the help of some rediscovered technology of the original colonists.  In The Skies of Pern, although the Ninth Pass is not yet over, the dragonriders start to consider what their function will be in a Thread-free future.

     Other books deal with the history of Pern. Dragonsdawn and the collection of stories in The Chronicles of Pern cover the most ancient history: the landing of the colonists and the first decades of the First Pass. Dragonseye (published as Red Star Rising in the UK) takes place just prior to the Second Pass, while Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and Nerilka’s Story tell of the epic efforts of the dragonriders and people of Pern when their planet is hit by a plague towards the end of the Sixth Pass.  

     Anne's son Todd is now writing in the world of Pern, too.  The two jointly wrote Dragon's Kin, which deals in depth with watch whers just before the the Third Pass.  The next expected book will be Dragonsblood, written solely by Todd, and set a decade after Dragon's Kin.

     It is recommended by Anne McCaffrey (and myself and many others) that those new to the series read the books in the order in which they were published, rather than by chronological order of events. For a listing of the books in publication order and further discussion of why this is the best way to read them, visit my suggested reading order page.

     Pern has also inspired a number of supporting books that both the first-time and experienced reader might find helpful. The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern was written predominantly by Jody Lynn Nye, and is a general guide to the world, its history and customs. The Atlas of Pern, written by Karen Wynn Fonstad, offers a great assortment of maps and diagrams that help the reader ‘see’ Pern. And finally The People of Pern contains portraits of the major characters done by artist Robin Wood in consultation with Anne McCaffrey.

Introduction to Pern copyright © 2000, 2004 by Cheryl Miller

Links of interest:

Visit the Good Introductions to Pern section of my Organized Link List


Site created and maintained by Cheryl B. Miller, copyright © 1998-2007, all rights reserved.
All references to worlds and characters based on Anne McCaffrey’s fiction are copyright © Anne McCaffrey 1967-2007,
all rights reserved, and used by permission of the author.