About the Setting
The Pern novels are Science Fiction, or at least that’s where you’ll find them in the book store. Being born the same year that Star Wars came out, I’ve been a fan for my whole life, and I‘d always thought of myself as a lover of Science Fiction. As I look back on it though, the closest thing I’d ever read to “pure” science fiction up to that point was Dune, by Frank Herbert. In fact, I was probably twenty-seven or twenty-eight before I’d ever read any Isaac Asimov or H.P. Lovecraft. I think I was in my thirties before I really realized that Star Wars wasn’t really, SciFi at all, but that it was actually Science Fantasy. So were the dragons of Pern. I’ve loved them both since “hello.”
Dragon Song, and Dragon Singer are the first two books of the Harper Hall Trilogy, from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books. The Harper Hall trilogy is science fantasy, and like Star Wars or Doctor Who, there are a lot of mainstays from fantasy stories, like dragons, sailors and travelling bards. All of these things though, are nestled into a science fiction framework on the far away planet of Pern, settled by colonists from Earth. I remember in seventh grade, writing a book report on this same book, and explaining things using terms from the setting with no context. I didn’t even think about what it would be like if I’d never heard of Star Wars, and suddenly someone was talking to me about the Force, Wookies, Droids, and the Empire. It’s far enough removed from our world to make it difficult to know what’s going on, or the motivations behind the characters actions. Luckily, these books begin with a two page introduction to the world.
Pern was settled by space faring colonists from earth. It was an untouched paradise, and the people were happy there. What the colonists didn’t know though, was that there was a sister planet in the same solar system that would regularly orbit close to their new home. Pern’s sister, called “The Red Star” in the books was infected by a kind of spore, that would spin off from its atmosphere, flung into space to fall to the surface of Pern. As the spore fell, it would heat and stretch into long silver filaments, earning it the name “thread”. Thread would eat any organic material. The only things it seemed not to be able to destroy were stone and metal, the only way to destroy it were drowning in water, or burning it with fire.
The Colonists were, hardy and resourceful people though. They carved huge forts, or “holds” out of natural caves and cliffs to protect them and their provisions from the thread. They bred and trained creatures native to the planet called dragons, after the mythical beasts from earth to fly and burn it before it could reach the planet’s surface. They developed a social structure much like city states from earth’s middle ages. Holders worked the land for the lord holder. Lord holders, paid a tithe to the weyr, or the home of the dragon riders who protected their land. Crafts and skilled labor operated outside and through this system, with guilds and craft halls overseeing their work, giving them independence and ensuring that all holds had access to trade for the things they needed. The society was in many ways egalitarian, recognizing that they needed to work together in order flourish. The people survived, but with a system so rigid because of the constant threat of thread,
change, innovation and progress came slowly, if at all.
Tradition has become very important on Pern, and has over time taken the form of unwritten law, set deep in the people and unshakeable. Dragon Song, and Dragon Singer are about Menolly, and how she discovered fire lizards, miniature dragons thought to be children’s stories. Her adventures continued as she goes on to became a part of the Harper craft hall. Musicians and storytellers, harpers are the eyes and ears of the world, keepers of tradition, and agents of change. I find myself coming back to the story of Menolly and her passion for music every time I doubt my own path.