When we heard the news that Anne McCaffrey had died earlier this week, I found myself unexpectedly effected by it. For several years in my childhood and teens, Pern was one of my chief obsessions. I think that if I had run across Pern fans instead of Star Wars fans when I got online at 17, I might be running a very different kind of SF/F blog.
But instead, I gave up on following the series in 2001, after what I thought were several lackluster books. I can’t in good conscience recommend any of the recent Pern books, as I haven’t read them (and was actually shocked at just how many there are now!) But, for anyone who wants a grounding in the series, here are my recommendations.
The basics. While it’s easy to mistake the books for fantasy – Dragons! – they are in fact science fiction. The planet Pern, or Rukbat 3, was colonized by people from Earth several thousand years before the first books take place. The settlers planned a low-tech, agrarian colony, but soon discovered that the planet was menaced by periodic showers of ‘thread,’ a spaceborn organism that destroys all organic material it comes in contact with. Without the resources to renew their technology and protect their people and crops, they bioengineered large, rideable dragons from the indigenous ‘fire-lizards,’ which, with a little help from a phosphine rock, can breathe flame to destroy the thread. The dragons pick their riders when they hatch, forming a lifelong telepathic bond. (None of this is a spoiler: It’s all spelled out in the prologues of several books.)
Okay, it’s not the hardest of science in science fiction. DRAGONS!
The main divisions in Pern society are the Weyrs (dragons, dragonriders, and their support staff) Holds (Communities/settlements/cities/towns where most of the people live) and the craft Halls (Harpers, Smiths, Weavers, Farmers, etc.)
Because of thread, pretty much everyone lives in caves or stone buildings of some sort. Luckily, Pern has a lot of caves.
So, what to read? The first Pern books are Dragonflight (1968,) and Dragonquest (1970,) which begin with a focus on the dragonriders of Benden Weyr, particularly Lessa, F’lar and F’nor. The White Dragon (1978,) focuses on Jaxom and his ‘sport’ dragon, Ruth. I’d say your next step – or you can read them concurrently with Dragonquest – are the first two Harper Hall books, Dragonsong (1976) and Dragonsinger (1977,) which show Pern from a different perspective, that of Menolly, a minor holder’s daughter who becomes an apprentice Harper. The third Harper book, Dragondrums (1979) follows another young harper, Menolly’s friend Piemur, and takes place during The White Dragon. From there, I’d recommend All the Weyrs of Pern (1991,) which I always felt seemed like a good conclusion to the era. (There are two books that follow Weyrs – The Dolphins of Pern (1994) and The Skies of Pern (2001) – but as these are the books that made me quit reading the series entirely, I can’t say I recommend them.)
There are a few novels set in earlier Pern that I enjoyed, though. First is is Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983,) a standalone set during a horrific plague in the Sixth Pass. (Nerilka’s Story (1986) is set during the same time, from another character’s perspective, though I’d rec it only if you like Moreta.) The second is Dragonsdawn (1988,) which is probably one of my favorite prequel stories ever, telling the story of the initial colonization and the first dragonriders. That also has a bit of a followup, The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall (1993,) which is several short stories/novellas set before, during, and after Dragonsdawn.
Yes, you could start with Dragonsdawn, but I don’t generally recommend reading this type of series chronologically – it kind of destroys half the fun of learning how all that stuff came to be. However, as ImperialGirl points out in the comments, either Moreta or the Harper Hall books would be good tests to see if the series appeals to you.
Also handy – though long out of print – are The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern and The Atlas of Pern – think of them as Pernese Essential Guides.
So, with one exception, I don’t really recommend any Pern novels published after 1991. Most of the current stuff – which is co- or entirely authored by Anne’s son, Todd McCaffrey – I haven’t read at all. Todd seems to have carved out an era for himself – the Third Pass – although apparently a post-Weyrs novel is in the works.
(And no, Pern fans, I haven’t forgotten about Renegades, Masterharper or any of the other books not mentioned – I just found them rather lackluster.)
It’s worth noting that there are some issues within the series that may trouble modern readers. Pern is fairly patriarchal and feudal. Both Dragonflight and Dragonquest (at least) have relationships and dubious sexual consent issues straight out of bodice-ripping romance novels. Most of the villains are pretty flat. (Certain Holds always seem to breed bad guys, going all the back to their namesakes in Dragonsdawn – at least one villainess’ biggest characteristic is being rather promiscuous.) McCaffrey also had some very odd ideas about homosexuality, though I don’t remember too much of it being spelled out in the actual books. (I could be wrong.) And, yes, there is the occasional continuity error. Horrors!
In any case, if all the memorials have made you curious about McCaffrey’s most famous series, here’s my version of a roadmap, drawn strictly from memory. Other McCaffrey readers, what are your recs – Pern and beyond?