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Review: Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey

Dragonsdawn describes the arrival of humans on Pern some 2,500 years prior to the events in the main Dragonriders of Pern novels.  (Note that it is set after a short story found in First Fall which recounts the original exploration team’s analysis of Pern and how they missed the threat of Thread.)

McCaffrey introduces dozens of characters whose names will seem very familiar as names of Holds in the Ninth Pass: Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, Captain Ezra Keroon, Sallah Telgar, Avril Bitra, Captain James Tillek, among many others.

The first part of the book seems like Eden.  Supplies and people shipped down to Pern, an organized settlement is constructed, and all of the colonists get to work making the world their own.  There are, however, a few undercurrents of discontent and avarice which slowly come to light.  Avril Bitra, a descendant of one of the original planetary exploration crew, has become disenchanted with the pastoral life and Admiral Benden’s rejection of her: an easy path to power and authority is now closed to her.  Armed with secret information passed down through her family, she intends to locate precious stones, steal one of the remaining space-worthy shuttles, and make it back to “civilization”.  Using her considerable charm, she has enticed several men to assist her, promising each separately that he will take the remaining berth on the shuttle.

But Eden comes to an end with the double hit of a space borne threat, Thread, which destroys carbon based flora and fauna and multiple earthquakes caused by unstable volcanic activity.

In the meantime, two strongly empathic young people bond to a small lifeform they call a fire-lizard.  These miniature dragons are intelligent, can breathe fire after chewing a phosphine-bearing stone to burn the Thread from the sky, and can teleport.  The colony’s bio-engineers genetically alter these creatures to grow large enough to carry a rider, to enhance their natural talents, and to increase their intelligence.  This way, Pern will have a self-sustaining guard against Thread (since ship fuel and fuel cells that power other equipment cannot be replenished).

Although readers will not be surprised that the early colonists succeed — after all, there are dragons 2,500 years later — this is an enjoyable look back into Pern’s history.

Several other comments:

  • It is interesting that several holds in the future are named after some of the villains and some arrogant, unpleasant people.  This could be due, I think, to a propaganda campaign to minimize morale issues, or it might just be reality that some of these individuals were not all bad and did contribute to the society as a whole.
  • I also thought it interesting that the Holds named after some of the “bad people” still have the reputation for shiftiness or rebellion in the future.
  • It seems that McCaffrey may have retconned how soon Thread fell on the Pernese colonists after landing.  My recollection is that the earlier books suggested that the first Threadfall was 2-3 generations later.  In Dragonsdawn, it is only 8 years after landing.  My guess is that this could easily be explained away as misremembered history. After all, the dragonriders and the Harper Hall both complain of moldering records, lost information, and gaps of knowledge due to the cyclical Threadfall and pandemics.
  • An interesting plot element for a future book is the launch of a distress beacon toward the Federated Sentient Planets. I haven’t yet seen a mention of Pern being rediscovered by the FSP (or its successor), but I also haven’t read The Skies of Pern yet, which is the last chronological book in the series thus far.
In my opinion, read Dragonsdawn after reading the main Dragonriders of Pern novels (core trilogy and the Harper Hall trilogy), but before All the Weyrs of Pern since the people of the 9th Pass learn about some of the early colony history and pivotal events in that book — I most recently read the books in the opposite order which was still comprehensible, however.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished June 26, 2011)

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Currently reading: The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall by Anne McCaffrey & Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

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