Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

moretaMoreta: Dragonlady of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1983)
Review by Megan AM

As a kid who devoured Nancy Drew and Baby-sitters Club novels, then Kurt Vonnegut and Marion Zimmer Bradley as a teen, I can’t quite place where Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would go on the recommended reads for child development chart. Its style and content seem ideal for the ages 3 to 7 crowd, yet there are some sexy moments that seem a little too sophisticated for young kiddos. But I’m not sure an older child or young teen would buy the whole space-dragon on a medieval future world premise. I know I wouldn’t have.

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is the prequel to McCaffrey’s extensive Dragonrider series, which serves to explain the legendary tale of the famous dragonrider, Moreta, who is often referenced in the earlier-published, but later-occurring novels. Moreta is a dragonrider/dragonhealer/weyrleader who lived 1000 years prior to the events of the first published Pern novel. Little is known about her because the Pernese suck at recording history (they do this on purpose, sometimes), but her adventures and tragedies are immortalized in song and poetry. Basically, it’s a story about a story from the story.

So what do you do when your people settle a planet and abandon all mechanized technology, only to discover your new planet is bombarded by sizzling thread every 100 turns? You genetically-engineer dragons to combat the thread, and (quietly) discover time travel via said dragons. Obviously. And everything works out perfectly until… FLU PANDEMIC!

Moreta and her golden queen dragon, Orlith, are eagerly awaiting the end of the current thread cycle, eight years away. Both are in the prime of their lives and their careers, important to their weyr community and throughout Pern. They go to a gathering at Ruatha Hold, and Moreta enjoys racing and dancing with the hot Lord Holder Alessan. But when a runner and a rider fall mysteriously ill, Pern is faced with a problem that dragonriding can’t solve. Moreta is swept into the crisis as her Weyrleader Sh’gall and Masterhealer Capiam become bedridden, and many of Pern’s holds are wiped out by the virus. Moreta must use her skills as a rider, a dragonhealer, and a leader to stop the crisis… all while Orlith is pregnant with Pern’s most important clutch of eggs!

Although Pern is praised for its undercurrents of feminism, the first two novels in the series didn’t meet my expectations, mostly due to Pern’s paternal feudal society led by grumbling male Weyrleaders and Lord Holders, a vain female side character, and only one standout female lead who breaks all the rules, yet remains the exception. By Moreta, seven books into the series, that feminism is well-established, giving the Weyrwoman unquestioned authority and independence, including freedom of sexual relations without implications, even within a Weyr partnership in which her dragon chooses a mate whose rider does not appeal to Moreta. Her relaxed attitude toward relationships demonstrates an overt criticism of the possessive nature of romance in our society.

McCaffrey’s version of motherhood is also rather progressive, even by today’s standards. Moreta has had an unaccounted for number of children with several different men, all of whom are fostered to other weyrs and holds, yet she is neither viewed as a slut, nor as a neglectful mother. It can be assumed based on an interaction with one of her children that the relationships between Moreta and her fostered children are warm and loving, with no bitterness about the situation. The Pernese idea of child-rearing is almost more like the crèche style exhibited in other SF novels, where the community raises the children, allowing parents more time and energy to devote to their skills and personal development. In Pern, however, this option seems to be only available to the very important dragonladies – elitist in nature, but very unique, especially in a society that seems backward in so many other ways (feudalism, atavism, etc.)

Despite Moreta’s inhuman feats of dragonriding, followed by dragonhealing, followed by time-jumping to collect the ingredients for a vaccine, followed by more time-jumping to vaccinate the entire planet within the incubation window, the story feels rather insubstantial. Considering the impact of a major pandemic, the emotionality of so many deaths is not conveyed well. After all, it is a children’s book, and the pacing matches a child’s imagination and comprehension. Even fans of the series complain of the book’s lackluster plot, seemingly wedged into the series when McCaffrey ran out of fresh ideas but publishing pressures forced her to mine her own work. I was bored, to the point where I desperately hoped someone important would die – I often do this – forgetting that this is a story about a legend.

Legends always have a tragic end. And THAT’S when this book gets good!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey

dragonquestDragonquest, Anne McCaffrey (1971)
Review by Megan AM

How can two consecutive books from the same series be so vastly different? Despite the fact that Dragonflight and Dragonquest share weak writing, clunky dialogue, plot holes, the former is considerably more enjoyable than the latter. Dragonflight is an interesting story, with some writing mistakes. Dragonquest is just a boring story, written poorly.

F’lar, the weyrleader of the dragonriders of Pern, is facing unrest among his people. Although the fight against the Thread phenomena has resumed after four hundred years, the Pernese are far from cohesive. The traditional old-timers resist progress, and the grouchy lord holders bristle at any dragonrider authority. F’lar must unify these groups in order to maintain his position as weyrleader and protect his planet. At the same time, F’lar is also entertaining the possibilities of dragon travel into outer space.

The pleasurability of the first novel, Dragonflight, is partly due to its tight structure as combined novellas. In Dragonquest, McCaffrey has more space to amble and dally, and we see that loss of structure in pointless dialogue and dropped plot threads. In Dragonquest, there is a lot of standing around and talking. We experience boring meetings, in which people argue, and perspectives change jarringly, in order to inform the reader of each characters’ motivations. In some cases, characters abandon their argument a few chapters later, with no explanation. There is no action or context to develop or explain conflict. The reader is simply told through expository dialogue or subtextual narration. It’s poor storytelling at its worst.

One of two things happened here: Either the success of the Pern novellas spawned the need for a sequel so rapidly that McCaffrey had little chance for the fleshing out and editing of a good story, or McCaffrey is a weak writer who just got lucky on her first Pern novellas.

Aside from the amateurish writing style, the focus on dialogue as a plot-moving device is downright boring. Writers: I attend enough boring faculty meetings at work, so please don’t make me read about them in your stories. (Only Susanna Clarke can get away with that, and that’s just because she’s perfect and writes boring so well, and with such purpose, in that tongue-in-cheek, British fashion of hers.) It’s also irritating that the dragons know everything, yet share so little without prompting, but no one invites them to these big important meetings. It seems to me that the lead bronze, Mnemorth, should be running the meetings.

Also, the strong, rebellious character of Lessa, who drove the action of the first novel, withers into a shadow of herself in this novel. She devolves into a boring housewife with little to contribute, while the rest of the characters lose the few dimensions afforded them from the first novel. The mean and grumpy lord holders behave like sniveling children, and F’lar and F’nor fumble around as bullies and elitists. To top it off, we see the introduction of fire lizards as pets, a plot thread that had promise of a good conflict, but fizzled like a Thread sprayed by agenothree. The fire lizards are essentially the Ewoks of Pern – cute, but unnecessary, but maybe that will change in later Pern stories.

Dragonquest touched upon some promising themes: tradition vs. progress, arrogance vs. honor, dragons vs. fire lizards, but none of these themes were elaborated in any satisfying way. The emphasis on petty dialogue made me feel as if I skipped the page with the action that caused the arguments. In some ways, Dragonquest feels like it was produced as a response to critics of the first novel. We see more attempts at scientific explanations and a meek effort to plug up previous plot holes (“If dragons can jump space and time, why not destroy the Thread at its source? Because oxygen!”) In other ways, Dragonquest feels like it might be a bridge novel paving the way for a later, and hopefully better, story. Despite my dissatisfaction with this book, I have hope that the next book will be better.

My advice to potential readers of the Dragonriders of Pern series: read Dragonflight, but skip Dragonquest.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey

DragonflightDragonflight, Anne McCaffrey (1968)
Review by Megan AM

It’s about humans who leave Earth for a new planet, shun existing technology, adopt feudalism, breed lizards into genetically enhanced dragons, and even figure out teleportation and time-travel (by way of the fire-belching dragons).

And beat their women.

Unfortunately, I read these books out of order. I tend to do this a lot, normally by accident. Other times, I think I can get away with reading the meat of the series, without the appetizer. In this case, I really thought that Dragonflight, born of McCaffrey’s Hugo Award winning novellas, was an appetizer and would be absorbed into the follow-up novel Dragonquest. I was correct in my assumption, sort of, but it was bland and unsatisfying, so I went back and read the first novel, and I’m so glad I did. Dragonflight is time-jumps more enjoyable than its sequel, the 1972 Hugo Award Best Novel nominee, Dragonquest.

Dragonflight is a combination of the 1968 Hugo Award winning novella ‘Weyr Search’ and the 1969 Hugo Award nominated novella ‘Dragonrider’. In the far distant future, humans leave Earth for a new planet called Pern. They adopt an agrarian, feudal society and, after many passing centuries, all advanced technology is completely forgotten. (Where are the science rebels? Surely some surly teen, angry at his/her old-fashioned parents, might dig up an old spaceship artifact and start asking questions. Or uncover steam technology or penicillin, something…) Shortly after settlement, the strange phenomena of Thread, silver strands that fall from the erratically orbiting Red Star (a planet, not a star, dammit) pummel the land and destroy all organic material. For defense against the Thread, the Pernese decide to breed dragons from lizards, to whom they feed firestone, which gives the dragons indigestion and makes them belch fire, which burns the harmful Threads.

Dragonflight is about Lessa, a young woman who is discovered on a weyr search (sort of like American Idol for dragon riders, but with possible bodily injury). We learn that she can communicate with all dragons and related animals, and can even psychically manipulate humans into doing her bidding. (Why not just use this power to make the evil overlord kill himself and get her kingdom back?) She impresses the newborn queen dragon, Ramoth, and her spunk and sass bemuse the macho dragonriders. While she is settling in at her new home with the dragonriders, the first Thread attacks in four hundred years become a looming threat, but forgotten knowledge and a dwindling dragon population cause the dragonriders to scramble for ideas to defend their planet. Oh, and there’s time-travel!*

I poke fun at this story, but it was an enjoyable read. Lessa is a fun character, and her antics distracted me from the constantly occurring writing mistakes. This novel is flooded with clunky dialogue, jarring perspective changes within chapters, misused words (bemused, ahem), and an overuse of adverbs. McCaffrey often ruins the flow of dialogue by interrupting sentences in awkward places to give directional cues. But, the concept is intriguing, the action is strong, and the plot moves smoothly enough. The characters were likable, albeit the supporting cast was a little 2-dimensional, but I liked Lessa enough to overlook it.

However, I did take issues with a few things. Sensitive readers need to beware of the archaic male/female relationship behaviors, which I attribute to the feudal structure of Pern. In Dragonflight, we see domestic violence, references to forced sex, and sexual double standards. There is, however, a strong feminist element in Lessa’s character that I hope will result in some progressive changes throughout the series. (Unfortunately, the second novel, Dragonquest, seems to take a few steps back in this regard.)

I was also bothered by the mobster-like tactics among the dragonriders in their demand for tithes, while they contributed nothing to society. They stood by while Fax ransacked Lessa’s home of Ruatha and murdered her entire family. I couldn’t blame the lords for balking at the tithe requirement, when there had not been Thread to fight for over four hundred years. In fact, I most identified with the lords who lacked the blind faith to believe in the absent threat of space spores. Four hundred years is a long time to financially support a gang of dragon dudes who do nothing but warn of a vague, impending apocalypse. Couldn’t the dragonriders implement some sort of security task force, or offer labor services during the non-Thread years? Hell, my lawn guys are off-call firefighters.

But my main issue with the whole story: I just don’t buy the concept of a society that successfully purges itself of technology and scientific knowledge. Science is too resilient, and no society is impervious to the birth of willful scientists. Some curious, rebellious mind is going to be born and turn the world upside down. I hope this is addressed somewhere in the sprawling Pern series. It would make some for interesting, and necessary, conflict.

Regardless of these major problems with the story, Dragonflight is a pleasurable read, with its interesting take on dragon lore, and a fun main character. And it is much better than its successor, Dragonquest. I’m actually sorry that it’s over, and I look forward to reading more about the Pern world.

*Interesting tidbit: The time-travel element was actually a suggestion by the editor, and not part of McCaffrey’s original idea. In 1967, it was probably brilliant, but it might seem a bit hackneyed to modern readers. Still, it helped to give the story a neat and tidy ending, with a few WTF twists, which sort of reminded me of the TV series Lost. (And, considering the poor writing style, I’m shocked an editor was involved at all. Apparently, all he cared about was the time-travel.)

This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey

the-ship-who-sang-1The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Review by Kate Macdonald

I’ve been reading one of Anne McCaffrey’s earliest novels, from 1969, The Ship Who Sang. It was first published as short stories in various SF magazines from the early 1960s. The stories are linked episodes in the story of Helva, a woman born with severe birth defects who passed the neurological tests to join the brain ship programme. She is encased in a titanium shell with neurological and emotional links to her spaceship, and travels the galaxies as a working vessel. She can talk to whoever she wants to by tight beam, she can magnify all her senses to know exactly what is going on in her ship at any level, and when she’s without human cargo she has the power to travel faster than any human normally could. Her eyes don’t work, but her visual senses are perfect. Her special talent is singing, which she does multivocally once she’s taught herself how to manipulate her voicebox and larynx with her implanted microphones. The technology McCaffrey invokes to suggest hi-tech solutions and a perfect match of body and machine are vague, but scientifically persuasive.

McCaffrey wrote in the fantasy and science fiction genres simultaneously. Once she became famous for her dragons of Pern books (fantasy) and had developed a canon, she co-wrote science fiction novels with younger writers, mainly to give them a boost, but also, I think, to refresh her own inspiration. Twenty years after the publication of The Ship Who Sang McCaffrey invented a new series of novels about the brain ships, by sharing her old idea with new writers, to give a good old idea new life for new readers (The Ship Who Won, The City that Fought, etc.). The Ship Who Sang is the only novel of the series by McCaffrey alone, and while it’s not the strongest in terms of writing, or emotional impact, it was a trailblazer, and has most of the best ideas and most inspiring science, written in a woman-oriented way.

So, Helva is the ship, but she works with a partner, called a ‘brawn’, a human pilot with whom she can partner till death, or can accept temporarily. This is an obvious analogy to a marriage, but since Helva is permanently sealed away from human touch, and would die if she were removed from her nutrient fluid, her relationships are working partnerships where the partners must be emotionally in tune without the help of physical contact. Partners can be in love with each other: Helva’s first partner dies on a mission, and several of the stories are about her struggling with her grief and desire for suicide. Brawns can develop fixations on their brain partners, which leads to dangerous situations, since they could, potentially, open the shell, with catastrophic results for the people, and for the Company’s investment in brain ship training and medical care. Brain partners like Helva have to be emotionally mature to handle the psychological demands of both physical confinement and separation from the human world, because you can’t run away from your mind. Relationships and how to negotiate them are the main focus in these early stories, using the male-female dynamic to show how characters differ as a reaction to personal trauma. The plots of the stories are very concerned with health: physical health, mental health, drug addiction, the maintenance of good gene pools on distant planets, the effects of unknown viruses, and the threat of psychosis. There is no heavy weaponry in these stories: all conflict is handled and resolved with psychology, and Helva’s manipulation of her own skills and toolkit.

The first story is about acceptance: humans accepting the brain ships as responsible adults, rather than indentured slaves of the Central Worlds, who are the equivalent of an intergalactic UN. Helva teams up with her first brawn, he dies in an accident, and she learns that her life is important without him. Helva’s grief is about the loss of a man she loves, but also about her need for companionship in her working life as well. The dynamics of how two people work together in confined spaces, in difficult situations, over time and space, where privacy and personal space are limited: all are tackled in this story, and in most of the others, with remarkable economy. You can’t help but be reminded that McCaffrey knows all this stuff from life. She was divorced, after all.

Mourning continues in the second episode, when Helva takes Theoda, a physiotherapist, to a planet where most of the population have been paralysed by a space plague. Her vision adjustments can detect microscopic reactions from these doomed people to the ancient techniques of rehab applied by the therapist, and this shows the survivors how they can rehabilitate their people, particularly the children who will relearn movement fastest: another triumph of an augmented human-machine response. Whether Helva’s contribution is because she is a woman is not the point. She’s interested in people, and supports the therapist’s mission by participating because Theoda interests her. Empathy, a need to help, a desire to assist, are not solely feminine characteristics, but in presenting them as so important, so crucial for the plot, and so desirable in a well-adjusted and normal person who happens to be female, McCaffrey shows us that women using such skills are highly valuable in society. (This was 1969, remember.)

The next story is the one has a B-movie plot, and a gratuitous use of Bob Dylan. I really don’t like it when real-world people are brought into fiction. It drags the plot back from imagination to dreary reappropriation, and it dates the story indelibly, producing an impression of lack of imagination rather than enthusiastic hommage. I’m sure I’ve seen this plot on Star Trek several times, and I think it pops up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well: a deranged brain ship mourning her dead brawn by enslaving the local population with her voice to kill themselves as a sacrifice to He Who Orders. Helva’s new brawn is a woman in mourning because her husband died before they could store their genes, and her disastrous first childbirth killed the baby and prevented her from having more. She and Helva have to pick up donations of embryos in plastic ribbon to repopulate a planet which lost its gene pool, and they are lured to a place where life is an abomination and death is an act of devout sacrifice, all aided by hallucigenic gases from volcanic eruptions. McCaffrey’s focus here is on motherhood and nurturing life: the ethics of creating test-tube embryos are easily upheld by having a very obvious villain object to them. The motherhood / midwife role played by two women who physically cannot have children is a very targeted way to concentrate on exactly what motherhood is, and what the body’s role actually is: another feminist debate.

The fourth story gives Helva more people to play with, a group of actors whom she is transporting across the galaxies to perform Romeo and Juliet to a planet of jellyfish who communicate in the language of physics. How would you enact “Soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” in equations? The actors, and Helva (she has perfect recall, she can play any part required, and it turns out she can act quite well) are transported into jellyfish shells to perform, and find the experience of exchanging energies in the performance of the play almost too overwhelming to survive. This story is about selflessness and ego, about denying your own needs for the benefit of others, or being totally selfish. The snottiest actor is an egotistical madam who specialises in ruining scenes and upstaging others to get her own way, and to prove her skills. (I should mention that McCaffrey used also to work in theatre: she’s writing off some old grievances here, I think.) Trouble is, to survive best in the jellyfish environment, ego is necessary, and what a shame that the egotistical one ends up trapped there, no longer able to use her body and physicality to attract attention, but must rely on her mental and emotional powers, finally forced to play true to her actorly skills.

Torture and sensory deprivation are the subject of the next story, and also attack. Helva gets kidnapped by a deranged brawn and has her synapses disconnected, she can no longer hear or see. She never could smell, taste or touch, so her only senses have been turned off. How she copes, and gets herself out of the situation, are down to strong willpower, inner mental resources, and intelligence, the management and recall of data that will give her an idea to neutralise her attacker, and allow help to come. How would you kill someone if you only had a voice? McCaffrey’s emphasis on self-reliance comes back again here: in this story Helva’s brawn is a total git, an arrogant, patronising male stereotype who thinks of Helva only as a sophisticated computer without a personality, and so she kicks him off her ship, divorcing him not so much for his personal failings and terrible judgement, but for failing to understand who she is and what she needs. If that’s not feminist action I don’t know what is.

The last story gives Helva a kind of closure, because she finally meets her man, her perfect brawn, whom we have encountered in all the stories so far, in a very traditional romance pattern: the one man with whom she is continually arguing is of course the one man for her. I find this disappointing because it’s so predictable. It’s also a reminder that all the authority figures in these stories are men: that is a feminist fail that McCaffrey went on to try to do something about in her later novels, but never really got a grip on. The Ship Who Sang is a great way to set out ideas, and to explore some really important ideas about women and power and strength, but if only she had continued in this way.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading and publishing.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)the-ship-who-sang-1
Review by Martin Wisse

Some writers you can only appreciate if you discover them in the golden age of science fiction – twelve – because at that age you’re less likely to notice the two dimensional characters, slipshod plotting or obnoxious politics you would’ve noticed as a more experienced reader. McCaffrey is such a writer for me. I loved her books when I was twelve and reading them from the local library, but trying my hand at some of her later works ended in disappointment. There’s also the danger of rereading cherished childhood classics and finding that in hindsight, they’re not so great after all. With McCaffrey’s early Dragonriders novels I already took that gamble and got lucky, now I’ve reread perhaps her best known novel outside that series and see if The Ship Who Sang was as much of a tearjerker as I remembered.

Sentiment is an underrated emotion in science fiction, something we’re a bit embarrassed about, but which plays a greater role than you’d expect in such a “rational” genre. Quite a few classics thrive on it – ‘Helen O’Loy’, ‘Green Hills of Earth’, ‘Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion’ all spring to mind – and as I remembered The Ship Who Sang, it positively wallowed in it, in this story of a severely disabled girl whose only hope for any sort of life was to become the “brain” of a spaceship, who then found love in the arms of her “brawn” partner only to lose him to cruel, cruel fate. The perfect sort of story for a sensitive twelve year old, but would it hold its appeal?

Sadly, no.

The problems start literally from the first paragraph:

She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not, that though the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.

The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was the final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions. As such, their offspring would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.

That’s a fairly dodgy attitude even in a novel written at a time and in a country that had no problems with involuntary sterilisation of undesirable people and nonconsentual medical experiments, let alone now we’ve sort of managed to accept disabled people as human. To have a writer approvingly talk about euthanasia for mentally disabled babies, or lifelong servitude for those merely severely physically disabled, if their parents allow it, is a reminder of how social Darwinist (or downright fascist) science fiction could be and sometimes still is.

It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though for the rest of the novel this background is never referred to again and Helva, the protagonist, is perfectly happy being a Brain. What reinforces that feeling is the way the Brains are forced into servitude to pay off the huge debts they occurred from being kept alive the way they are, which they have to work off in service to Central Worlds. What’s more, anything that Helva needs as a ship to fulfil the missions she’s sent on she needs to pay for herself, including any damage done to her in the mission. It does feel a lot like slavery, even if she does get paid for these missions as well. All of this is completely ignored in the stories that make up this novel, just part of the background, a device to get Helva to go on dangerous missions to pay off her debts.

I didn’t remember any of this from the last time I read The Ship Who Sang, decades ago; what I remembered was the romantic story at the heart of it, as Helva comes of age and gets her first partner, the “brawn” who will handle all those physical tasks on planet she can’t do herself. It’s during the party for the eight candidates that Helva gets her name as “the ship who sings”, as she reveals her ability to do just that and turns out to have a perfect voice that can do anything the best “normal” singers can do. That’s when she first meets Jennan, the only one to consistently talk to where her physical presence was located in the heart of her ship-shell, the one she immediately falls in love with and who actually dies less than ten pages later. The rest of the novel is about Helva dealing with her loss and grief, ultimately finding new love in the strangest of places.

Because this is a fixup novel however, with each story in it originally having been published as a standalone, the characterisation of Helva is rather two dimensional and that deep love and deeper grief doesn’t look so impressive anymore as it did at age twelve. The sentiment is there, but much of it has dissipated after the first two stories, McCaffrey preferring to tell perfectly good sf puzzle adventure stories for the rest of the book. These are decent enough on their own, but I missed the emotion in them I remembered.

In its place was something more nasty, a deep ingrained sexism that again I completely missed the first time around. Helva is consistently shown to be “not like other girls”, one of the boys, while other women are either victims or harpies, largely illogical and emotional, with things like logic and emotions explicitly shown in gendered terms. It’s all very Heinleinian, with McCaffrey having the same sort of this is how the world works and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool tone in her writing her. It’s very offputting and offensive once you notice it.

Without the sexism, without the dodgy background McCaffrey gave the novel, what remains is a great idea executed through decent if not world-beating stories. It’s typical of the science fiction of this generation that most of the interesting stuff is discarded so quickly, largely due to the length restrictions it had to labour under. This after all is a novel of barely 200 pages, which tells half a dozen of stories during it. That leaves little room for anything but plotting.

A bit of a disappointment then, another book I’d with hindsight should’ve left to memory.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey

McCaffrey- Crystal SingerThe Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey (1982)
Review by Mike Dalke

Prior to Anne McCaffrey’s death in November 2011, I had heard only good things about the author’s work – her ability to snare the reader with wonder and enrapture the reader in adventure. With her passing, I took advice from a number of posts on Amazon’s Science Fiction forum and bought one of the author’s novels: The Crystal Singer. The synopsis is obviously science fiction but the word “crystal” carries many fantasy connotations with it, a cousin of the science fiction genre which I scorn. When taking the rest of McCaffrey’s bibliography into scope, words like “dragon”, “unicorn” and “Pegasus” are notable, all of which instantly turn me off… but her popular Dragons of Pern series, often recommended by others, is a testament to her talent, so I assumed. Regardless, after two years of sitting on my shelf, the book found its way into my hands in December’s to-read stack.

Rear cover synopsis:

“Killashandra thought her world had ended when she was told she would never become a concert singer. And then she met the stranger from off-world.

He said he was a Crystal Singer – one of the unique ones of the Galaxy—and when Killashandra tried to find out what a Crystal Singer was the answers were vague, obtuse. All she could discover was that they were special people, shrouded in mystery, and danger, and beauty – and something altogether incomprehensible.

It was then that she decided she too must try and become a Crystal Singer.”

A promising student of vocal talent for 10 years, the culmination of Killashandra’s study ends with damning praise from Maestro Valdi: “You have the gift of perfect pitch, your musicality is faultless … But there is that burr in your voice which becomes intolerable in the higher register” (p 10). Her dreams shattered by her one mentor, she dwells upon a life of unfulfilled dreams and pathetic careers when compared to her idealized ambition of becoming a top-rank concert singer. Sulking at the Fuertan spaceport restaurant and sipping wine for her jangled nerves, her talent is serendipitously recognized when the piercing whine of descending craft disturbs her extra-perceptive senses and an enigmatic Crystal Singer named Carrik enters himself into her life, her abating lonesomeness, and her future.

Given ample warning of a Crystal Singer’s lifelong dedication to art and idiosyncratic solitude, Killashandra Ree (Killa) shrugs off the advice and follows a whimsy compulsion to attain the status of Crystal Singer. Her aspiration is multiplied by the luxurious lifestyle Carrik pours upon her and even more so by the unfortunate injuries he sustains when the faulty screech of an ascending craft predictably explodes, rendering Carrik unconscious and likely to never revive. Even with the Maestro’s damning words of a Crystal Singer as a “silicate spider paralyzing its prey, a crystal cuckoo pushing the promising fledglings from their nests” (p 33), Killa follows the disabled Carrik to the home of Crystal Singers – Ballybran – where she will strive to learn to become a Crystal Singer like Carrik.

However, one does not simply become a Crystal Singer. One must be accepted by the Heptite Guild (with its 4,425 singer members and 20,007 support staff) and, most importantly, one must be exposed to the planet’s crystal spore symbiote, a “carbon-silicate occurring in the unorthodox environmental economy of Ballybran” which improves human “visual acuity, tactile perceptions, nerve conduction and cellular adaptation” (p 72). The transition is not without its own peril, where some under its transition experience a failed change leading to sensual loss or even death; then there are others, a select few without any prerequisite for doing so, undergo a Milekey transition (named after one of the founders) where they exhibit no ill effects – only a greatly enhanced corporeal tactility. Killa, the envy of her fellow recruits, is lucky enough to experience a Milekey transition and is able to be first out in the field with crystals glimmering near her very eye: shards of pink, slivers of green and splinters of the most sought-after crystal in human space – the Black Quartz.

The crystals, some exclusive to Ballybran, are used in a variety of industries ranging from “integrated circuit substrates” to “musical instruments” and applied to “tachyon drive systems” (p 24). The legendary and outrageously expensive black crystal has its own specific function, a utilization which human space cannot live without: instantaneous communication across five hundred light years. When black quartz is segmented, the parts of the crystal are still “able to achieve simultaneous synchronization” (p 24) with its counterparts when subjected to “synchronized magnetic induction” (p 48), thus allowing for the “most effective and accurate communications network known in the galaxy” (p 121-122).

The cutting of crystal, whether the lowly pink or the resplendent black, is a solitary affair done by a singer in their own claimed tract on the planet. Killa already has the reputation of being resonant with Black Quartz having handled it from one singer’s supply whose ship crashed onto the Guild’s headquarters. With an uncanny inkling, Killa ventures out to stake her own claim on the planet of Ballybran where crystal could make her fortune or be her demise. Some of her former classmates steep in jealousy of her meteoric rise to minor singer fame; another more authoritative figure, Guild Master Lanzecki, first acts avuncularly towards the promising pupil but when her talents begin to develop, so too does their relationship.

Self-pressured by her quest for professional glory, clearly on the road to crystal fame, Killa does not indulge in childish temerarious acts of whim. Rather than openly socialize with her peers on a bonhomous plain, Killa is reserved, favoring her cultural sense of privacy, yet autonomously finds herself in submission to the electrifyingly erotic kisses of Lanzecki and the alluring captivation of the soulfully resonant Black Quartz. Her last prandial intemperance is Yarran beer. Frequently consuming the semi-narcotic brew, she doesn’t allow herself to gormandize herself into inebriation; reservation defines her.

Her ascent to singer stardom peaks when she is guided under the tutelage of the experienced yet absent-minded Moksoon. His grace of cut and dexterity of handling gives Killa what she needs for her first jaunt on her own tract of land, the same tract where the Black Quartz originated. Armed with her cutter, a piezo-electirc device tuned by her perfect pitch, Killa is ready to unburden herself of the surmountable debt which the Guild places on all cadets; Killa’s debt is soon to be absolved but her vernal duty to humanity nulls the bounty of her first crystal trove. Thence, after her debacle, Killa is called to duty during a time when all crystal singers are at their most vulnerable: Ballybran’s epic planet-wide mach storm during the three-moon syzygy and spring equinox.

Will this reprieve be a blessing in disguise?

According to The Crystal Singer’s Wikipedia page (see here), the novel is partly autobiographical as Anne McCaffrey herself had also trained as a vocalist but eventually “suffered a crisis when she was informed that a flaw in her voice would limit her in that avocation”… much like Killasandra. So, it seems McCaffrey attempted to intertwine part of her life story and the mysticism of crystals with speculative crystal science. Regardless of my distaste for crystals, lutes, cloaks, and other figurative fantasy language, The Crystal Singer is actually a solid through and through success with the only fault being repetitiveness.

According Google’s Ngram Viewer, “crystal” was a more popular word in literature in the early 1960s but much less than the 1970s and 1980s. I have a friend of an older generation who adores crystals and all their mystical properties. He’ll talk on and on about the benefits of using crystals and the auspiciousness of finding natural crystals. It really puts me off and I have no idea how he goes on about when I have nothing to add to the conversation without being rude and saying, “Jesus, that’s all bullshit!” Typically, when crystals are used in science fiction I see it as a weak inclusion to any plot, like no other idea could have been thought up; prime irksome examples of such are:

  • the “crystal nodes” in Pohl & Williamson’s Reefs of Space (1963),
  • the “mysterious alien crystal” in Greenleaf’s The Pandora Stone (1984), and
  • the “crystal flute” in Van Scoyc’s Cloudcry (1977).

However, McCaffrey’s inclusion of crystals in her plot is central rather that peripheral, occasionally returning to the science or use of the crystals in her fictional universe. Because of Killa’s rapture singing and gazing at her crystals, because the Guild of singers is held almost sacrosanct, the mystical affiliation with crystal cannot be ignored. Not all applications of the crystal sound plausible, like the instantaneous transmission of data between sections of the same Black Quartz (quantum entanglement [Einstein’s spooky action at a distance]?). Crystals aren’t beyond the scope of our modern understanding of physics… I doubt any planet’s geography could produce physics-bending materials. Also, the cutting device which is tonally linked to the perfect pitch vocalist cutter sounds a bit silly, but I tried to put it behind me and be immersed in the fine narrative.

The narrative is very easy to become lost in for two reasons: first, McCaffrey’s writing is beautiful, engaging, emotive, and descriptive; last, McCaffrey is deft with her plot which has no notable crests or troughs in the “action”. The 302 pages feel like seamless plateau, far from featureless but even and tempered (not in the musical sense). Each of the thirteen chapters, lasting 22 pages on average, continue on without pause until its end, but even then the chapter divisions are flawless… more of a pause in thought than a chronological gap. It’s a breeze to read!

But her writing isn’t all flowers, crystals, and verbose language. McCaffrey has one knick in her grammar armor which annoys me greatly: she over uses the emphatic did before simple present tense verbs (verb 1). A smattering of examples: “I did remember that all right” (p 26), “I did tap data retrieval” (p 47), “She did cast surreptitious glances” (p 55), “her nervous system tingled with the after effect, she did groan” (p 63), “The drink did clear the last miasma of the threshold test” (p 63), “I did hear her come out” (p 93), “She did skim along the first ridges” (p 99). Either McCaffrey is being overly emphatic or she has chosen to present past tense actions by using did + verb 1 rather than simply using verb 2 forms. Either way, it got under my skin.

Lastly, it seems as if Killasandra likes her beer; more specifically, she likes loves Yarran beer. How much does she like it? Well, it’s mentioned 38 times (according to my count). Maybe the beer her more sociable, making Killa come out from her cocoon of privacy which she is used to thereby characterizing her as a butterfly. But 38 times? That’s a bit overkill.

If you’re not distracted by the emphatic use of did and the over abundant Yarran beer, then The Crystal Singer should be an easy, breezy read full of wonderment and growth. Don’t expect a crescendo, an escalation, a fitting conclusion, a chase scene or bodice ripping. McCaffrey sets the pace slow and steady, kind of like a placid boat ride with your grandparents… just shinier, more entertaining.

This review originally appeared on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature.

The Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey

80531-masterharper.coverThe Master Harper of Pern, Anne McCaffrey (1998)
Review by Adam Roberts

A series that multiplied with tribble-like pertinacity, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern (1968-present) is a planetary romance in which certain special individuals (like you, trufan! and me!) have a telepathic bond with a breed of marvellous magical gigantic purring cats, sorry, fire-breathing dragons. Together, trufan and dracono-moggy defend the world of Pern against nasty ‘threads’ which periodically (the period being 50 years) rain down out of the sky from a nearby ‘red star’, threatening to devour all Pernian life. The initial idea, according to McCaffrey’s son, was for a ‘technologically regressed survival planet’ whose inhabitants are united against a external threat in a way that wasn’t true of America during the Vietnam War. ‘The dragons became the biologically renewable air force, and their riders “the few” who, like the RAF pilots in World War Two, fought against incredible odds day in, day out—and won.’

As you can see from the cover, up there, this instalment in the series is ‘The Story of Pern’s Greatest Harpo’, Robinton by name. Like all great Harpos, Robinton plays the harp. He also plays the flute, the ‘gitar’ (an instrument exactly like a ‘guitar’ although, obviously, without the ‘u’) and lots of other instruments too. He is, the novel tells us over and over again, a musical genius. He is, in point of fact, Amadeus:

He began to make a copy of the sonata … he looked back over the score, to be sure he had annotated it properly. He paced back and forth, paused to pour himself a glass of wine, and then went back to the table and proceeded to copy out his Kasia songs. He finished those, drinking as he worked, and rolled up the music with a neat ribbon tying the packet. He had a final glass of wine, realizing dawn was not far away. (p 260)

You may be thinking: this doesn’t sound much like the Tolkien-plus-a-few-ancient-technological-artefacts worldbuilding idiom familiar from other Pern novels. And you would be right so to think. Robinton is sometimes presented as in effect a scop, scald or rhapsode, going from castle to castle, hall to hall, literally singing for his supper. But when it suits the novel’s fancy he is a eighteenth-century genius composer, writing staves fluently upon an endless supply of animal hides, composing melodies that make people weep instantly. We have to take this latter much-repeated fact on trust, since no actual music is included. I assume Robinton composes in D-minor which is, as is well known, the saddest of all keys. His musical ability also gives him a special bond with the giant telepathic feline dragons, because everything that happens in these novels must relate to the dragons, because, you know. Duh. What else are the novels for?

The Masterharper of Pern tells Robinton’s life story from his birth; his distant, disapproving father; his music training; his falling in love with beautiful green-eyed Kasia; their marriage; a disastrous boat trip after which Kasia catches a chill of which she subsequently dies. Robinton is made sad by this, although he’s soon engaging in no-strings-attached shagging with slinky Silvana. Then, in an odd move, he has a brain-damaged son with Silvana. Then things heat up, fight-wise, as we near the end. Most of the fixtures and fittings are castles, potions, bejewelled daggers, swords, bows, arrows and the like; although McCaffrey also says things like “the main Hall had excellent acoustics” (p 353), which isn’t the sort of line you tend to find in Chaucer; and her characters wear “heavy woollen socks” (p 276), items of clothing which aren’t anachronistic yet somehow sound as if they should be. Plus her people are forever drinking cups of tea coffee, here called “klah”. Sometimes on its own. Sometimes with Canderel (“”You are related to MasterSinger Merelan?” Silvina asked as she poured klah and passed around the sweetener”, p 335)

The novel itself is 400-pages of meh, lifted a little from time to time by a few less-feeble-than-the-rest set-pieces (Robinton and Kasia in the boat on the storm isn’t bad; and some of the fighting near the end is readable). Mostly the problem is one of style. From time to time, McCaffrey remembers that she’s writing a cod-medieval dragon-packed planetary adventure and wrenches her style into inelegances of the “many of the capping slabs were athwart the expanse” (p 294) or “he asked for conveyance a-dragonback” (p 336) kind. But the bulk of the novel is written in a could-not-be-blander grey contemporary prose, stitched together almost entirely out of cliché. Cliché is everything in this novel: the characters, the settings, the events, nothing is here to make you see things freshly or to startle you out of your comfortable familiarity. Hardly a page goes by when the author does not fall back, consciously or otherwise, on an inert, clogging, conventionalised phrase. This character finds himself “between a rock and a hard place” (p 51); that other has “a vice-like grip” (p 91). If there is a silence it must be “a stunned silence” (p 109), or indeed “an awful, stunned silence” (p 345). Characters “rue the day” (p 172), “stifle a laugh” (p 195), promise to “show him the error of his ways” (p 222). Men have “rugged good looks” (p 231) and everybody “cocks their head” at things. Actually, people in this novel are forever cocking their heads (“he cocked his head at Robinton, a sly grin on his rugged, weathered face”, p 236; “cocking her head”, p 256; “Nip cocked his head”, p 357; “Tick cocked his head hopefully”, p 375). Rather than leave, people “steal away” (p 272); storms have exactly the properties you would expect them to have (“in the teeth of the gale … driving rain” p 273); coughs are ‘hacking coughs’ [304] and people “refuse to dignify that question with an answer” (p 287). Martin Amis once declared that the primary business of a writer was to wage war on cliché. Stylistically speaking, McCaffrey evidently preferred, as far as that went, to give peace a chance. A slack, underwhelming novel.