Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Weyr Search’ by Anne McCaffrey

with 6 comments

This is the 26th story anthologised in The Ascent Of Wonder and only the third by a woman. This is relevant not only for the same reason it always is but also in explaining the presence of a story that is, sad to say, completely out of place here. This is something the editors seem to realise as their introduction showcases some of their most impressive contortions yet. In the first paragraph we are told:

Anne McCaffrey’s major work in hard science fiction for three decades has been her continuing series of stories chronicling the history of the planet Pern… The telepathic dragons of Pern have become McCaffrey’s trademark. (398)

Hmm. Perhaps recognising how this sounds, there is then a bit of pleading that it is hard SF, honest, complete with weird, out of place declaration that “world-building is hard work” before opening the second paragraph with the acknowledgement that “It is true that the stories set on Pern often have little to do with the attitudes of hard science”. The third and final paragraph then talks of the Pern stories as a bridge between SF and fantasy and ends by noting their influence outside of hard SF. None of which screams hard SF to me. Caught up in their impossible justification for the story’s inclusion they neglect more prosaic information such as the fact ‘Weyr Search’ was the first Pern story published (originally in 1967). You would think this would be of interest to the reader. Perhaps they thought the story was too famous to need this sort of contextualisation, all I can say is I’m not sure how much longer the supposed universality of McCaffrey’s work will continue.

So is it hard SF? If the editors fail to make the case then McCaffrey’s own introduction puts the final nail in the coffin. After a clumsily bald attempt to establish the story as a planetary romance – “When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth?” – we get this gem of exposition:

The Pernese, with the ingenuity of their forgotten Yankee forebears and between first onslaught and return, developed a highly specialized variety of a life form indigenous to their adopted home – the winged, tailed and firebreathing dragons, named for the Earth legend they resembled. Such humans as had a high empathy rating and some innate telepathic ability were trained to make use of and preserve this unusual animal whose ability to teleport was of immense value in the fierce struggle to keep Pern bare of Threads. (399)

The prosecution rests. Leaving aside the mechanics of the story, the prose is not what you would expect from hard SF either. From the very first sentence, ‘Weyr Search’ is overblown and melodramatic:

Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the presience of a danger greater than when, ten full Turns ago, she had run, whimpering, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair. (399)

Just in case we missed the fact that it was a bit nippy, on the next page we are told that “she shivered as the pre-dawn air penetrated her patched garments.” Good old alliteration. And just in case we missed the fact the watch-wher provided sanctuary for Lessa from some dreadful trauma we are told the page after that:

And it was the only creature in all Pern she trusted since the day she had blindly sought refuge in its dark stinking lair to escape Fax’s thirsty swords that had drunk so deeply of Ruathan blood. (341)

This is presumably what the editors mean when they say the story has “little to do with the attitudes of hard science”. However, if you can get passed the fact McCaffrey is writing a potboiler, the worldbuilding is actually pretty good. She gives the reader plenty to chew on without ever spoonfeeding and this is obviously the key to the enduring popularity of the Pern series. Well, that and the fact it is as much a romance on a planet as it is a planetary romance.

Quality: ***
Hardness: *

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Written by Martin

2 June 2010 at 09:21

6 Responses

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  1. “all I can say is I’m not sure how much longer the supposed universality of McCaffrey’s work will continue.”

    Her works are still popular at the library I work at. Mainly with women. I’ve always been left cold by the Pern stories myself.

    Nick H.

    2 June 2010 at 10:32

  2. Her works are still popular at the library I work at.

    I’m sure they are. McCaffrey sold tons of books across lots of titles so that ensures her popularity for a good while (particularly, I would imagine, in libraries). I wonder what this popularity is anchored to though? And whether it might drop off suddenly? It strikes me that you can compare the Pern books to the Dune books in both their type, longevity and popularity but they don’t seem as embedded in SF culture as Frank Herbert’s novels. Perhaps the fact they are predominantly popular with women plays a role in this.

    Martin

    2 June 2010 at 11:14

  3. McCaffrey sold tons of books across lots of titles so that ensures her popularity for a good while (particularly, I would imagine, in libraries).

    More than sales, what counts for library books is issues. If the books didn’t circulate, they wouldn’t be bought for stock in the first place. And they issue, at least to me, surprisingly well.

    It strikes me that you can compare the Pern books to the Dune books in both their type, longevity and popularity but they don’t seem as embedded in SF culture as Frank Herbert’s novels.

    I’ve always felt the Dune books have been debased by the later, non-Frank Herbert, books. My guy feeling is they don’t issue quite as well as McCaffrey’s books, though I couldn’t quite say why.

    Also, I’m not sure if non-Herbert Dune books are still being done, but McCaffrey is certainly still putting new books out – these days with her son as co-writer, I believe. Keeping new books coming is always very important in libraries – Catherine Cookson used to be the most-borrowed author by a country mile, for example, but her popularity plummeted after she died and so had no new books out.

    I wonder what this popularity [of McCaffrey’s books] is anchored to though?

    I think you answer your own question here:

    Perhaps the fact they are predominantly popular with women plays a role in this.

    At the risk of appearing very un-PC, I’d say that women are attracted to the ‘romance’ part of the ‘inter-planetary romance’ field that McCaffrey ploughs, and I would also speculate that given ponies are very popular with females, it’s possible the dragons in the Pern books are seen as substitute space ponies.

    Nick H.

    2 June 2010 at 12:22

  4. I wonder what this popularity is anchored to though?

    One element is that in the US, this story is (or was) on some sort of school curriculum whitelist, and so is (or was) frequently taught. I read it in school when I was 10 or 11 years old, which really was the perfect age to encounter it.

    Matt Denault

    2 June 2010 at 14:00

  5. Wow! Has anyone even thought that some people just like to read them? If women are Really into ” romance” novels they usually read things more along the lines 50 shades. While I enjoyed these stories about the dragons rather than the “romantic ” aspect.

    marlene h

    4 February 2015 at 23:48

  6. Naturally most of these comments are written by men! Hard Sci-Fi to them it seems means killing, eating people, blasting, yadada!! I was 33 years old and hating reading anything. I was not a reader growing up. I was a tom-boy outside roughhousing with the local kiddo’s. But I had an imagination and was considered a child artist by the local art community. But to shut me up at night my husband (at the time) threw a book at me while he was reading in bed and told me to read it! It was a Dragonrider book by Ann McCaffrey. Her books not only turned me into an avid reader but I went back to college and majored in English Lit. Her books may not be what you men out there call a hard Sci-Fi but to me it was hard enough to draw me into the world of Pern and keep me there for the next 33 years! I just turned 66 and I not only have her entire collection of books but I’m now writing young adult novels…of course, about dragons. And I’m still reading, and reading and reading. The kind of hard sci-fi that you manly men probably like have very little life beyond muscle leaving most books by men too wordy (honestly…ugy), too dramatized, too testosteroned and little to do with the world that surrounds the story. McCaffrey was an amazing writer and yes, her books are still selling thanks to the ongoing works of her son, Todd. And I still find a few in used book stores and recommend them to people shopping for a good book that encompass you into the story as if you were really there and a part of it.

    T. Suzanne

    16 January 2017 at 01:43


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