‘Weyr Search’ by Anne McCaffrey
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.