Thursday, 20 December 2001

Anne McCaffrey: The Skies of Pern (2001)

Edition: Bantam, 2001
Review number: 1020

This latest Pern novel reads as though it is meant to round off the series. It is one of the most successful series of novels in science fiction, both long running and consistently high selling. The general trend has been for the novels to become more like soap opera episodes as time passes - a trend matched by the way that all of McCaffrey's output has become more homogeneous and unchallengingly predictable.

There are two main aspects to the story. The major dramatic event is a comet impact in Pern's oceans, a massive disaster. This is of course something inspired by the Schumacher-Levy impact on Jupiter, and is a dramatic yet extremely unlikely event. McCaffrey cites impressive technical assistance with the impact description, including oceanographic analysis of tsunami patterns based on the geography of Pern. The sort of panic this event can generate is shown by the way that governments have financed research to try to prevent it happening on Earth, while less dramatic but far more likely scenarios are much less sexy ways to spend money. (To be fair, it is relatively easy to see how to attack the problem of astronomical impacts, compared to, say, making the world's roads safe, or persuading Americans that spending a few minutes going through airport security is a worthwhile precaution.)

The other theme, continued from Masterharper of Pern, is the attacks of the Abominators, violent opponents of the changes brought by the information stored in Aivas, the computer which had survived from the original colonisation of Pern. People oppose technological advances for all kinds of reasons, but in her simplistic depiction of these Luddites as not too bright traditionalists, McCaffrey is going against the trends of the modern world. Rather than feeling that all advances are, by definition, evil, current unease about technology is partly due to the perception of past failures to correctly forecast and allow for the results of new applications of science (such as the link between increased burning of fossil fuels and global warning), and also apprehension at the dangers inherent in what we can do now or will soon be able to do, given the human race's past lack of restraint - I'm thinking of nuclear weapons and developments in genetics and biotechnology. It seems to me that fear for the future is a perfectly reasonable - and, indeed, intelligent - emotion to feel, especially as the sort of leaders the world has are not really such as to inspire much confidence.

This is, of course unlike the situation on Pern. There, rather unrealistically, de facto world rulers F'lar and Lessa have managed to be right in every crisis through the entire series of novels; their opponents have always turned out to be too wedded to tradition or to have their own agendas which are usually about personal power rather than the good of people generally, the motive of the two dragonriders. This is the sort of thing which makes this series less significant than it might be; easy to read, but not very deep.

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