Saturday, December 22, 2007

Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search" (novella, fantasy): A low-status woman ends up a queen

You probably will like this very readable story even more than me if you like stories about dragons & feudal lords. Surprise was Hartwell's labeling of it as "hard sf"; it's much closer to a fantasy.

Story summary.

Story is set on an extra-Sol planet called Pern at an unspecified date. Pern is generally indistinguishable from earth. It was colonized by humans & lost touch with other colonies. It's now a human world fallen to barbarism.

Pern orbits a star called Rukbat, "in the Sagittarian sector". It's third of the 6 planets.

Rukbat has another planet, called "Red Star" by Pernese, that is in a wild elliptic orbit that brings it rather close to Pern every 200 years. This coming close affects Pern in a rather strange way. Turns out this other world also has native life - "Threads", apparently unintelligent but alive. And Threads like going to Pern whenever the two worlds are close. How Threads travel through still vast interplanetary distance & vacuum is left as an exercise for the reader.

These Threads are a big threat to local ecology of Pern. "Not one Thread must fall to the rich soil, to burrow deep and multiply, leaching the earth of minerals and fertility." Why they haven't done so till Man arrived at this world is not explained, but humans must prevent them from touching the surface of their world!

Now Pern has a native life form indistinguishable from familiar dragons! They are not only winged & fire-breathing - they are smart & telepathic! And some of the humans are able to communicate with them telepathically. These humans will become dragon-riders. During the raid of Threads, these humans will ride the dragons up in the air, & make dragons burn the Threads with their fire!! We are not told how the few dragon riders with only natural vision will ensure no thread falls anywhere on the planetary surface.

Because they are planet saviors, the dragon riders are held in high esteem - so high, they are practically kings. These kings live high in inaccessible mountain caves. The region they live in is called Wyrn, as far as I can make out. Or is it the kingdom they rule? And they are benign good rulers.

Problem is: threat from Threads is once in 200 years event. After the event, in this primitive world, people tend to forget about it. It becomes myth. At the time the story is set, only one Wyrn ("Benden") survives of the original 6 - now protecting the entire planet.

A peculiar aspect of Wyrns plays a key role in the story. Among the dragons they control is a queen dragon - probably the only female dragon. For some reason, she must be paired with a human female, the "Weyr woman" - I could not figure out why. Because of the importance of female dragon, the human woman controlling her is extremely important - effectively the queen of Wyrn.

Under Wyrn are local lords, ruling territories called Holds. These are typical barbaric feudal lords. One of these Holds is called Ruath. Fax, originally the ruler of a neighboring Hold, had raided some half dozen neighbors; all those Holds are now ruled by Fax, "Lord of the High Reaches".

When raiding Ruath, Fax had killed entire family of rulers. Except Lessa, heroine of this story. She was very young then, & somehow survived; Fax doesn't know that she survived.

She is a very smart lady, out to get revenge. On the surface, she is a lowly servant; underneath she is working to make Ruath such a financial burden on Fax that he will disgustedly give it up.

Ten years have lapsed since the fall of Ruath. Red Star is about to approach. Current Weyr-woman has died. A new one must be quickly found - to be paired with queen dragon's about to be born daughter. Queen dragon herself will die after giving birth - not only to future queen, but many male dragons too. The dragon/human pairing, called "First Impression", must be done as soon as the chicks hatch - so time to find the future Weyr-woman is running out.

So a Search is mounted by Wyrn over all Pern - to locate the next "Weyr woman". F'lar, the current head of Wyrn, with his deputy F'nor & some others have arrived at Fax's headquarters riding their dragons.

They quickly figure there won't be a suitable candidate in Fax's own Hold. Next stop is Ruath. Lessa will contrive a knife duel between F'lar & Fax. Fax will die in the fight.

Predictably, F'lar finds Lessa suitable, convinces her to come to Wyrn, etc. Wise rulers are appointed at Holds now without a lord. We are shown a bit of Wyrn. End scene is where kids are paired with just born dragon chicks; Lessa, of course, gets paired with the future queen dragon.

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".

Fact sheet.

"Weyr Search", short story, review
Alternate titles: "Pern"?
First published: Analog, October 1967.
Rating: B
Hugo Award 1968 in novella category.
Nebula Award nomination 1967 in novella category.