Monday, April 13, 2015

The White Dragon (1978)

What happens when you mix a coming of age story with a psychic dragon sidekick, time travel, and some nookie? You get The White Dragon.

I first cracked the cover of The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey back in 1978. I saw it on the store shelves and WANTED it something fierce, most of that having to do with the Wheelan cover on the front. That was one sweet cover. He deserved every penny that he got paid on that one. Once I got my hands on a paperback copy, I proceeded to read that thing, cover to cover, thirteen time before 1984. This books was THE book of my youth, the one that I loved the most.

All these years later, I slammed through this half-forgotten book at a breakneck speed, remembered events and gobbling it down with the same ferocity that I had in my youth.

Anne wrote a really good book. It wasn't a perfect book. There are places late in the book where conversations get compressed and the action moves a little too fast. She's was clearly over her target word count and needed to get this beast out the door. In those days, SF books reaching  over 350 pages was a fairly rare phenomena. It did happen, just not often.

Although the story is obstensibly about Jaxom, the young to-be Lord Holder of Ruatha, and his white dragon, Ruth, the tale itself sits atop a backdrop of political tensions between the Oldtimers and the Good Guys, and the increasing scientification of this sf/fantasy series. As this socio-political engine turns, events occur that give Jaxom troubles, annoyances, frustrations, joys, and heroic opportunities. It's a good setup, one that keeps the story moving without having the hero artificially turning the crank.

The book benefitted from being published after two Harper Hall books. It was essentially the third book to both the Harper Hall trilogy and to the Pern series. With a prominent role for Robinton, and frequent appearances of Menolly, both fanbases got their fix.

[Speculation] The story itself referred to some adventures that Menolly had with Robinton, which would have been part of some Harper Hall book that never quite came to be. I am convinced that halfway through The White Dragon, Anne ran into issues with the outline of her next Harper Hall book, had to scrap and reoutline it, then inserted Piemer into the end half of The White Dragon to make the continuity work. The first half of the work still reflected her earlier outline. I rather suspect that Menolly needing to be over 18 when she got her first nookie figured prominently into that decision. Having a 16 year old having sex in a YA book would be a dealbreaker for a publisher. Being halfway through drafting The White Dragon, in typewriter days, meant that revising it out was too prohibitive. It's no small coincidence that Dragondrums takes place three years after Dragonsinger, and Menolly ages from 15 to 18.

As an adult, I get far more of the sexual references this time around. That boy sure did get nookie easily. What I appreciate about Anne is that she's so sex positive. Jaxom has a fling with Corana. Menolly has her delight with Sebell. The green rider gets it on with whoever. And most importantly, Sharra has a fling with Jaxom, not believing that a marriage is possible.

I found Sharra a rather empty character. In theory she's interesting, I guess, but in practice she just never does me. For me, there's just no chemistry between the two characters. I see the two getting divorced after a few years.

The character that I did find fascinated was Ruth. The dragon's dialog is structure in such a way that the dragon speaks nothing like any of the other dragons. Ruth is chatty and temporal, having an excellent perception of today and tomorrow, unlike other dragons who don't remember past a few days. That Anne was able to portray this so well in dialog rather charms me. Maybe I'm just a sucker for sincere go-getters, but if it's an sincere go-getter that you love, Ruth is the character for you.

Despite discovering the origins of mankind on Pern at the end of the book, I found the ending weak. I felt more like the outline petered out than we had reached any sort of ending. All the OOH and AHH of discovery felt a bit stuffed in. It's no wonder that my memory shortened the end, for the end could easily have been shortened.

As usual for a Pern book, everything happens all at once, sometimes with more than one thing happening at one time. History sure is eventful at this time. All sorts of changes happen very quickly. So we can assume that Pern novels are dominated by punctuated equilibrium. Things stay the same for a long time, then there are sudden changes, and then things stay the same again.

Despite all my quibbles and meanderings, this book has survived the test of time. Rarely does the book allow events and wonder to overstep the more more engaging tale of human experience.