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Old 10-07-2011, 12:47 AM   #10975
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So I finally have some leisure time to intelligibly comment on What Am I Have I Been Reading. This of course is no guarantee that the following commentary will be intelligible.

Anyway, let's start with Books With Cultures With Dragons In Them.

Anne and Todd McCaffrey's latest Pern book, Dragon's Time, has long since been returned to re-circulate on the library's New Books shelf. I freely confess I really only read the new ones for the morbid curiosity trainwreck factor to see where they're going. (The answer seems to be "nowhere, and looping around in irregular circles to do so".)

Anyway, this latest installment is the first collaboration between McCaffrey mère and McCaffrey fils since the earlier mini-saga they co-wrote which featured a supporting character in the current books, Kindan, whose major character accomplishment consists of
burning to nothingness several Passes worth of irreplaceable single-copy records in the Harper Hall Archives by bringing in makeshift torches to read the Records when the phosphorescent library-safe glows failed
. Way to go, Kindan! Apparently any apprentices with the sense to, say,
take the relevant-looking interesting Records one cannot read with the current level of in-Hall illumination outside to where there's better light instead of bringing flames into direct contact with flammable material
were killed and eaten at the Harper Hall's dining table during Gather Day as an example to the rest not to get any bright ideas that broke with Tradition.

But I digress. The foreword introduction by Anne says that while her name is now on the cover of the books again, most of the collaboration involved looking over Todd's shoulder and suggesting additions and changes to some of the scenes and it's very much Todd's book. Which is fairly obvious, because as Part 4 of (maybe) 5, DT is very much a retread of What Went Before, Only Seen From A Slightly Different Perspective.

This is because the entire mini-saga seems based upon two major plot concepts, which are finally officially defined in this volume and repeated frequently like meditation mantras:

You Cannot Break Time…™ (imagine this being said in a low, sad, Voice of Experience on one of those confessional talk shows where someone reveals they are indeed the biological parent of all the kids whose other genetic donors are currently onstage and is promptly hit by a chair for this piece of honesty)

But You Can Cheat It!® (this goes with a bright chirpy informercial voice about how using Better Butter Batter Buddy banished all the budding baker's blues and can perform this valuable non-pharmaceutical mood-altering experience for you too, for only four installments of $19.95 + shipping & handling)

And that's how readers ended up with 4+ cliffhanger-ending books about how everyone basically goes time-hopping in order to make things Go The Way They Should Have Gone All Along. And thus we get a lot of simplistically pseudocomplex anachronistic encounters between characters as they all reveal that they'd met each other previously under different circumstances when they were all older/younger up and down their personal timelines, some of whom turn out to themselves be the "mysterious helpful figures" of past books who triggered various events that greatly affected their younger selves in the first place. The Man Who Folded Himself has nothing on these people.

Like the other books in this mini-saga since Dragonsblood, which was the first and thus far only one to have a reasonably complete self-contained main plot, DT is just whiling away time until The Big Finale which is apparently in the upcoming 5th and final book, and so we get a bunch of slice-of-life filler scenes of the main characters' rather bland and boring personal lives as they wait for the real action to get underway again, not unlike the back half of The Renegades of Pern.

In and of themselves, the books of McCaffrey fils are not actually bad (though kind of repetitive and aimless), especially if you look at them as a kind of AU spinoff fanfic which serves as a showcase for the author's favourite OCs (Mary Sues abound in this: if someone's even remotely likeable and turns out to have amazing supertalents, let's reward them them a dragon!).

But they quite strongly remind me of a critique commonly attributed to Samuel Johnson:
Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
Because that's the major problem with the younger McCaffrey's Pern books. The good stories were told long ago, and the more interesting parts of his newer efforts were all done earlier and better by other prior volumes in the series.

A sudden mysterious plague greatly affecting the health and viability of continued dragon Thread-fighting which can only be solved by looking to the scientific knowledge of the Ancients to find a cure?
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern is all about that.

An intrepid rider going on an impulse jump between to have a close up look at a nearby celestial body and falling from the sky on the return back only to be caught by riderless dragons forming a fleshy bridge of support to cushion their crash landing?
F'nor and Canth did that first.

The telepathically talented queen rider of surprise Very Special Talented Lineage who goes and bets her life travelling far enough through time so that she can get extra dragons in order to fill the insufficiently-numerous wings in order to have a full complement to properly face Thread?
Lessa all over.

Well-meaning dragon riders discovering the trick of going through time in order to save time and then finding themselves time-lagged and affecting their past selves and making mistakes which lead to eventual tragic death?
Moreta again.

Taking a flight of newly-hatched dragons and fledgling riders back in time to a deserted place in order to train them in secret for fighting-readiness when they'll be needed the most?
F'nor and Canth again.

Going to the Southern Continent, relaxing your guard in the warm sun and lazily eating fruit, only to have your dragon suddenly mauled by a surprise appearance of those big spotted cats, much to everyone's consternation and dismay?
That happened in The Skies of Pern and also a variant appeared in one of the newer Pern retro-history tales.

Possibly the most depressing part of some of the seeming retread portions is that Pernese society just keeps losing all the supposedly heartwarming advances they triumphantly make in these books.

The Harper Hall finally unbends enough to take in talented female apprentices whom they recognize make perfectly good Harpers despite Turn upon Turn of prejudice against? Feh. In another few Passes Menolly will have to fight all the way to the top for that all, as will any other promising talented female musicians in-between. The shared stress of the common bond of preserving Reciprocal Fostering, Runnerbeast Racing, and Bubbly Pies breaking down the barriers between Holder, Rider, and Crafter and encouraging mingling and social mobility and free exchange of ideas and services? Next Interval, they'll be back to being just as hidebound and sessile again, and you'll have to start over when the Thread starts falling again.

It's really very sad when you consider that "modern" Pernese society up until Aivas is really the tale of a culture continually backsliding into the Dark Ages once they achieve a secure living environment and promptly throwing out every bit of co-operation and progress and advancement they've managed to make once they're no longer under immediate threat of Total Devourment.

I also finished Robert Van Gulik's The Chinese Maze Murders, 1st in the Judge Dee mysteries set in ancient China, which was free from the University of Chicago Press a couple of months ago and also happens to be the current MR Monthly Book Club pick.

I suppose I ought to comment about it in greater detail over there, but suffice to say that while it had a few flaws, it was interesting and fun with some clever whodunnits and good background detail, and I liked the historical/cultural notes that Van Gulik put in the back.

Recommended if you're interested in the setting or just wanted to try something different and unusual in terms of historical detective novels, and especially if you enjoyed Barry Hughart's The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, which are somewhat similar and truly excellent. There's a couple of Judge Dee collections in MultiFormat over at Fictionwise, and I'll be getting them during the next big coupon sale.
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