Guides to Pern
The Dragons of Pern are a an integral part of the world of Pern.
In creating the setting, McCaffrey set out to subvert the clichés associated with dragons in European folklore and in modern fantasy fiction. Pernese dragons are similar to traditional Western dragons in the fact that they can breathe fire, but the resemblance ends there. Unlike most dragons in previous Western literature, Pernese dragons are entirely friendly to humanity. Furthermore, they are not magical at all. Instead, they are a heavily genetically modified species based on one of Pern's native life-forms, the fire-lizard.
The race was intentionally designed to fight Thread after it first caught the human colonists on Pern unawares, with devastating results. Geneticist Kitti Ping Yung designed the dragons by manipulating the genetic code of the indigenous fire-lizards that had been pets of the colonists. The dragons were named after their resemblance to Western dragons from the legends of old Earth. Later genetic manipulation by Ping's daughter, Wind Blossom Ping, also resulted in the watch-whers, ungainly creatures who bore a slight resemblance to dragons, in an attempt to "perfect" the dragons' design. The watch-whers are, however, much more useful than they appear.
Dragons are carnivorous, oviparous, warm-blooded creatures. Like all of Pern's native large fauna, they have six limbs - four feet and two wings. Their blood is copper-based and green in color. They have multifaceted eyes that change color depending on the dragon's mood. Their head and general body type is described by McCaffrey as being similar in shape to those of horses. On their heads they have small headknobs, similar to those of giraffes, and no visible ears. Unlike the dragons of Terran legend, they have smooth, soft skin rather than scales; the texture of their skin is described as being reminiscent of suede with a spicy, sweet scent when clean. They are described as having forked tail ends with a defecation opening between the forks; however, most artistic renderings depict their tails as having spade-shaped tips. Their wings are not large enough to support their bodies in flight, much of their ability to fly depends on the subconcious use of telekenesis.
Kitti Ping designed the dragons to gradually increase in size with each generation. The dragons of the first Hatching were not much bigger than horses six Passes (1500 years) later they had reached their programmed size. The largest Pernese dragon on record, Ramoth, hatched twenty-five centuries later and (according to the novel All the Weyrs of Pern) was roughly three times the size of the largest first-generation dragons. Her great size is often attributed to mutation and the genetic isolation of Benden Weyr for over 400 years/turns. (The Dragonlover's Guide to Pern, written by Jody Lynn Nye with input from Anne McCaffrey, lists Ramoth's total length as forty-five meters; however, this contradicts a number of references in the novels, and the book contains several other obvious errors. According to McCaffrey, "forty-five meters" is a mistake for "forty-five feet".) Newly hatched dragons are the size of very large or small ponies, and reach their full size after eighteen months. Because young dragons grow so fast, their riders must regularly apply oil to their hides to prevent the skin from cracking or drying out.
Like their firelizard ancestors, dragons can breathe fire by chewing a phosphine-bearing rock called "firestone," which reacts with an acid in a special stomach-like organ. This forms a volatile gas that can be exhaled at will and ignites upon contact with air. The flame is used to burn Thread from the sky before it reaches the ground.
Despite their relatively low intelligence, fire-lizards communicate through a form of weak telepathy. They also imprint on the first individual who feeds them after they hatch, creating a telepathic bond with them; the Pernese call this phenomenon "Impression". In creating dragons, Kitti Ping intensified the creatures' telepathy and gave them a strong instinctive drive to Impress to a human. Upon hatching, each dragonet chooses one of the humans present and Impresses to that person; from that moment on, the pair are in a constant state of telepathic contact for as long as they both live. Dragons also use telepathy to communicate with each other and with fire-lizards. They are capable of speaking telepathically to humans besides their own riders, but most are disinclined to do so except under unusual circumstances.
Dragons and fire-lizards can also teleport. They do this by briefly entering a hyperspace dimension known as between. Humans experience between as an extremely cold, airless, black void. After spending no more than eight seconds in between, the dragon or fire-lizard can re-emerge anywhere on Pern, along with any passengers or cargo they carried. This ability evolved in fire-lizards as a defense against Thread; not only does it allow them to quickly escape from Threadfall, but the intense cold of between kills any Thread that has already burrowed into them. If a dragon attempts to teleport without a clear mental image of the place where they intend to reappear, they can simply fail to emerge from between.
Going between allows dragons to travel through time as well as space, as long as they have a clear picture of what a particular place looked like (or will look like) at the desired time. However, the practice is highly dangerous to both dragon and rider and is severely restricted. Existing in two places at once for extended periods of time, or in close proximity, causes severe weakness and psychological disturbance for humans. In addition, while teleporting through space always takes the same amount of time, when a dragon travels through time, the amount of time they spend in between increases depending on how long ago or how far in the future the destination is. Thus, travelling to remote times poses severe dangers from hypothermia and deprivation.
The Dragonlover's Guide to Pern states that dragons defecate while between. This idea originated with a statement by Anne McCaffrey herself, in answer to a fan's question about the subject at a con. However, McCaffrey may have been joking when she first said this. As the idea has never been referenced in any of the Pern novels, it cannot be considered definitively canonical. If true, it would eventually cause serious ecological problems for the planet, as large amounts of Pern's organic matter would be regularly disappearing into an alternate dimension. It should be noted that The Skies of Pern references the use of dragon dung as a repellent against the large felines inhabiting the southern continent.
Dragons are also capable of telekenesis, though this ability is unknown and used in an unconcious manner (to augment flight) until it is discovered as a concious ability by the green dragon "Zaranth" and her rider Tai in the 31st turn of the 9th Pass. It is speculated that the undersized wings were intentionally created in the dragons by Kitti Ping to reduce the surface area of a dragon that is exposed to possible Thread injury, and that the telekenisis was intended to make up for the loss of wingsail. It is said in many books that a dragon can carry whatever it thinks it can carry. This is likely an extension of the telekenesis, mentally "lifting" the extra load. THis is the most likely explanation as to the great loads that dragons sometimes carry during emergencies.
Unlike their fire-lizard ancestors, dragons are fully sapient. They communicate fluently in human language (although only telepathically), and have personalities and opinions distinct from those of their riders. However, their intelligence does seem to be somewhat lower than that of the average human. In particular, their long-term memory is severely limited.
As a safeguard against the possible damage that could be caused by such powerful creatures, Ping engineered dragons to be profoundly psychologically dependent on their riders. Any dragonet that fails to Impress to a human shortly after hatching will die. If a dragon's rider dies, the dragon immediately suicides by going between without a destination. The only exception in the books is a queen dragon whose rider dies while the queen is gravid; the dragon waits just long enough to lay her eggs and see them hatch before disappearing between. (Humans who lose their dragons typically commit suicide as well. However, some do survive, although the experience leaves profound psychological trauma.)
Ping also designed the dragons to be fairly calm in temperament. They never fight one another, unless two queens come into estrus at the same time. They are also not dangerous to humans except shortly after hatching, when it is common for confused and frightened dragonets to maul or even kill humans hoping to Impress.
Dragons hatch knowing their own names, and announce their names to their new riders upon Impression. Pernese dragons' names always end in -th.
Barring rare mutations, female dragons and fire-lizards are always either green or gold in color, while males are blue, brown or bronze.
The larger a color is, the less common it is. For instance, not all Clutches of eggs contain a gold egg and it is exceedingly rare for a clutch of eggs to contain more than one queen, whereas greens make up nearly half of Pern's dragon population. Riding a larger color of dragon also confers higher social status in Pern's extremely hierarchical society. Perhaps as a result of this, it is commonly believed that the larger colors are more intelligent, although recent novels imply that this may not be true.
The Pernese believe that chewing firestone makes female dragons sterile; they therefore refuse to allow queens to use it. Greens, on the other hand, are so common that if they produced offspring it would quickly lead to overpopulation. They always chew firestone, and because of their numbers and agility they are vital to any Thread-fighting force. However, Dragonsdawn suggests that Kitti Ping - possibly motivated by old-fashioned ideas about gender roles - deliberately engineered greens to be infertile and gold dragons to be incapable of producing flame in order to protect the gold dragons, the only reproductivelly fertile females, from the dangers of Thread fighting.
Mating and Reproduction
Both gold and green dragons experience a periodic mating urge, with greens coming into season three to four times more often. When a female comes into estrus, interested males compete to catch her in a mating flight. Usually, the female chooses the male who impresses her the most with his skill in the flight, although inexperienced females may be caught before making their choice. The pair actually mate in midair; thus, the higher they get during the flight, the longer their mating can last. The Pernese commonly believe that longer matings result in larger clutches. For this reason, queenriders are strongly encouraged to restrain their dragons from eating heavily just before a flight, instructing them to drink blood instead for a quick burst of energy. A dragon than Clutches (lays) her eggs on warm sands, which are called the Hatching Sands in a Weyr. The eggs are soft at first and harden over time, eventually Hatching out the dragonets. For a more in-depth study, check out the Guide to embryonic development of dragons.
Effects on rider sexuality
Due to the intense psychic bond between rider and dragon, dragonriders are overcome by the powerful emotions and sensations associated with mating flights. The riders of the mating pair engage in sex themselves, to varying degrees unaware of what they are doing. This contributes to a much looser attitude toward sexuality in general among dragonriders than in the rest of Pernese society.
For much of Pern's history, all greenriders are male. During these periods, all green mating flights result in homosexual intercourse between the riders of the dragons involved. This intercourse is accepted in the Weyr as being separate from the rider's personal preferences unless the rider has shown otherwise. For more information, please see the Guide to Dragon Mating Flights.
Effects on non-rider sexuality
Both green and gold dragons broadcast their sexual feelings on a wide band during mating flights. Weyrfolk tend to become somewhat inured to this and therefore can hold their sexual reactions until an appropriate place and time. However, flights are ususally not over the Weyr itself and sometimes the flightpath of the mating flight brings the mating dragons over Holds or Farmholds where the average people occasionally find themselves engaged in unexpected activities. This is especially common among young teens working out in the fields who react to the sudden, unexpected and overwheming urges with potentially embarrassing results.
Anne McCaffrey has stated in a number of documents and interviews that dragonets use pheromones to determine the sexual orientation of the humans to whom they Impress. According to these statements, greens Impress only to women or to "effeminate" homosexual men. Blues Impress primarily to homosexual or bisexual men with "masculine" temperaments, or possibly to masculine women; browns similarly Impress primarily to heterosexual men. Bronzes and golds Impress exclusively to heterosexual men and heterosexual women, respectively.
However, these ideas have never been made explicit in the books (although it is clear, at least, that most male green- and blueriders are homosexual). Many members of online Pern fandom find McCaffrey's ideas about sexuality highly questionable for a number of reasons, both scientific and ethical. (Most infamously, she claimed in an interview that science has proven that being the receptive partner in anal sex triggers a hormonal change that will make a previously heterosexual man become homosexual and effeminate. Thus, she argues, even if a male greenrider were originally heterosexual, he would not stay that way.) In later interviews McCaffrey claims that green dragons merely pick up on psychological clues from homosexual boys before they themselves know that they are homosexual. "A green Hatchling is unlikely to be impressed (pun intended) by a heterosexual boy." - Anne McCaffrey 1998 on The Kitchen Table BB.
Pern-based roleplaying games thus sometimes ignore McCaffrey's restrictions on who can Impress to a given color of dragon. MU*s and fanzine-based clubs often ignore everything except the basic rule that only women Impress gold and only men Impress bronze; Most clubs post their policy on canon strictiness. While some accept more liberal thoughts on color/gender/sexual orientation matches, many are very strict on this issue.
Also in fandom, if a rider has strong objections to sex with someone involved in a mating flight or the writer has objections to writing a homosexual encounter or object to their character being involved in a sexual encounter with a person other than their "significant other," they may sequester themselves with a more acceptable partner during the flight. This idea is called "Stand-Ins" and based on a concept McCaffrey introduced in Dragonseye/Red Star Rising in which a female greenrider objects to the idea of a specific bronzerider winning her green's mating flight. However, this concept is not seen in other books and clearly does not exist in the 9th Pass, as several problems arise regarding green and goldriders who object to the random nature of mating flights and end up "raped" by the male winner of the flight.
As the primary line of defense against the Thread, dragons are a requirement for the survival and prosperity of humans, not to mention other forms of land life, on Pern. However, the great beasts require a good deal of maintenance, to the degree of requiring a large part of Pernese infrastructure - especially farming - to be centered around their upkeep. This has been known to cause resentment among those doing the supporting, especially at times when Thread is not falling.
Significant Pernese Dragons