Too many good people have died this year. I was stunned to hear that Anne McCaffrey passed on 21st November 2011, and more stunned that she had passed without some sort of out-cry in the areas of the net that I frequent until today. I don’t know that I have words to describe my feelings about this.
I’ll confess that my days of obsessively reading and rereading every Anne McCaffrey book I could get my hands on are long gone. Some time around the age of 16 I realised that my feminist hero always wrote books about strong women who fell for even stronger men, and that F’lar’s romance with Lessa kinda begins with rape, and that’s not really cool. I don’t want to obfuscate those aspects of her work in remembering her, but it would be wrong to see these in isolation from the whole, and the whole is truly stunning.
Anne McCaffrey will be most remembered for her sprawling soft SF Dragonriders of Pern series, and I’ll make no bones about the fact that these were what drew me in, and I owned pretty much all of them up to the point where her son, Todd McCaffrey, started co-authoring her stories. Of particularly special import for me were her Dragonsong and Dragonsinger books. I read Dragonsong first. Without knowing any of the background from the earlier Dragonflight and Dragonquest books, I was instantly sucked into her world of bleak seas, cave-bound feudalism, music, dragons, and fear of the deadly thread – the inter-stella off-flingings of the Red Planet, whose eratic orbit took it through the Oort cloud, picking up the thread as debris along the way, before swinging in to pass over Pern. Pern was colonised many centuries ago, but much of the colonists’ advanced technology was lost as they were forced away from the lush southern continent to the rockier northern land to find shelter from the threads. They discovered the amazing abilities of the indigenous life-forms, which they named ‘fire-lizards’, who had evolved to chew a certain sort of rock and belch gaseous flame with which to char thread; not to mention their ability to teleport out of the path of thread by shifting through the nothingness between places. The colonists genetically engineered the fire-lizards to form mighty dragons who could form telepathic bonds with humans and fight thread together.
It’s an astonishingly imaginative premise – one often overlooked by genre aficionados who see the dragons and the money-milking series of umpteen million novels and assume that the science-fiction elements are merely an excuse to cast a veil of plausibility on the stock fantasy dragon concept. I was utterly captivated by both the fantastical and the science fiction elements, however, and more than anything I was swept away reading about strong women who forged a place for themselves doing the things they love – even saving the day – and winning the affections of the men they desire. There are precious few such examples even today.
There is no doubt that I identified achingly with the talented but relentlessly bullied Menolly. Perhaps people would now call her a Mary Sue, or a ‘Canon Sue’, as this is original fiction. Not only is Menolly unusually gifted musically, but when she runs away she not only manages to survive on the hostile coast of Pern, she ‘impresses’ nine fire-lizards – creatures held to be mythical by most, and such that even those who know of them are only able to impress one. In the end she is found by a dragonrider and ends up being taken to Harper Hall to become a favourite of Master Harper Robinton himself. I don’t care if that makes her a ‘Canon Sue’, she meant everything to me for a while. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who was heavily bullied as a teenager and found solace in Menolly’s tale of success against all odds and beyond the dreams of those who tormented her. Her story, and others from the Pern series, truly did sustain me through the hardest, loneliest years of my life, and I genuinely don’t know what I would have done without them.
But it would be wrong to think that Anne McCaffrey’s legacy is limited to her Dragonriders of Pern series. Although there are a number of genuinely good, well-crafted, challenging, and imaginative novels in that series, there’s no question that it also became a sort of easy cash-cow for her, and to think that this was the limit of her gift to the world would be to do her a terrible disservice. At the centre of her motivation for writing was a wish to fill a gap for women in the Science Fiction market. And that didn’t mean writing paranormal romances, as it sometimes seems to be taken that writing genre ‘for women’ amounts to. Anne McCaffrey was known to have said that when she first sat down to write Restoree in 1967 it was because she wanted to write a science fiction story with a woman in it who did more than scream and get rescued. I’m quite baffled by the comically ‘citation needed’ comment on the Wikipedia page for Restoree: ‘Many readers consider the book to be formulaic and of lesser quality than McCaffrey’s other works’ – me suspects a personal opinion from someone who missed the dry wit and canny observation that is usually attributed to the work as satirising formulaic SF stories whilst simultaneously putting a female character in a position to rescue a male at a time when this was virtually unheard of. I’ll not argue that it’s a perfect story, it is noticeably a first novel, but it is also intriguing, original, and different to her other works. It feels like an experiment, and to my mind has both the advantages and disadvantages of such things. I always wanted to know more about the universe in which the book is set, but as far as I’m aware she never wrote about it again.
Anne McCaffrey’s gender politics can seem out-dated to the modern audience, but at the end of the day she broke some ground that was in bad need of breaking back in the sixties. She also has a wide variety of generally interesting science fiction ideas over and above the more soft-SF series like the Talent books (about people with unusually special telepathic, telekinetic, or teleportation abilities). The Ship Who Sang explores the fascinating premise of a future where severely disabled children are offered the chance of a better, and vastly different life as cyborgs wired in to advanced ships – their biological bodies helpless, stunted things apart from their brains, but their metal bodies incredibly powerful and much prized for the superior guidance the wired-in brain allows. The later books in this series become repetitive and lack-luster, but the first book is concise and powerful, and The City Who Fought (written with S M Stirling) is still one of the most interesting military SF books I have read. Whilst on some levels it has the heightened drama of a space opera, the three dimensional tactics of space-warfare are unusually well-explored, as is the situational dynamics of defending a space station a long way out from central armed forces. I loved Deep Space 9, but it rapidly became less ‘Deep Space’ and more ‘pretty close for anyone with a warp drive’, sacrificing the more interesting aspects of its setting in a way that The City Who Fought more fully explores.
There is also the captivating Doona series, exploring first contact in very much a frontier setting, leagues away from a Star Trek style set-up where advanced technology breaks down the barriers between species at an uninterestingly rapid rate (with a few interesting exceptions), but also distinct from the other extreme of Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the alien life is both so advanced and so different that an encounter with them might be incomprehensibly mind-blowing.
Other quirky works include two Dinosaur Planet books, which continue with the theme of close encounters with other species at distant remove from centralised civilisation, but add to the mix, well, dinosaurs. And silicon-based life-forms. Although not the best written of her books, even these are not without merit, showing the incredible breadth of her imagination. Incidentally, the discussion of vegetarianism in both these and the Planet Pirates series (which is a military SF series that is, I think, set in the same universe) did much to really alter my perspective on the issue. I went from considering vegetarianism rather foolish to being thrown into a world where meat-eating was considered utterly barbaric. It blew my little teenage mind, and although it did not convert me to vegetarianism, it did create the mental shift that paved the way for me to consider it properly when I started reading serious philosophy on the matter. And what is the sign of good SF but that it challenges our preconceptions of the world we do live in by presenting us with alternative perspectives via the distance of another world?
I also feel obliged to praise the Freedom series, which I actually do regard as legitimately good, and prime fodder for some enterprising TV exec to turn into an exciting new series. It concerns human beings and other intelligent species who are enslaved by the powerful and aggressive Catteni. Kristin Bjornsen is amongst a number of slaves who are dumped on a planet with the aim of establishing its habitability. If the slave races survive, the planet is deemed habitable, and will be taken over by the Catteni. Dumped with Kris is a Catteni noble, Zainal, who is caught with her and dumped on the planet as a means of getting him out of the way. Many of the former slaves are mistrusting of Zainal at first, but he slowly proves his worth, as well as developing a relationship with Kris (despite being almost painfully well-endowed). But unbeknownst to the Catteni, their planet is not as uninhabited as it seems. Another race of advanced aliens are using it as a gigantic farm. As the slave-colonists start building their own civilisation they discover the truth about their world and plot rebellion against the Catteni with the alien technology they find, hoping to win an ally in the mysteriously absent landlords who were farming this planet before they arrived. It’s a surprisingly sexy story with an intriguing premise, even if the convenience of the anatomical compatibility between Catteni and human species is a little comical. In all honesty I can’t help but recommend it as a remarkably fun read, for the first two books at least. In fact, one of the Freedom books is actually dedicated to me, amongst others who were frequenting the Worlds of Anne McCaffrey messaging board at the time she was writing it. I even spoke to her in the chat room a couple of times. She misspelt my internet name, Rhube, as ‘Rube’, in the dedication, but I forgive her that.
Last, but not least, I can’t help but mention the remarkably high quality of McCaffrey’s short story collections: Get Off the Unicorn and The Girl who Heard Dragons. Despite the common wisdom that part of the path to novel writing is publishing short stories, few writers are equally proficient at both short and long form. Many of McCaffrey’s short stories are just as engaging as her novels, however. A number stick strongly in my mind, and they often contain interesting kernels of harder SF ideas than one generally finds in her longer works, such as the disturbing ‘Velvet Fields’ (reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine). She also has a couple of stories set in a world where time has come unstuck due to some cataclysmic event, focusing on a small group of humans desperately trying to subsist in a world where they could be torn away from one another with the shiftings of time at any moment. I always wanted to see this world explored further.
The wealth and variety of her imagination is staggering. The Dragonriders of Pern books have brought me personal pleasure and got me through a very, very difficult time in my life, and they are wildly popular across the world, but it would be a great shame if they were considered the entirety, or even the majority of her legacy. There is so much more to be got from her writing. I was very lucky to fall into such rich pastures when I finally cottoned on to fiction being a Good Thing as a teenager. If any of the books described above sound at all interesting to you, please go read them, if not right now, then some time this year. If telepathic space dragons never seemed quite your thing, I hope to have convinced you that there is much, much more on offer in the Worlds of Anne McCaffrey than a surface scratching might suggest. I’ll confess that I haven’t read a new Anne McCaffrey book in years, and her last years of writing probably weren’t her best, but we still lost one of our brightest stars earlier this week, and I for one find much to honour in great swathes of her vast body of work.