Friday, April 1, 2016

Here there be Dragons - Anne McCaffrey

SFF lost a bright light in November 2011 with the death of Anne McCaffrey, who was born by chance on this day - April 1st, in 1926.

I will confess that I had never been overly interested in the Dragonriders of Pern books, and as such largely read her work only by accident – but what joyful accidents they were.  And what a fool I was to pigeonhole her as “that dragon lady.”

There really can be no doubt that McCaffrey was an excellent writer – she exploded onto the SFF scene in 1967 with two novellas, Weyr Search [1] and Dragonrider [2] – both nominated for Hugos, and both nominated for early Nebula Awards, Weyr winning Hugo in 1968 alongside Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage, and Dragonrider taking the Nebula in the next year. 

In fact, she wowed her peers right off the starting block – earning yet another Nebula nomination for novella Dramatic Mission in 1970, though she never earned a nomination in any category other than novella.

Her popularity among fans was just as great of course, with a slew of Hugo nominations over the years, not to mention: the E.E. Smith Memorial award in 1976 for achievement, the Ditmar and the Gandalf in 1979 for White Dragon, the Balrog for Dragondrums and the Stresa Eurocon for White Dragon in 1980, the Golden Pen in 1982, various Science Fiction Book club awards in the 80s and 90s, not to mention lifetime achievement awards like the Julie Award in 1999 and the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future in 2004.

McCaffrey was an incredibly prolific writer over her career as well, producing again and again over the years, writing stories and novels in several different universes, though Pern of course was her most famous, and even a pair of cookbooks.

To be honest, I was cursed early on with the bad luck of having the Pern books recommended to me by someone who had already been smeared by three strikes (seriously, I don’t even remember what else he had me read – just that they were awful and he gushed over them) and as I said really didn’t come across McCaffrey except by accident in later years, when I managed to enjoy The Crystal Singer, The Rowan, and several of the Brains & Brawn series.

The thing though is that really the Pern books never really appealed to me in those early years despite my love of fantasy at the time - and that’s even accounting for the early bias against them (honestly Dave, you have so much to answer for…) – but it’s a crying shame that for me – and I’m sure for many other people – Pern essentially defines McCaffrey.  The truth is that she wrote so much more than that.

One example (again, total accident that I encountered this) is her Brains & Brawn series: I stumbled on The City Who Fought by chance in a second hand store years ago, and truly enjoyed it.  It made some very interesting SF assumptions, and extrapolated beautifully toward both ways in which physically disabled people might be completely functional with the use of high technology and managed to present the disabled characters as – wait for it – just people who happened to have some special skills that applied to the dilemma presented.  

It didn’t even register at first that this was McCaffrey (and in fact, that particular book, like many of the B&B series, was a collaboration), but in retrospect I should have known: this was classic McCaffrey, and in fact something that if I’m honest has been a part of her work from the beginning.

You see, McCaffrey’s gift was to give us these unusual people but to somehow present them in a way that made them seem normal.  How does an ordinary working adult who digs through second hand book shops manage to identify so thoroughly with a boy who lives in a capsule at the center of a space station and can only speak or act through the computer system?  How do the millions of readers who love the series identify so thoroughly with a girl who learns to communicate telepathically with dragons?  The answer is really the same – McCaffrey manages to paint these characters in ways that make them almost like someone who lives just next door to us. 

That’s the kind of characterization that pulls readers in and makes them fall in love.

And that’s why I’m going to get off my ass and read some McCaffrey this month – to try to learn from one of the masters of the skill.

And though, thanks to Dave, I may approach some of the Pern books with trepidation, I’m sure I’ll spend most of the time wishing I'd done it while she was still alive.

So thanks in advance, Anne – I’m looking forward immensely to drenching myself in your world of dragons and thread.

If only I’d understood before.

1. Published in Analog, Oct 1967

2. Published in two parts, the first in Analog, Dec 1967, the second in Jan 1968

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