Thursday, November 24, 2011

A tribute to Anne McCaffrey

With the death of Anne McCaffrey on Monday, November 21, 2011 I felt that it would be appropriate to talk about her life and how her work influenced me.  I would not be a writer if I had not begun immersing myself in her work at the age of fifteen.

I first discovered Anne McCaffrey when I ... um... borrowed... my father's Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of 'The Dragonriders of Pern', a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them. I can't tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, 'When I think of dragons, I think of Pern'.

Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses 22 novels (plus 2 more in the works) and several short-stories. In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!

Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, 'Weyr Search' which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part 'Dragonrider', with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.

Pern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years. However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval). The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).

The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold. She was ten years old the day her family's hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds. Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher's kennel during the massacre. Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family's rightful home. However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should. Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him. Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa's vengeful care.

Unbeknownst to Lessa, the dreadful menace of thread is about to make itself known once again. This time, however, there is only one undermanned weyr to combat the menace, and only one Queen Dragon to propagate the species. Jora has died, and her dragon is only hanging on until her eggs are ready to hatch. The Dragon Rider F'lar, rider of Bronze Mnementh, has brought his wing of dragons to Ruatha hoping to find a woman who will be a the Weyrwoman of Pern. Fax despises the Dragon men, and is spoiling for a reason to kill him. However, he unwillingly makes the pilgrimage to Ruatha, bringing all of his ladies, including his pregnant wife, Gemma. When they arrive in Ruatha, the hold is a filthy disgrace, the food is unfit and tensions are high. Lady Gemma goes into labor during the disgusting meal that is all that the warder can scrape together.

Lessa secretly uses her abilities to manipulate F'lar into a fight to the death with Fax, with the eye to claiming Ruatha for herself, as was her right and due. Before the fight, Fax is maneuvered into renouncing his claim on Ruatha, but to her chagrin, it is only in favor of Lady Gemma's babe, should it live.

This is where the story really begins. At this point in the book, I am completely enthralled; and my own work, dishes and other domestic tasks fall by the way until I turn that last page!

The action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters. The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined. Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me. Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.

Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story. Every year there are new books to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks to get through it!

This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction. I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for ANY new book by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything by other auther that even remotely promised to be as good as this book. I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this book stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.

'Dragonflight' has captivated generations of fans, and was the first adult book my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck it off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). My children are firm fans of Anne McCaffrey's work, and so are my granddaughters! I inadvertently raised a fan-club! As a family, when we think of Dragons, we think of Pern!

Not only did Anne write amazing fantasy that defined dragons for millons of avid fans, she wrote some of the most compelling science fiction that I have ever read. 

The Crystal Singer’ series had me reading and re-reading the books almost compulsively. 

The Ship Who Sang’ began the Brain/Brawn series which one that I couldn’t put down. 

Dinosaur Planet’ was incredibly adventurous and well drawn. 

‘Restoree’ was a tale that was incredibly romantic and was my go-to romance novel for years. 

Her collaborations with Elizabeth Scarborough for the 'Powers That Be'  (PeTayBe)series were great escapes when I was bored or avoiding cleaning my house.

Anne McCaffrey put romance in the common space-opera.  Her books contained strong women who weren’t afraid to be women.  The men were strong men who loved and respected strong women.  The romance was thrilling, but not written in such a way that men could not relate to her work, and they enjoyed it as much as women.  Her fan-base is made up of both women and men, all of whom have been telling me that they will miss her as much as I will!

God Bless you Anne McCaffrey, wherever you are!  We will never forget the worlds you showed us, or the adventures you took us on!

1 comment:

Lisa Zhang Wharton said...

Connie, thank you for introduce me to Anne MacCaffrey and her world of dragons.