Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Anne McCaffrey Goes Beyond the Between - RIP

The sad news reached me Wednesday this week that science-fiction/fantasy writer Anne McCraffrey had passed away on Monday, at 85 years of age.

The news was a shock; I've long admired and enjoyed a number of her stories, but more importantly she was one of the female sci-fi/fantasy writers my Mum introduced me to from the age of ten, creating my long love of the genre. She was also in the group of female fantasy writers who I felt wrote stories that I, a girl keen on having adventures of her own, could enjoy from a female point of view. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say she was an outright feminist writer, in the way Sheri Tepper was for instance, she nonetheless put women in the centre of things, just as Andre Norton, and Tanith Lee did. Women weren't just add-ons or passively experiencing events; they did things, right and wrong, and were as much a part of the story as any male character (or in her own words, as reported by one of her sons, "I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens. I wouldn't have been—I'd've been in there swinging with something or kicking them as hard as I could"). This may not seem like a big deal nowadays but a number of stories, even by writers I admired and enjoyed, had female characters not doing a lot or just being victims (i.e. Isaac Asimov and his Foundation series. Brilliant, but women don't feature all that much. And they still make the tea, even that far in the future). It felt sometimes like the boys got all the adventures while the girls waited for them to come and rescue them. McCaffrey, among others, showed me it didn't have to be that way, and I will love her for that for the rest of my life.

Anne McCaffrey 1926 - 2011
Prolific is probably too small a word for the sheer amount of works she has out there, so I'm going to just pull out a few that I've enjoyed and highly recommend for others to try. It's a great sadness to know we won't get any more tales from her, but she has left a wealth of stories out there and will no doubt go on to influence countless writers in the future. So here are my top Anne McCaffrey books:

Probably McCaffrey's best known books are the Pern series, where dragons commune and work with humans, and also include time travel, Earth colonists and genetic engineering (and is where the title of this post came from, as Dragons can move "beyond the between", never to be seen again). McCaffrey considered herself a science-fiction writer first and foremost but the Pern books combine the feeling of romantic fantasy into a Sci-Fi setting. There are loads of books in this world, thanks to her son's additions (with his mother's blessing and assistance) but the main one's I would recommend are the original stories by McCaffrey alone.

It begins with Dragonflight, 1968, which was composed from two novellas McCaffrey had done in 1967, one of which won the Nebula award for best novella, and the other won the 1968 Hugo award for best novella. Anne McCaffrey was the first woman to win either.

Dragonrider chronicles the story of Lessa, the sole survivor of a noble family and in possession of unusually powerful psychic abilities. When wingleader F'lar is seeking candidates to 'impress' or bond with young dragons he quickly realises she may be a match for a queen dragon. Together she and F'lar soon realise that the threat of the "Thread", a space born terror that kills everything it touches as it moves down to the ground, is more than just legend and threatens their world once more. The one problem is no one believes them and there aren't enough dragon riders to deal with another attack. But the discovery of time travel presents an opportunity to save their world, though it may cost them and the dragons dearly.

This was followed up with Dragonquest in 1970 and my personal favourite The White Dragon in 1978. This was followed up by another trilogy (which I loved even more than the original three), Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums. In true sci-fi spirit McCaffrey recommended that people read this trilogy before reading The White Dragon, as it carried on the story of those that appear 'first' in the Dragonsong trilogy. Until this point McCaffrey had been struggling with money woes but the success of the Pern books changed all that. With the money she earned from this series she managed to buy a house in Ireland, which she named Dragonhold in honour of the dragons who bought it.

I can't recommend these books enough if you like your sci-fi to be a bit different and made up of lovable characters and exciting adventures. And the humans aren't bad either.

The next series I read, and loved, was the Crystal Singer trilogy. Anne McCaffrey had previously been a frustrated opera singer and her experiences are chronicled in the Crystal Singer books, which sees the woman Killashandra being told that due to a flaw in her voice she will never be able to sing main roles on the stage. To avoid a life in the background, she resigns from the music school and meets a crystal singer, someone who mines with their voice to find the rare crystals that make all interstellar travel and communication possible. Thinking it's a dream job, and offering her the chance to be best at something, she travels to the one planet the crystals can be found on. But of course there's a catch; the planet is also host to a symbiotic life form that invades humans bodies and causes genetic mutations that inevitably lead to the humans death, and can cause severe side effects that range from acutely enhanced vision to utter paralysis. The trilogy follows her development into a Crystal Singer, and her adventures off world as a representative of the guild.
Some find Killashandra a very unlikable character. It's true that she is arrogant, conceited and seems to lack empathy for others. But funnily enough those were the things I loved about her; it's rare to have any main character with such unlikable characteristics, let alone a female character. And it fits with her life and expectations. Though not as exciting as the Pern books, the Crystal books are an excellent piece of sci-fi.

The final but in no way least book I have to mention is The Ship who Sang, which I felt was a heartbreaking premise and story. In the future, parents of severely disabled children who have a high intelligence score are offered the choice of having the mind of their child preserved, rather than euthanised. In this way they can go on to be the brain of a ship or even a city, and can 'live' for centuries. The book was made up of multiple novellas, and is about Helva, the mind of a ship, and her bond with her 'braun', the human who lives inside her. It's heartbreaking and beautiful, while raising uncomfortable questions about disability in the future and the way technology can be used to enslave as well as to save. It was also McCaffrey's favourite book according to reports, and encorporates her own feelings around the death of her father.

So there you have it, those are my favourite McCaffrey books (so far - I still haven't read them all), and I've actually been quite moved writing about them. I must dig out the Pern books again...

You will be much missed Anne, and it saddens me that I'll never get the chance in this life to thank you for your inspiration and especially for your stories. A thousand dragons bugle in sorrow. Until we meet beyond the between I will continue to be inspired by your tales, and will dream of the day I can write something even half as good.

1 comment:

  1. I'd forgotten The Ship Who Sang, so thanks for reminding me about that one. My (then) wife had much the same reaction to the early Pern books as you did (she was a drummer, another thing that makes people say, "girls can't do that"), and we read each one as it came out.

    Someone on another blog asked if McCaffrey was influential. I told him to go see Avatar. :-)