Oh, Tongue, give sound to joy and sing
Of hope and promise on dragonwing.
Anne McCaffrey died on Monday, November 21, at approximately 5 pm at her home in Ireland. As there will doubtless be many tributes and obituaries posted online and elsewhere, I don’t need to repeat the details of Ms. McCaffrey’s life here. What I would like to mention is her effect on me.
In 1971, I had never heard of Anne McCaffrey. I was 15, a freshman in high school, and not even much into science fiction. That changed the day a new friend put a copy of Dragonflight into my hands and said, “You need to read this.” She was right. Although I’d dabbled a bit in “sci-fi,” it was fantasy that held sway over me. In my soul, I was Peter Pan. I read deeply of unicorns and giants, dark fairies and witches, selkies and dwarves. I didn’t even really like science fiction much. I found it too dry. But there, in the pages of Dragonflight, I found a seamless blend of worlds both scientific and fantastical.
There’s been some debate over whether the Dragonrider books are science fiction or fantasy. To quote Wikipedia: While the earlier novels in the series have elements also present in fantasy (low levels of technology, fire-breathing dragons, feudal societies), the prologue explains the events take place on a colony world. The first novel was originally serialized in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact (1967), and that magazine did not publish fantasy. The publisher lists them as science fiction titles, and McCaffrey herself describes them as science fiction and stresses the scientific rationales behind the world she has created.
Although she wrote of many different worlds, it was the McCaffrey of Pern who first made science fiction palatable to me. The reasons, I think, are threefold. The world of Pern is total, complete, as solid and real as a handful of clay. Her characters, though occasionally superlative in a James T. Kirk sort of way, are also flawed and eminently human. And her dragons — ah, her dragons! — are not just fire-breathing fashion accessories for some scantily clad heroine or iron-thewed hero, but complete characters in their own right.
It was a short hop from Dragonflight to crafting my own Pern stories. With a handful of writing friends, I filled notebooks on the adventures of our own characters (Mira, Elitha, K’nar) and their dragons (Brenth, Tamorth, Mirenth). Through four years of high school and on into college we continued the tales, on the way growing as story-tellers. Meeting other admirers of Pern added spice to the mix. Holds and Weyrs cropped up and their members wrote their own stories, spreading and deepening the history of Pern. Although I’ve read that Ms. McCaffrey did not altogether approve of the changes some Pern fans made to their version of her world (multi-colored dragons comes to mind), she seems to have been reasonably tolerant of our desire to play in her sandbox.
And what a wonderful sandbox it was! What a safe and careful place in which to begin the process of honing our skills as writers, to learn the craft, to parse out the permutations of plot and character development, conflict and pacing. And what friendships were made in the process.
Anne is gone, but she lives on in the worlds she created, the words she shared. She taught us that it was okay to dream — and dream big! — and that we may face defeat, but it need not devour us. The Dragonlady has gone between. The dragons keen their sorrow. And we are richer for having known her.
Thank you, Anne.
Harper, tell me of the road
That leads beyond this Hold,
That wends its way beyond the hill…
Does it go further on until
It ends in sunset’s gold?
(picture of Anne McCaffrey courtesy of mccaffrey.srellim.org)