One of the things I love best about reading is how it always feels like an act of discovery. And when I find the perfect book that I never expected, I get so much more than just something fun to pass the time with; the characters and the worlds and the events can actually have a tangible presence in my own world–in the way I think or dream. Authors that give me that gift will always have a solid place in my heart … and Anne McCaffrey is one of those authors.
I remember when I first fell in love with the fantasy and science fiction genres. I was in the 5th grade and had stumbled upon Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. But it took years of exploring the fantasy/sci-fi universes of other authors before I finally understood what it could feel like to once again completely lose myself in another world–to dream that I was a part of that world, to imagine the lives of characters and events that even the author hadn’t expressed. And the author who gave me that gift was Anne McCaffrey.
In a field dominated by male authors, it was the works of two women that called to me again and again: Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Their works combine the rich world development and inventiveness that so many male authors master, but they couple it with characters that are so empathetic and emotionally vibrant that they seem to crawl right off the pages. According to the obituary published by the Los Angeles Times, McCaffrey was “the first woman to win the top two prizes for science fiction writing, the Hugo and the Nebula, in 1968 and 1969 respectively, after publication of her first two novellas set on the fictional planet of Pern.” And those are just the “big” awards; she has won many others over the course of her career. Bradley, whose Mists of Avalon truly rocked my world, died in 1999. But I’ll save my passionate eulogy about her for another day. This post is about Anne McCaffrey, the â€œqueen of dragons,â€ and one of my favorite series of all time: The Dragonriders of Pern.
Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1926. She studied at Radcliffe and trained as an actress and opera singer, but thankfully for her legions of fans she decided that writing was her true calling. She actually moved to Ireland (permanently) in the 1970s, and it was there that she passed away at 85 years old. And here’s a fun fact: Her home in County Wicklow, Ireland was called “Dragonhold”–“so named, she liked to say, because it had been paid for by dragons.” [See the NY Times obituary by Margalit Fox.] In recent years, she has co-authored several of the latest Pern novels with one of her sons, Todd, and I suspect we will see the series continue through him … the world of Pern is just too rich to abandon. There are currently 23 novels, with a 24th presumably scheduled for release in 2012. Those volumes stand alongside a couple of short story collections, games, companion books, a music collection, and even three graphic novels (though they seem difficult to come by). I would not be surprised to see Pern make it to the big screen someday (or least an HBO series like Game of Thrones … *fingers crossed* …).
My entire “love affair” with McCaffrey’s works rests on her outstanding Dragonriders of Pern novels. They literally combine the best of both fantasy and science fiction elements in one obsessively compelling series of books. (If you happen to be a purist, I have read in several online forums that–dragons aside–Anne herself classified the series as “science fiction” due to the reasoning and rationales that lay at the foundation of the Pern world creation.)
It would be difficult to provide a full description of the series in just a few sentences or paragraphs. Here is something to get you started: One core element of the series revolves around the fact that the world of Pern is plagued by something called “Thread.” It’s hard to describe, but think of it as spore-like entities that periodically rain down from the heavens eating/destroying everything they touch. The human society has adapted and survived thanks to a symbiotic relationship with the dragons of this world. The dragons of Pern are highly intelligent creatures that have the ability to destroy the Thread in the air with their fire-breath. But they do not do this on their own. When each dragon is born, it forms an impression–a telepathic link–with a single human being. This mental and emotional tie exists between the human and dragon for their entire lives and is a deeper bond than most of us could possibly imagine. Together, dragon and human riding pairs battle the Thread to protect the world. Though, as the series progresses, we see that not all dragons are giants that take to the skies, and not all humans linked to dragons need to ride them in the air to battle Threads.
I always loved the core premise of the series–interesting and enthralling. But what really sets McCaffrey’s works ahead of the pack for me are the characters she creates and the way she chooses to bring them to life. Women and children are not simply victims that need saving–no, in her world they more often than not become the key to saving others. And McCaffrey never seems to rely on flashy science fiction conventions or technology to lure in readers (though she does give enough of both); rather, she gambles the success of her series on making readers connect with her characters on a very deep, emotional level … and it’s a gamble that she wins effortlessly. Incidentally, readers connect with more than just the human characters–the dragons, with their hearts and souls and array of personalities, have an equal presence in all of the novels. And because the series is 23+ novels long, covering several millennia in the world of Pern, there are generations of unique humans and dragons for readers to discover and fall in love with; many books in the series present entirely new characters that are seemingly unconnected to those in other volumes.
While I was looking around the Internet for a good reference site for Anne McCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern, I stumbled on “The Pern Museum and Archives” maintained by Hans van der Boom. This is a site that seriously documents and celebrates the works of McCaffrey and includes many personal photos of the author, stories, and artwork that might be hard to find elsewhere online.
There’s nothing more I can really put into words about how much I admired Anne McCaffrey’s skill as a writer, and how much I cherish her books. So I think I’ll close my portion of this shared post with Mia by noting a sentiment expressed by Hans van der Boom in response to McCaffrey’s passing:
Heaven better [have] dragons. Anne McCaffrey deserves one. Goodbye my friend.
— Nicole Dolat, currently reading Manga Man by Barry Lyga
I must admit that I hadn’t thought about Anne McCaffrey much in the past few decades, but the news of her passing last week brought back a flood of memories, because of how terribly important her books were to me at the awkward low point in my life. I suspect this has to do with some of my repression–I didn’t even regularly recommend her books to teens, in spite of my deep love for them at that age. I discovered her Dragonriders of Pern series when I was in 7th grade, after a long 6th grade public image campaign that fully secured my status as a hopeless nerd and middle school outsider. Sixth grade had been devoted to reading a lot of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, parting ways with most of the friends I’d had since elementary school, and discovering increasingly unflattering things to do to my personal appearance. I came to 7th grade ready to start anew, to move beyond the childish things that had been holding me back.
So it’s hard to describe the impact that the Dragonsong cover had on me when I found it in our school library. Who was this woman with the wild red hair, pictured alone in a foreign world surrounded by tiny dragons?! She was me–or who I wanted to be. The story immediately captivated me. I was unready to relinquish the joy of fantasy reading but needed to move beyond warrior mice and fairytales. Dragons were obviously so much more hardcore and cool. And as for the story of a girl who was leaving everything she knew to embark on an adventure in a society where she felt out of place, pursuing her musical talent to a dignified artistic destiny … did I mention that I had also recently taken up the clarinet, and was embarking on my own adventure into the Fraternal Guild of Loyal Band Geeks? Sometimes I think it wouldn’t have been possible for me to be less cool if I’d been trying.
For the rest of that year I found refuge in the books of Anne McCaffrey’s world, Pern. I read them all. And re-read them. Week after week I spent my lunch hour in the school library; week after week the librarian checked out Dragonrider books to me, mispronounced my name, was politely corrected, and insisted on mispronouncing it for the duration of our tenuous relationship. McCaffrey’s books gave me a physical place to go at a painfully lonely point in my life, but they also provided a fantastic place for my imagination to expand. At the time, there was nothing else like them. No Eragon, no Hunger Games, not even Harry Potter to fill the void that a precocious, imaginative, socially unskilled teenager needs to cross to make it to adulthood. I know I read other books during this time, but in my memories of my middle school library it is always McCaffrey’s books that I seem to be holding. I was so infatuated by her world that I even tracked down a recipe for “klah,” the coffee-like beverage choice of dragonriders everywhere, and insisted on drinking it as evidence of how sophisticated and mature I was.
Looking back on it now, I never found anyone else who was as obsessed with those books as I was. And I didn’t have a whole lot of friends to recommend them to. Maybe this is why I forget to recommend them to today’s teens–not just because of the wealth of sci-fi and fantasy teen fiction available–but because they were always such a solitary, deeply personal, pleasure for me. By 8th grade I had made some friends and had started to move into the world of “adult” books–beautifully written works of realism that I embraced in a way that made me reject my fantasy affinity the same way I had set aside fairytale adventures. Yet it was an era that shaped so much of the person I am now: a proud reader of everything, from classics to schlock, a librarian who realizes the importance of getting a kid’s name right, and an adult who has the hard-earned empathy for misfit teens that comes from surviving middle school alienation. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey, for making one 12-year-old girl’s life bearable, and for the gift that your imagination and writing continues to give.
–Mia Cabana, currently reading Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
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