Thanksgiving Advent, Day Twenty-Three: Anne McCaffrey (and others)

As many of you have probably heard by now, Anne McCaffrey, one of the grand dames of science fiction, has passed away.

I came to her books through Dragonsinger, I think, and the rest of the Harper Hall trilogy, before moving on to Dragonflight and the other, more “mainstream” Pern books (by which I mean the ones that focused on the riders and Weyrs). From there I went onto some of the Ship books, and the Talents, and the Crystal Singer series, and more. She was never quite one of my DNA writers — not a formative influence on me as a reader or writer — but she was part of the step out of children’s fiction and into adult SF/F. She was, however, a formative influence on a crap-ton of other people, and her oeuvre is one of the big islands in our archipelago.

And, although I never thought of it this way consciously, I think she helped print in my mind not the belief, but the assumption that writing this stuff was a thing done by both men and women. It never really occurred to me that anybody might think otherwise. If you’d asked Teenaged Me to list off important fantasy writers, I would have responded with Anne McCaffrey and Robert Jordan and Mercedes Lackey and David Eddings and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Raymond E. Feist and — well, let’s put it this way. I was a little nonplussed when I found out Terry Brooks was a man, because that was one of those names that could go either way, and women were prominent enough on my bookshelf that I thought nothing of dropping him in that category.

(No, I didn’t pay much attention to the “about the author” bit. Why do you ask?)

(And yes, you can totally see the reading tastes of Teenaged Me in that list. Don’t quibble over me putting McCaffrey in with the fantasy, though. I played the Might and Magic computer games. I was, and in some ways still am, firm in the opinion that slapping a bit of technology on a story otherwise stuffed with fantasy tropes does not make it SF.)

So anyway. I’m thankful for Anne McCaffrey, and for a whole host of other people like her, both for putting amazing and influential books into the world, but also — in the case of the women — for making it possible for me to cruise along in my blithe assumption of gender equality. That mindset has its shortcomings, but I really do believe it’s enabled me to steamroll over any number of small speedbumps that may have appeared in my path.

Thank you, Anne McCaffrey.

0 Responses to “Thanksgiving Advent, Day Twenty-Three: Anne McCaffrey (and others)”

  1. mindstalk

    Pern vs. Darkover! Riders vs. Comyn!

    I wonder how many “Pern is fantasy” people skipped the Foreword, which seems rather blatant and involved to me.

    Hmm, my Harper Hall omnibus lacks a glossary.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t recall Dragonflight enough to recall whether the Foreword is the bit that’s all “so there were these interstellar colonists etc.” Probably. In which case — yes, I read it; but what followed was dragons and medievalish tech levels and telepathy and so on, several hundred pages thereof, which kind of outweighed the bit at the front. Moreover, I came at that book having already read the Harper Hall books, in which the only hint of sfnality I can think of is “agenothree,” which my juvenile self was not about to recognize as HNO3. So I was already firmly reading the setting as fantasy. I know that bothered McCaffrey sometimes, but that was the gear I was in.

      • mindstalk

        Yep. G type star, planets, genetic engineering of dragons, et al. My Harper omnibus has it. I think the individual copies of e.g. Dragonsong that I read had it, but I cannot confirm; I started with Menolly but have always thought of it as very SF. I think i figured out agenothree, unless the glossary spelled it out.

        Odd that you call out telepathy; to me that’s part of the “we’re SF, no fantasy, honest”. Like Spock or _More Than Human_.

        I also remember Crafters rediscovering electricity and dyes and such, though I forget if that was Harper or Original. Thus felt kind of SFnal in focus, even if the tech was retro. Also, time travel!

        I note that I’ve never read and Lackey and hadn’t even heard of her then, so I had no fantasy template for being mind-bonded to animals. Actually, Our Lady of Fire-Lizards *is* my template.

        • Marie Brennan

          Ah, yes — for me, telepathic animal companions are a fantasy thing. Actually, telepathy in general counts as “spec fic,” its SFnal or fantastical nature depending on its context. Even in SF, though, there’s rarely (in my experience) anything resembling a scientific justification for it; the operation of the power just gets handwaved. And sure, time travel’s mostly SFnal — but when the “time machine” is your telepathic dragon companion, uh, some of the shiny chrome wears off, y’know?

          • mindstalk

            Memory is cloudy, but it’s possible my first SF was 4 Star Trek novels gifted in 2nd grade[1]. And not just any, but My Enemy My Ally, Wounded Sky, Uhura’s Song, and Tears of the Singers. Thus SF was full of psychic powers, weird physics, and female characters. Unlike fantasy, defined by the Hobbit and LotR… And I was science-oriented; give me a book with psionic lizards and a girl and a foreword talking about engineering and planets and star types, and possibly labeled as SF, and, well, it was well into adulthood that I learned anyone thought of Pern as fantasy.

            I’d probably waffle more on Darkover, which I found in college anyway. Then there’s the Warlock books, to really confuse things, but they’re not so popular.

            For that matter, might have been my main book with dragons, apart from the Hobbit, which is way different, or _The Flight of Dragons_, which is itself. Though I ran into _Raphael_ (it had my names!) which had the black dragon.

            [1] Though if they were first, why were they given to me? No idea. My really early book love was the Black Stallion novels…

          • Marie Brennan

            I didn’t manage to read The Lord of the Rings until college. I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones and other fantasy writers who, again, treated female characters as a matter of course.

            A lot of it, clearly, is what had primed the mental pump before you got to Pern.

    • teleidoplex

      I can still recite the first paragraph or so from memory. But then, I’m one of those people for whom Anne McCaffery _was_ a formative influence. And much like I never noticed the Christian aspects of the Narnia books, I never noticed some of the gender problems in McCaffery’s books (though I always liked Kylara and thought she got shafted. Only years later did I realize that what I didn’t like about what happened to her was what other people now call slutshaming).

      • mindstalk

        Ah, the religious aspects of Narnia seemed pretty obvious to me, or some of them were. Lucy and faith in Prince Caspian, pretty much all of the Last Battle, Aslan/Emperor as Jesus/God. Maybe helps that I probably read them all together, including Magician’s Nephew (world-creation.) Though it took college for me to realize how deep and subtle it goes in Wardrobe.

        My memory says Kylara was a vain self-centered bitch. Memory is like 20 years old (eek) though.

      • Marie Brennan

        Yeah, I never noticed the “green rider problem” until brought it up.

    • marycatelli

      Some of the Old-Timer stuff refers to the Thread by a scientific name, which kinda gives it away. At least it did to me.

      • Marie Brennan

        Is that in the first book, though, aside from the prologue? Other books, sure, when they cover the colonization or else link into the AIVAS stuff, but I don’t remember anything in the main body of Dragonflight or the Harper Hall books that brings it up.

        (All of this, though, should be taken with a grain of “I haven’t read Dragonflight in about five years, and the rest of the books maybe fifteen or so.”)

  2. aishabintjamil

    I too have a shelf full of Anne McCaffrey, although I’m not the fan I was 20 years ago. My first exposure was the first two books (Dragonflight and Dragonquest) – that’s all there was then – in sixth or seventh grade, and waiting desperately for The White Dragon to come out in paperback so I could afford it.

    I’m a little bemused by the number of people who cite her as encouraging them to believe a woman could write SF/Fantasy, not because she wasn’t encouraging, but because it means they started out feeling that they couldn’t. I remember sometime around junior high school reading a book by Andre Norton about being a writer in which she mentioned having chosen to use the name Andre instead of Alice because her publisher felt that teenage boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a woman. At the time all that did was make me think that the boys in question were silly.

    I do remember running into the concept that there were things it was hard to do professionally as a woman, but they were all careers with a strong physical component, like jockey and astronaut. I suppose like you I may have steamrolled over a few minor instances of discrimination without noticing them because I wasn’t looking.

    • Marie Brennan

      I imagine a lot has to do with when you first read those books. I was born in 1980, and read the books in the early 90’s. If you read it in 1970, though, it was probably a different matter.

  3. wshaffer

    I remember having a conversation with someone who was astonished to learn both that Robin Hobb was female and that Terry Goodkind was male. I’d have loved to know what it was that prompted those gender assumptions. (Though it may be nothing more than how many male/female Robins or Terrys she knew in real life.)

    • mindstalk

      Is there anything about Farseer trilogy that would make one think “oh yeah, this author is a chick”?

      • wshaffer

        Well, I’m generally wary of trying to deduce the gender of an author from the text (not wanting to repeat Robert Silverberg’s famous mistake in relation to James Tiptree, Jr.), but you’re right that Hobb is a tricky one. Until I learned that “Robin Hobb” was a pseudonym for Megan Lindholm, I always referred to Hobb as “he or she”, because I didn’t feel comfortable assuming one way or the other.

        I was more surprised by the assumption that Goodkind was female – Wizard’s First Rule seemed pretty dudely to me, though I suppose the relatively strong emphasis on romance might have led some readers to assume otherwise.

        • Marie Brennan

          If by “romance” you mean “eye-rolling BDSM.” 🙂

          • wshaffer

            Well, I was thinking of the relationship between Richard and Kahlan, which I think was relatively free of BDSM while providing plenty of other fodder for eye-rolling. (I didn’t think much of WFR as a novel, but as a workout for the small ocular muscles, few things surpass it.)

    • marycatelli

      I am not the only person to reach the mid-teens without figuring out that Andre is a boy’s name and so Andre Norton’s pseodonym.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. By the time I got to those two, I was paying attention. 🙂

  4. marumae

    I agree entirely with this entry, although for me she IS one of my formative influences on reading and writing, in ways I didn’t even realize until the last two years. I haven’t devoured EVERY book by her (I don’t think even my favorite authors have books I’ve devoured all of them no matter what) but I see a lot of themes, plot trends and characters I have tend to seem McCaffrey esque, if that makes any sense. I loved the first two in the Harper’s Hall series, (didn’t really care for Dragondrums, to be honest).

    I haven’t read any of her work in the too terribly later part of her life because I grew tired of the later books in the Pern series (and I wasn’t as fond of Todd’s version of things). I do like the first book in the Petaybee series though.

    Man I am going to miss her though, RIP Anne :(.

    • marumae

      Forgot to add that too me, it seems like she has a lot of science fiction settings, world building and technology with a spirit of “fantasy” in there, I mean several of her worlds in her universes have “sentient planets” and that seemed to drift into the realm of “magic” and thus “fantasy”. So I sort of agree with what you’re saying sure.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d be curious to know what things you tend to ID as being “McCaffrey-esque.” I read a decent chunk of her stuff, but not recently enough to be able to articulate motifs or anything.

      And yes, her SF definitely didn’t hew to the “I must have a vaguely plausible scientific justification for this” model of the genre. Sentient planets, indeed.

      • marumae

        McCaffrey liked to skirt the edge of fantasy I think with her works that were scifi genre classified, she definitely loved the rise of psychic/psyonics in the future and their role in helping space travel. To be honest I liked the concept of sentient planets (sort of, not quite to the extent that she had them). Not to mention bonding with “magical” animals (ie her dragons/pern).

        So I find those things in particular trickling into my works, especially into the future of Earth (our Earth anyway). I have the rise of psychics/psyonics in my future playing a huge role (mainly because of how humanity in my future comes across some alien technology and ruins across the multi-verse that function with psychic energy and psyonic technology). That, to me anyway reminds me of the Rowan/Tower and Hive series with her psychic run engines (don’t ask me how they work, that’s science so soft it melts before it’s even off the knife XD).

        She also has a trends she does with her heroines, that I’m having more trouble describing, I need to think about it some more.

        • Marie Brennan

          that’s science so soft it melts before it’s even off the knife

          I love that phrase. 🙂

          She also has a trends she does with her heroines, that I’m having more trouble describing, I need to think about it some more.

          Feel free to come back and do so whenever you get a finger on it.

          • marumae

            Was chatting with my Mom, who helped me put together some ways of describing how we see her heroines. They tend to be “scrappy” yet polite, sort of a half step off from the rest of humanity. There’s usually a certain kind of “Damage” about them I’d call, some kind of bad experience in the past (a traumatic incident usually that can some times manifest in a physical way or some type of injury, the Petaybee series is one with her lung scarring. They seem too look at the world slightly different from the “Norm”, sometimes this “difference” about them can be more then just a way of thinking (although that almost always accompanies it) they can have some kind of physical manifestation of it (psychic powers, musical talent, what have you). They’re seemingly different then the “everyman” characters that have a certain amount of “blankness” that you can project on. Not that this is a bad thing, but my favorite protagonists/main characters follow these trends with a certain amount of prickliness, my favorite novel’s MC I would describe as “prickly”.

          • Marie Brennan

            Interesting. Thanks! That gives me some things to chew on.

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